Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Ordinary is Forgiveness

" . . . from its first moments, change has been the call to those claiming to be believers.  Sometimes it's called repentance, sometimes conversion, sometimes forgiveness, sometimes surrender.  It goes by lots of names but God's ordinary always means change."

Almost a year ago I wrote about how the proximity of God's reign makes a kind of forgiveness available to us to practice.  It is a non-transactional forgiveness.  I wrote:
"I understand [forgiveness as a dynamic reality] begun in the presence of God.  Forgiveness means trusting God's love enough to pursue healing instead of presuming to do God's work by punishing others. It is no longer a transactional housekeeping of rights and wrongs, of debts and favors.  It is a faithful and constant response to the 'reign of God being upon us.'"
I still believe this.  I also believe that even if we forget, or stumble, are hurt, or hurt each other God's reign does not shrink away from us.  Whenever we forgive others, especially when we do so out of God's love and forgiveness of us something changes.  

Its like a light comes on or a heavy load gets lighter or our breathing is easier.  Something changes.  

If we stop ourselves short of that understanding and restrict our acts of forgiveness to those tired old transactional methods then the darkness soon descends again, the load returns, the air gets heavy.  Better the devil we know than the one we don't and we are right back where we started. 

Maybe the allure of this transactional forgiveness is that it feels like power when we can look at others as indebted to us.  Isn't that the language we use, to say "he owes me an apology."  But this idol of this false power cannot free us.  It needs our stubbornness to hold its ground.  

God's forgiveness is not about power.  It's not about God holding some ground.  It's not about winning in a zero sum game with others.  

When we take our turn forgiveness in God's kingdom means both sides letting go of power and neither keeping accounts.  It means releasing all our presumptions of leverage or advantage over others so that all we're left is to be children in God's presence.  

It's like Paul told the Corinthians:
We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see-- we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.
We have spoken frankly to you Corinthians; our heart is wide open to you. There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours. In return-- I speak as to children-- open wide your hearts also. (2 Cor. 6:8b-13, NRSV)

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Ordinary is Conversion

" . . . from its first moments, change has been the call to those claiming to be believers.  Sometimes it's called repentance, sometimes conversion, sometimes forgiveness, sometimes surrender.  It goes by lots of names but God's ordinary always means change."

The word conversion to a boy raised Baptist "South of God*" triggers all sorts of memories of arms flailing, people wailing, and tears flowing as childhood friend after friend came down the aisle to make their profession of faith saying they had accepted Jesus into their hearts and had been -- some said "got" -- saved.

Mind you the majority of these good people had never spent more than a week away from the safe homogeneous confines of a church culture that awarded perfect attendance and relentlessly reminded itself of the dangers of things like dancing, popular music, science fiction, etc.

Just being devout had already whittled away most of what would had been converted.  Instead we submitted and were moved to membership which mostly differed from our previous status in that we were eligible to receive communion and to vote on new members and other church business matters.  Otherwise my life stayed pretty much the same with the constant reminders of all those forbidden things that now would lead to back sliding.

I can see that part of what we were doing was maintaining a practice that was not meant just for us.  In its ideal form conversion was understood as an abrupt, one-time shift from one absolute to another: from denial to belief, from rebellion to allegiance, from sinful to saved.

But we were not deniers or rebels and our sinfulness was well constrained by heavy regulation and long practiced indoctrination.  Still we "got saved" so that we could identify with and "bring in the lost" who weren't believers, weren't allied but were living in sin and darkness and who proved their condition by drinking, dancing, etc, etc.

Another way to understand this is to note that the majority of baptisms were of children under the age of twelve.  There just wasn't much to convert.  Our transition was more like getting confirmed first and then getting baptized.  Still we had to maintain the model of abrupt one-time conversion.

I'm older now and I've danced a little.  I love sci-fi!  And I'm still getting saved.  That's how conversion works for me now.

My conversion then was more a tipping point moment when expectation, indoctrination, peer pressure and a new, developing capacity for self-determination combined and led me to stand with my dad before the congregation attending the Sunday night service at Boulevard Baptist Church in Anderson, SC in October of 1963 and to make a promise I am still keeping.

Now my conversion is ordinary and by way of this church I work on it everyday.

* Baptist South of God - a term coined by Rev. Dr. Carlyle Marney meant to counter the boasting that so often accompanied the term Southern Baptist.  

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Ordinary is Repentance

" . . . from its first moments, change has been the call to those claiming to be believers.  Sometimes it's called repentance, sometimes conversion, sometimes forgiveness, sometimes surrender.  It goes by lots of names but God's ordinary always means change."

I've written a bunch about repentance.  Mostly because I need as many reasons and methods to accomplish it in my own life as any.  

I also have written about it because so many of us are stuck with one understanding that misses  the rich and complex biblical portrait as it is drawn using those deep and ancient terms of the Hebrew.

Two Hebrew words get translated repent.  The more familiar,  / "shuv" means to "turn around."  This call to repent catches us and expects us to change direction.  It has a singular momentary aspect to it and it also has a continuing and habitual aspect to it.  

The dynamic of that "singular" call is for us to stop those behaviors and practices that grow out of frail, failing, faulty humans.  Just stop!  

Think about all our family and friends in recovery from addiction.  But theyknow and we know in other ways that there is more to it.  That continuing and habitual aspect is exactly what recovery attempts.  

Both as singular moment and a continuing effort this call to repentance comes from God.  It comes from a God who loves us and wants a face-to-face relationship.  The biblical notion with  is that we don't just turn, we return.  

The other Hebrew word we translate repent is   
/ nacham.  It's what God does when he changes his mind and removes his threat to smite all of Ninevah.  It's what he did when Saul disobeyed. “I repent that I have made Saul king; for he has turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments.”  1Sa 15:11 RSV

We could say that God's expectations carry weight.  Sometimes God exerts that weight and other times God changes God's mind and withholds.  It's what Job does at the end of his ordeal.  He changes his mind and is OK with a new understanding that God is God even when bad things happen to good people.  "Therefore I despise myself and repent . . ." Job 42:6 RSV

Either way with  or   what you get is a call to change.   A change in behavior that births and grows a new understanding or a  change in understanding that demonstrates itself in new behavior.   Change is ordinary and so is repentance.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

God's "ordinary" is change.

In the category of jokes that start with our asking the question, "How many ________ does it take to _______?" by far and away my favorite is the one that asks about Episcopalians and lightbulbs.

The answer could be but is not a number and an accompanying list of differing responsibilities like mixing drinks or forming committees.  The answer is another question charged with fear and trepidation: "Change the light bulb?  My GRANDMOTHER gave that light bulb to the church!!!"

It's worth the mention because we are reflecting on our lives together as worshippers in what is called "ordinary time."  The implication is that we will stick to a routine, Sunday in and Sunday out.

  • Entrance Processional Hymn, 
  • Opening Acclamation, 
  • Collect for Purity, 
  • Canticle of Praise, 
  • Collect of the Day with the congregation kneeling,
  • First Lesson, 
  • Gradual Psalm read responsively by half verse while standing, 
  • Second Lesson, 
  • Sequence Hymn, 
  • Gospel Reading, 
  • Sermon, 
  • Nicene Creed, 
  • Prayers of the People,
  • General Confession and Absolution, 
  • Passing the Peace, 
  • Announcements, 
  • Offertory, 
  • Presentation, 
  • Holy Eucharist, 
  • Postcomunion Prayer, 
  • Blessing,  
  • Exiting Processional Hymn, 
  • Dismissal. 

No changes like Lent and Advent's Penitential Order, like Easter's standing for EVERYTHING! or lack of Confession.  For many, our worship in ordinary time is "the way its supposed to be," regular.  That's what ordinary means.  But liturgical "ordinary" means more than that.

It means more than that because our efforts to be regular in our worship are ultimately motivated to do everything we can to participate sacramentally with God.  Being regular only addresses some of that effort.  Otherwise persisting at a robotic lock-step uniformity would be our insurance that we had done all we could to participate with God.

Participating sacramentally with God means we must risk being changed.  Indeed from its first moments change has been the call to those claiming to be believers.  Sometimes it's called repentance, sometimes conversion, sometimes forgiveness, sometimes surrender.  It goes by lots of names but God's ordinary always means change.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

There's ordinary and there's ordinary.

Check the graphic above.  We have just made our way clock-wise through the Great Fifty Days of Easter with our Pentecost celebration.  What we have on the calendar until November 25 are Sundays AFTER Pentecost or Ordinary Time.  It's that nearly half of the calendar on the left.  There are a few feast days like Transfiguration on August 6 and All Saints' Day on November 1st to perk us up but for the most part we will be following what is largely an in course reading of the Gospel according to Mark. There are no other seasons to organize our attention to scripture and the faithful living we expect to follow this attention.  That is the order.  That is why we call it ordinary time.  

Ordinary, not because of the missing embellishments of seasonal observances like Christmas and Easter.  But because a very ordered chapter by chapter reading of the gospel is our practice.  We are relying on the most basic appreciation of scripture.  We are going where the story takes us.

It reminds of those several attempts I made and only once succeeded in reading the Bible -- minus the Apocrypha -- straight through.  Genesis was big but it kept moving.  Exodus started to get bogged down around Chapter 25 with all the instructional material.  Leviticus killed me.  Numbers tried to get my attention, "bless his heart."  Deuteronomy was a repeat offender.   Done. 

The next time I even made it all the way through the genealogies of First Chronicles.  It was down hill from there!  Job was a grind, as were the Psalms even with their familiar moments.  Proverbs was fragmented and preachy.  So too was Ecclesiastes. Song of Solomon so distracted me with its romantic nonsense that I forgot what I was trying to do.  Done. 

The prophets got better each time I tried.  Ezekiel and Daniel were equally fanciful.  Lots more prophets.  I remember the time I turned the page and started Matthew immediately after Malachi.  Hooray!

I think that was on about my third or fourth try.  I did it and read all the way through the Bible.  It was the summer after my senior year in high school.  I was motivated as much by competition with Dan Hatfield, my roommate on staff at Ridgecrest Baptist Assembly.  He won.  He got the girl, too.  

This time our ordinary reading is not so distracted or competitive.  We'll even take a break and read from John's gospel for the Sundays in August.  The break will be a good thing because Mark does bring his own pressure or urgency to these serial accounts.  We will be presented with vignettes that have very little of the staging or flourish used by the other synoptics.  No frills. 

Mark just keeps moving.  His orders are like the orders of a insurgent moving.  So this year's ordinary time will have some of that flavor as well.  It will keep us moving.  Which is a much better take on "ordinary."  

Moving. Being moved. Following. Being part of a movement.  Ordered by the urgency, a holy calling.  There's ordinary and then there's ordinary.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Resurrection of the Living

We are near the end of this Easter season.  Thank goodness every Sunday's theme is resurrection, so that "Easterhood" is always with us.  But the opportunity to focus on the effect of Jesus' resurrection both when it happened and was first encountered to our awakening to it today, has been uplifting for me.

Celebrating the Feast of Pentecost is how we will close the season.  Some use last week's Feast of the Ascension.  Either way you choose we are now how resurrection is known and located. 

Our becoming the agents and locus of resurrection is a daunting thing.  Much like a prophet's calling we are inclined to reply, "who, me?"

It should help to know that this election is not all promotion.  That is to say we are still on our way to the ends of our lives.  It's why Paul reminds us that "Jesus was obedient unto death." (Phillipians 2:8)  Death needn't frighten us any longer but we cannot avoid it.

Some of our brothers and sisters imagined they would avoid it.  Earlier than his writing the letter to the Phillipians Paul hoped for a cloud embraced rendezvous with the Lord Jesus with those who had already died being raised and leading the way. 

Time and again Christians have projected a similar image and predicted even more rapturous outcomes for their like minded fellows.  It's a long list but just think the "Miller-ites" of 1843 and 1844.

Contemporary versions of Zionism are the most recent rendition. With Jerusalem as the principal stage it calculates a "zero sum game" of winners and losers, living millennially or condemned to some fiery forever.  It's almost as if they think Christ's resurrection happened instead of dying, not by way of it.

Here's what Pentecost's flames can show us.  Resurrection happens whether we die or not.  Resurrection of the living is so that all of the world, including "Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs" (Acts 2:9-11a) can live even before we die.

The reign of God is everywhere. Life on earth is where resurrection happens now.  We will die but we can already live like we've been raised!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Resurrection's Reorientation

The idea of resurrection was already on the table for the Jews in the first century.  Not across the board and not a resurrection of one person, the Messiah, by himself.  

The most widely held belief was that a combination of leadership -- the Messiah -- and teamwork -- the righteous -- would displace Roman rule, gain Jerusalem's independence and set the stage for a resurrection of the just on the "Last Day."

That's part of why the Emmaus road disciples are so puzzled by the news.  They were expecting to be involved with something new, something real, even historic, a reversal of fortunes for an entire nation.  Instead what they knew was that the Messiah was dead. 

But they weren't just sad and grieving.  When Jesus mysteriously joins them they are trying to make sense of a rumor that "certain women of our company, who arrived at the tomb early, astonished us. When they did not find His body, they came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels who said He was alive." (Luke 24:22-23 RSV)

This is not what they expected.  None of it.  

Jesus helps them with how their expectations limited their understanding.  He does so in more than one way.  First he goes back to their "source material" and reinterprets it for them.  Then he makes his own having been raised obvious to them.   

"Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight. And they said to one another, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (24:32-33)

First with the women at the tomb and now with these disciples a new understanding of resurrection begins.  Not the resurrection of military victory or ultimate purity and righteousness being accomplished.  But the one of God's continuing presence showing itself as true to life and as true to God.  

We forget that resurrection, no matter whose version of it we're referencing takes dying.  That's what makes it "true to life."  We also struggle to include in our appreciation that God is THE agent of resurrection.  Exercising something very much like -- if not the very same --the capacity we credit with having created the world, life and us in the first place.

What the women and men of Luke 24 learned was not at first but became the "Good News." It took the "real presence" of the one raised, walking, teaching and celebrating with them for that to happen.  

Our appreciation is not unlike theirs. Yes we have the remoteness of time and space.  It's the twenty-first century in the western hemisphere.  But we can also stand to have our expectations reoriented.  We also can stand to let God find a fresh start for us.  

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen