Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Christian Indentities #8: In Relationship

Still thinking about the different ways we identify ourselves as Christian, especially those that go deeper than being nice, punctual, thrifty, strong, etc.  Each of these traits or habits have a place in the world of choices and actions but each on their own will not be enough in defining an identity.  The same is true of the “letting go” from last week’s writing.

That’s true for every characteristic that we would want to use to explain the complexity that is Christian identity.  You can see that truth acted out in the history of heresy that has been the struggle of Christians from the 1st century AD to today.  Take any one of the many traits we would list as part of a whole Christian identity, exercise it at the exclusion of others and you end up with an -ism, or an -itis, or a -phobia.

I’m exaggerating because most of us are not so secluded or without others that we go that far.  Most of us are not that idiosyncratic.  Quirky, unusual, opinionated but measured by the love of family, friends, neighbors, by the limits of social norms, laws, language, etc.

All of this is to say much of who we each become is not simply the result of choices we make or actions we take as individuals.  We are formed in relationship.

That’s how identity works and that’s how God worked when Jesus entered the story that was already full of relationship with God.  It would not have been enough for God to simply expect one behavior or action over another in order to be fully present.  It would not have worked for God to appear as a full grown human — male or female.

Even with the intent to set things right God had to “suffer” relationship born in Bethlehem so that everything that makes us human, that forms our identities, that individuates each one of us could get caught up in a relationship with God.

Christian identities aren’t simply an imposition of one behavior or action over another.  Christian identities aren’t miraculous anomalies that ignore the fabric of day-to-day, person-to-person living.  Christian identities are the result of relationship and resolve other identities through relationship.

The season of Advent helps us to prepare for the ultimate relationship with God. Through the shared work of judgement and redemption (It could just as well be said in reverse order) all that is us—our identities—is made ready to meet the reality of God’s identity in the one of a kind way that admits, honors and saves the complexity of humankind.

“And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”  ‭‭Luke‬ ‭1:30-33‬ ‭KJV‬‬

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Christian Identities #7: Letting Go

I want to get back to the series on how we define ourselves as Christians both within and beyond that thing we call a church family.  Before I do that I want to thank the members of the vestry and others who contributed to the conversation necessary in moving from budget year to budget year.  There several excellent "testimonies" and some of them were repeated in the space my 'blurbs" usually occupy.  Thanks to you each and all for enriching our lives and our understanding, especially about from where your giving comes.
It's an easy segue to talking about this next way of describing faithful living because the interlude of testimonies was an adaptive process.  The vestry responded to the "facts on the ground" relative to budget, pledging and expenses and talked straight from the heart to their fellow parishioners.  I hope you heard them.  I hope you heard them witnessing to appreciation, gratitude, grace, honesty, commitment and much more.
I hope you heard a critical distinction about giving in faith as it compares to paying dues or helping those in need.  I hope you heard something about letting go in your giving.  Letting go is how our giving becomes an offering.
At Boulevard Baptist in Anderson, SC back in the early 60's our family sat behind a church lady I have always called Mrs. Phillips.  One Sunday night as the offering plate was passed she fussed and fidgeted to put something in the plate.  As it continued to the back of the church she craned her neck to keep an eye on that plate.  When we stood for the presentation she lunged toward the usher reaching as if to get out whatever she had put in earlier.  She lost her balance and fell.  The usher's first move was to protect the plate and its contents so he spun away from her causing most of the change and bills to spill out onto the floor.  It was a fiasco!  I think my dad turned to the organist and said, "play another stanza."
I learned something that night that informs my appreciation for giving, pledging, and budgeting now in the life of our church family.  Offerings aren't offerings until we let go of them.  Even worse we can make a mess of other's giving if we fail to finish our own giving by letting go.
Letting go is our imitating the sacrifice of the one we claim to follow.  It's that simple and it is a sacramental act that everyone of us is capable of accomplishing.
My prayer is that we can learn from our current reality both as a function of Christian identity, as a function of giving and budgeting, and as a function of meeting our obligations and helping those in need to find new ways to let go.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Christian Identities #6: Trusting Servants

So much to say here thanks to the way in which Jesus of Nazareth instructs his followers and then takes on the duty of dying.  Just go to the upper room as John's gospel relates those moments before and at the table.  Especially poignant is the answer Jesus gives to Peter who can't stand it that his teacher is on his knees preparing to wash the feet of the disciples.  "Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”(John 13:7)

We risk much in thinking that the wisdom to respond in such a way is based on Jesus' being the Son of God having some kind of foreknowledge. It likely is as much that Jesus is indicating a kind of "servant's obedience" that acts without the benefit of power or authority.  He is modeling for Peter and for us.

Servants are supposed to do what their lords command without the benefit of knowing all the reasons or intentions of the commander.  So what Jesus says to Peter he says from his heart not just his head because everything that he is doing is from an even more profound obedience.

By demonstration Jesus extends the opportunity to Peter and by default to all disciples to take on their own obedience.  If he had explained everything he would have not allowed Peter's -- or our -- obedience to be an act of trust in the person of God. 

We know from our own experience and should remember the distinction between strict adherence to law or flawlessly following orders when it is compared to the trust that is forged in our obedience to a person. 

Sadly our experiences are just as full of moments when a person has said "trust me" and then . . .

That's not the case here.  Jesus, especially as John portrays him is resolved and stays on the course we can also follow. The words he last speaks are not the anguished cries we hear from the synoptics but the words only a trusting servant would speak, ". . . ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:30b)

He has not stopped trusting the person of his "Father in heaven."  My sense is that he understands the value of God's foreknowledge or omniscience.  He just as much understands the value of God's omnipresence.  That is to say that God is always God -- in space and time -- and always trustworthy. 

We have a chance to rehearse our own version of trusting servant every Sunday when we obediently make our way to the altar and extend our hands and hearts in communion.  We don't need to have the "magic" of transubstantiation figured out nor do we need to totally comfortable with mystery of the word made flesh.  But we are allowed to trust that God's presence is with us. 

It's as if Jesus is saying to each one of us, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Christian Identities #5: Untimely Saints

The apostle Paul calls himself "one untimely born" in his first letter to the Christians in Corinth (1 Cor. 15:8).  He is referring to his having not been one of the twelve or of those surrounding the disciples, like the cohort out of whom Matthias was chosen. (Acts 1:21-23) 

He was a young man when Stephen was stoned so we can safely understand him meaning at least that. (Acts 7:58)  It matters because he is trying to be faithful to his own experience of surprisingly being called on the road to Damascus to cease his role in the persecution of Jews who believed Jesus was the Christ and to begin instead to proclaim the gospel to Gentiles.  Read Acts chapter 9 for the whole story.

Proclaim he did and he traveled throughout the Mediterranean world helping communities of Jews and Gentiles to live together in faith.  Often he wrote them letters.  Just in terms of a simple word count in english, Paul is responsible for more than a quarter of the collection of writings we call the New Testament. 

Five times he clearly identifies the recipients of his epistles as "saints."  He means the entire assembly, not just the heroes or elders who have died or the famous ones of each community but the regular living members of the churches in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Colossae. 

So here it is "All Saints'-tide" and we are remembering and honoring those who have "gone before us in the faith:" famous ones, elders, relatives but alive on earth no longer. Traditionally that is who we have named as our saints.  Why, especially when the witness of Paul so clearly indicates another standard?  Perhaps humility has us deferring to these deceased saints as such because we know that sin is still a problem for us who are living. 

Regardless, we need to ask the next question, "why not."  Also, "is that why don't we embrace our various callings as comparably saintlike to those of the first Christian communities?"  Especially when we read about their intramural fights and troubles.  Stay with Paul and you'll see that they had their "parties."  Those for circumcision and those not.  Those for eating meat, those not.  Those for women in leadership, those not. 

Paul called them saints . . . even in their disagreements. And he must have understood that trouble was not simply an internal reality.  His having been a persecutor himself gave him all the evidence he needed to understand the societal pressures that challenged these fledgling churches.  So when Paul calls the Philippians "saints" he is probably giving them credit for enduring not only "in-house" squabbles but a persecution similar to ones he meant to perpetrate in Damascus.

Maybe we could understand our roles as untimely in the sense that as 21st century dwellers we are left to rely on the witness of scripture, especially Paul's letters to have any connection with those first "to go before us in the faith."  We too are born late.  Untimely, yes but we are potentially just as saintly.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Christian Identities #4: More of "Enough is Enough"

As in last week's role of "Giver" this week's option of "Custodian" develops from our understanding that the priority of God's provision for us is enough.  This may need some further clarification because we are so inclined to describe God's provision as abundant, not just enough.  But the language of abundance may not be doing for us -- or for God -- what we need.

Sometimes, maybe too often, we misportray the way that God meets our needs just so we can enjoy the imbalance and store away or hoard out of a supposed overabundance of resources.  We live as if some are meant to have more than they need and others are without by their own fault.  The language of abundance is too easily used by those who have more than they need.

This is not the world that God created!  It is closer to the world our fallen-ness has brought us but it is not the way things are supposed to be.  Last week's "giver" was not at his or her best when the giving was out of some calculation of one's possessions enjoying a surplus.  Giving was to first show the value of trusting God to provide.  Even to provide cloaks more than a mile away!

We need to expand our appreciation for God's provision by recalling Psalm 78:24-25, "He rained down manna upon them to eat and gave them grain from heaven. So mortals ate the bread of angels; he provided for them food enough."

We don't need a surplus to acknowledge the priority of God's providing for us.  Indeed, the instructions that directed the collection of manna prohibited creating a surplus except the collection that allowed for a full sabbath's rest.

That's why I want to add the role of custodian.  Custodians keep custody.  They guard and protect things of value: witnesses, children, properties and processes.  As Christian custodians we have a responsibility to manage our distribution of what God has provided so that enough is enough.

Let's add "custodian" to our picture of stewardship.  Let's celebrate each day of God's providing manna enough.  In so doing we can move to a way of being faithful together that looks more like the early church than some economy based on artificial surpluses or even worse the selfishness of raw, unregulated capitalism or a hoarding born of fear.

Let's add custodian and join the first Christians.

"All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." Acts 2:44-45 (NRSV)

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Christian Identities #3: Enough is Enough

There's lots more to last week's coaching metaphor but in our highly clerical-ized denominational history we are prone to focus too much on leadership and not enough on those models or identities that come from the pews, so to speak.  So let's look at another role: giver.

It's important this time of year in most Christian denominations in America to talk about giving.  Pledge campaigns, drafts of operating budgets, contribution statements all take a turn this time of year.  But the kind of giving I'm thinking of has only a little to do with these fiscal concerns.

Think of Jesus' instructions from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5.  Down in verse 38 and following he says,
"38 ‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” 39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
This kind of giver has a different appreciation for things and a different appreciation for his or her self. Their giving is not because that they possess great wealth or have been particularly blessed with possessions.  Their "giving" comes from an obedience to God that does not value self or one's possessions as much it values witnessing to the obedience itself.

Perhaps "obedience" needs some attention.  It means so much more than rule bound adherence to instructions or authority.  Here it means something more like loyalty to or faith in God, or more like reliance on the capacity of God to be God in the way that God has promised to be God.

Our appreciations for things like obedience, giving or forgiving are often too small and by way of that diminution incapable of expressing the greater truths we are called to proclaim.  If obedience is limited to rule keeping then we reduce God to something less than the source of all love.  If giving means distributing symbolically out of our possessions then we interfere with God's already having provided enough for us all.  If forgiving is limited to a transactional balancing of accounts then we reduce the benefit of God's omnipresence and mercy for all sinners.

The kind of giver I'm talking about does indeed contribute significantly to a parish budget, makes pledges and keeps them, and gives so that things like outreach never lag but there's more.

Giving as an expression of loyalty and trust in God as described in Matthew 5:38f sees the needs of others first,  even the needs of those with power to sue or demand our services.  But let's be smart and understand what really is needed.  It's not the cloak being carried or one being taken by some legal demand.

The need is loyalty to God, trust in God, faith.  Otherwise there'd be no demand for the cloak to be carried the first mile.  In a world where we all trust God another cloak would be waiting for them at the end of that mile, carried or not!  In a world of obedience there's no shame when one's face is slapped, instead compassion for the one who is deluded into thinking that their power to slap wins anything of value for them.

In a world of faithful obedience to the God who is always with us, giving has a value higher than any possession or position.  We should all be that kind of giver.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Christian Identities #2: Hey Coach!

I wrote last week about the role that is each of ours because we are "good news people."  As believers our appreciation for the gospel compels us to be its messengers.  It is our relationship with the goodness of the news itself -- the reign of God is at hand! Christ is risen! Jesus loves me! -- that puts a spring in our step and drives us to run so obviously motivated that any onlooker would be impressed.  

There are roles for each of us to attempt and practice is our lives of faith.  As a priest in a parish or campus setting I've often been instructed by my experiences as a coach.  

I remember how often I'd hear "hey Coach!" and I would almost always answer "hey, Athlete!"  There'd be a little awkward chuckle and then the matter at hand would be attended.  I wasn't being obtuse in my answer but I was in most cases being complimentary.  The coach/athlete relationship is precious and it calls on both to strive for excellence on the other's behalf.  You've heard the saying "to win one for the Gipper."  It clearly indicates that calling to a mutual interest toward a supreme effort.  

Likewise most coaches will honestly and humbly credit the team for its success and as much as possible take the hit for a loss.  Those actions also come out of that relationship and its mutual striving and respect.  

The same applies to my work as rector here at Advent.  I'm the not wisest or the most knowledgable but I have been entrusted with a kind of attentiveness and imagination that yearns to understand the "sport" of faith, to know more about how one can improve one's efforts and how that aspiration calls for keen observation and sharing.  

A good friend from my Fluor Daniel days tells the story of his first coaching job at Charlotte Country Day back in the 80's.  He earned a Master's in Exercise Physiology and found a job teaching P.E. The girl's varsity tennis team needed a coach.  His own athletic past only included casual or recreational experience at tennis but he thought he could at least organize the practices, schedule the buses and keep score, so he said "yes." His girlfriend played college tennis on scholarship and he wisely asked her to "hit the ball" with him and help him learn more about team training and skill work.  

At the end of their having played and talked he asked her for her advice, "Do you think I'll be able to do this?"  She said, "Sure, just don't ever let them see you play!"  Long story short, they won a championship . . . because of the athlete's and by way of my friend's attention, encouragement and mutuality.  

So for me to adopt the role of coach has little to do with being faster than the team's runners or in our case "the best Christian" (whatever that is!).  It has more to do with playing my part in attentiveness and imagination.  There are plenty of other roles that are better framed by the sub-title "team member" than even "athlete."  Just think for a minute how much we can learn by way of our captains, our quarterbacks, our trainers, or our managers.  Lots of roles, all on the team, each a part of the whole.  

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 1 Corinthians 12:7

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Christian Identities #1: Bringing in the good news

Last week I wrote about that sense of living "in the world but not of it."  The nickname I gave this identity was "outsider."  That's a little misleading.  Staying on the outside is not my intent.  It was not Jesus' intent when he recognized that the disciples were "not of this world" in his prayers to God.  (John 17:14).

His intentions are caught up in the language of his sending them as he says in verse 18, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.”  So 'outsider" speaks less about where I am to stay and more of how I started.  Yes there are still those parts of me that "in but not of" no matter what I do or to where I move.  I know this, and I'm not stopping.

My work with this faithful people was begun with an perspective that was and still is mine from years of experience in other places, other ministry settings.  But I have been sent from "there" to "here" and I have brought and will continue to bring my learning along.  Nice thing about this spiritual journeying is that everything gets to be paid forward.  Thanks be to God!

The nickname for one who is sent is "apostle."  It comes from the Old English apostol, via ecclesiastical Latin from Greek apostolos ‘messenger,’ from apostellein ‘send forth.’

It implies there is something of value, a message that is being conveyed.  Remember the verse from Isaiah 52:7, "How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’"

The messenger's feet are beautiful because of how they are carrying the good news of peace and salvation.  Just like we would detect a "bounce" in someone's step the day after they fell in love.

Not all messengers are welcomed.  True sometimes for the message, as well.  Remember Jesus' instructions about dusting off one's sandals.  We need not be afraid. The heart of the messenger is more closely tied to their commission and message than to their reception.

There are other nicknames that help me in seeing, knowing, learning, and leading.  I'm more likely to answer to them than I am "outsider" or "apostle" or "messenger."

Call me "coach" and you'll see, . . . next week.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Recent Unpleasantness

There's lots of stirring in the world, our nation, and our parish.  I'll admit to my own part in it.  Some of my part in the stirring seems almost habitual.  As I read and listen to the news and opinions of minds greater than mine I sometimes just automatically pass them along with my own added likes, emojis, comments and replies.  Sometimes I let the "things settle" and then add my part.

This is not news to most Advent-ers.  Seven plus years of service with this community has exposed the content and manner of my thinking to just about everyone.

Some may not be aware that I've always seen myself an outsider of sorts.  I don't blame but I trace this perception back to my childhood as a PK.  Our family lived and moved among people who were less constrained by their roles in the church.  Think of those times when you've said something like "but he's a minister!"

For instance, the ONLY time you would have seen one of Tom and Dodie Brown's kids at the movie theatre on a Sunday afternoon was if they had been invited by a friend to go home with them from church, making sure to be returned for 6:00pm "Training Union" class and 7:00pm Evening Worship.

We NEVER went as a family to the theatre, except on the two or three occasions we were invited for an opening.  I remember when "Ben Hur" came to the Osteen.  It was slick marketing to get a bunch of Anderson's ministers in on the buzz.

But the world for the Browns was always "once removed" from us by way of social constraint, economics or our parents' tastes and sensibilities.  "In the world but not of the world" was how it was.  We knew nothing else.

That "once removed" perception is still with me, even as I move into my rental on Sandy Creek Rd.  An event in our lives that signifies to many of you that I'm "finally, here."

Do not worry or weep.  I'm thinking that it suits me and always has, to have a distinct place from which to watch and learn, from which to pray and love.  It reads as presumptuous but I'm also thinking that is much of why Jesus kept going off to be alone.

Back to the stirring or maybe we could call it serving, or leading, or pastoring, or teaching.  Whatever we call it, I've never just stirred up a tempest for stirring's sake.  I'm not denying my role but I try to see what I see, try to think what I think, try to feel what I feel, try to pray what I pray from a place that is by experience and calling "once removed" and not enmeshed, as much autonomous as partnered, as much grounded as idealized. "In the world but not of the world."

It helps me to remember that I am just the rector and by that just the one who presides in our vestry's work.  I'm not the only stirrer, not the only one praying. The dust of our "recent unpleasantness" will settle, the stirring will fade, likely to be displaced by another.  None of us need to be "in on it" so much so that we are helplessly or inextricably "of it."

Much of what was true for me as an "outsider" is still true, but I believe I have grown throughout my life from PK to Priest.  I'm looking forward to how we will grow and learn to live with each other in this world that has been so stirred.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Sacramental Forgiveness

Some of you may remember that I wrote extensively back in 2014 and 2015 about the importance and difficulties of practicing sabbath in modern culture.

I compared our practice of Sunday worship to that call to rest at the heart of any good sabbath observance and found the disconnect.  Sunday was "up."  Sabbath was supposed to be "down."

Recalling the places in scripture alone where sabbath principles are expressed shows how central to a life of faith in God a good sabbath practice can be.

We need sabbath, God made sabbath by being the first to take that rest.  Moses' minions yearned for a sabbath and found out the hard way how important a sabbath discipline could be.

There's a presumption of forgiveness in the sabbath practice that we learn from our covenanted ancestors.  By scripting in "time out" to the regular week of night and day, of work and play, of eating and sleeping our tradition is admitting that not everything we do brings the benefits we expect.

Sabbath says "stop."  Isn't that what we say to the tireless type "A," the insistent toddler, the descending addict, the extra-punch bully?  Stop!

Not everything that humans do makes the world a better place, perhaps especially those things we do to leave a mark for ourselves in the script we hope our descendents will recall.

The other informing piece toward forgiveness embedded in the sabbath tradition is at least a version of the truism that "time heals all wounds."  In terms of Israel's exodus to and taking possession of the promised land sabbath meant creation could take care of itself, given a chance.

The earth -- with just one day of rest in seven days of cultivation, harvesting, construction -- could find healing and wholeness all on its own.

That principle can still inform our shared lives as members of the Church of the Advent.  Finding ways to stop our relentless marching to notoriety, success, and righteousness is its own hard work.

But the sabbath principle is principal.  Let's stop.  There's forgiveness and healing "down" there.

Every Sunday even in the rush to accomplish a liturgical feat/feast, to orchestrate and perform an intricate process of presentation, offertory surrender, uplifting consecration, and purposeful dismissal what matters most is that we just stop.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Forgiving God

One aspect of our learning about forgiveness as an expansive function of God’s presence that I have not yet addressed is perhaps the toughest one: our forgiving of God.

So let’s start by telling the truth: every single one of us has had moments in our lives of hurt, disappointment, failure, loss for which we only know to blame God.  True or not we've all felt that way, especially in those moments when we were doing what we thought was our best.  We don’t always blame God but when all other causes are excusable who is left?

It seems like much of this condition has to do our preconceptions about God.  It's interesting that most of our preconceptions box God into roles in many ways unlike what we see in Jesus of Nazareth.

One of the boxes we use for the “blamed God” is puppeteer.  We need help and we pray to God and we expect God to pull some strings for things to get better.  We need to be cautious here because we risk defining away the very freedom that makes love possible and I’m pretty sure love is a thing God wants for us.

Popular culture has dealt with this question especially well in the film “Bruce Almighty,” where Bruce, played by comedian Jim Carey can move the moon but can’t compel his crush, played by Jennifer Anniston to love him.

Another box is that one I characterize as “Santa Claus having a bad day.”  God is portrayed as always watching and keeping accounts of those who are “naughty or nice” and ordering just enough toys or sticks and coal for the Christmas giveaway or judgment day.  The best corrective for this limited view of God is the entire book of Job, ‘nuff said.

Another box is one many use to make sense of those particularly puzzling times when we say things like “only God knows” or “everything happens for a reason.”  Here it is worth it to dig a little and let stand the truth that the only trustworthy picture of God is the one revealed in Jesus and not in some hidden esoterica or Hellenized philosophy.

There are plenty of other boxes but the ones I've listed clearly indicate our struggle to live in a world of hurt and loss even while believing in God.  Each of them, in an attempt to express one aspect of God’s character misses another.  And each makes our forgiving God that much harder.

Letting Jesus be our best picture of God is a game changer for me.  Born humbly to become a compassionate healer, faithful leader and courageous teacher, who died obediently so that our lives could have new meaning and purpose, kind of makes all the extra-biblical descriptions of God seem “clunky” at best and well off the mark.

In Jesus we see the God who saves us first by being with us and who clearly chooses love over control, forgiveness over revenge, presence over power, mercy over punishment.  What’s to forgive? We should be sorry for thinking otherwise.

Admittedly, the hurt and loss of this life don't disappear.  God is still with us, knows everything we know about disappointment, failure and loss then still forgives us and all our bad pictures of him.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Covering of Love

Last week I connected the power of "binding and loosing" that Jesus bestows on Peter and the others of the twelve to an agency that is now ours as ones aroused by the proximity and approach of God's reign.

Binding is more than pronouncing judgement or laying blame.  It is that important first part of truth-telling and recognition.  Loosing is the concluding phase that ultimately works through to saying "you are forgiven."

Operating throughout is an expectation that the binding has adequately identified what matters and has done so in accordance with God's spirit.  Remember how important it is to acknowledge that we can never talk "behind God's back." Remember also Paul's caution to speak the truth in love. (Ephesians 4:15)

This love presumes a God fearing respect and I think also promotes a depth and clarity in our truth telling.  It's not just to soften the blow.  Love can do more and actually helps to create conditions that avoid trivia and pettiness.

Empathy begins the binding as we first listen to the victim's truth to fully understand the who, what, where, when and why of how we have wronged someone.  God is in on this and so both the listener and petitioner can risk the vulnerability necessary to speak the truth love.

The pattern is not just a simple two step of "heart felt" apology and resolute absolution.  It is much more like that three-fold dynamic of regularity, validity and efficacy in all our sacramental practices.

Binding/Regularity sets the stage and follows some rules in order to be reliable, comprehensive and repeatable.  Loosing/Efficacy happens into the future and acknowledges a new/renewed status of both penitent and victim.

Rising out of and covering beyond the overlap of "binding and loosing" is love.  Love encourages depth and clarity in our calling out and naming the wrong.  Love allows for real contrition and a change in behavior.  Love helps sustain reconciliation and moderates our holding each other accountable.

Without love our agency accomplishes little more than changes in the pecking order and entrenchments of power.  With love forgiveness sets us all free.

The sequencing of "binding and loosing" or of "regularity, validity, efficacy" is ours to "suffer" because we are creatures of time and space, yet to inhabit fully that future from whence God approaches us.

Because of who God is, he does not have to suffer such restriction.  God can do whatever God wants. Indeed part of our arousal to the kingdom's nearness is that from it God provides forgiveness before we've even acknowledged our sin.

The order is less important than the acknowledgement and expression of love -- God's love --  that empowers, validates and sustains forgiveness.  Without love it's just not forgiveness.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Love is the key to forgiveness

Before last week's wonder of a total eclipse I was focusing on forgiveness.  More than anything else I wanted us to understand the value of forgiveness as a participation with God in the very thing that excited Jesus.  

I wanted us to understand that God is with us both as the incarnate one and as a transcendent expectation to which we add our "yes!" or "alleluia!" and join the song of love that is first God's speaking us and all creation into being.  

That's why we must understand forgiveness as more than transactional.  When we forgive, especially when it is for the sake of the unrepentant, we claim and share a portion of that approaching territory that is God's gracious gift to us.  

When we read in last Sunday's gospel Jesus saying to Peter "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” what we're being told is that we are agents of God's reign.  

Binding and loosing means we are participants in a renewal of creation furthered by our faithful judgement and reconciliation.

Forgiveness matters.  Judgement matters, too.  Not that we would assume to be final arbiters of any matter pertaining to human sin but we are to "speak the truth in love" so that real forgiveness can be sought and supplied.  

Sadly, it is the addiction of our age that we accept something less than truth and reconciliation.  We satisfy ourselves with shortened or misdirected apologies like "I regret you misheard me" and brush-offs like "whatever" or "it's no big deal."

But God's reign shines a brighter light than the ones our weak hearts substitute.  That's why Peter's keys open both to the binding of judgement AND the loosing of reconciliation.  You really can't have one without the other.  And so we owe each other the truth spoken in love.

Without love our attempts at confession will lack the humility and trust that help us to fully name and own our wrongs as such.  Without love our absolutions and releases will stop short and leave conditional remainders and grudges.  

Love is that light!  God loved us first.  The light of God's loving reign extends through us and our participation in "binding and loosing." Love is the key to forgiveness. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Eternal Totality For Now

"Seek him who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth: The Lord is his name." Amos 5:8 cited in our Book of Common Prayer, page 115
For a long, long time maybe since the first humans looked up at night, there has been this sense, this awe that the world, the cosmos is an incredible thing best understood as "in service" to an even greater belief.

That there are stars so marvelously constellated, sun and moon in such a concerted dance, rivers and oceans all around us is understood to be so marvelous as to trigger a kind of hope-filled casting into possibility, and "The Lord is his name."

Centuries of human discourse, some biblical, some of other religious persuasions, some not "religious" at all have heard us as humans -- dolphins? whales? bonobos? tortoises? elephants? -- ask and wonder simply and majestically: how?

Yesterday's eclipse has me asking my version of this ancient wondering: how is it that our moon travels as it does and is sized just so that it slips sometimes exactly in between us and the sun to eclipse the very light that makes life possible?

Yes there are astronomical calculations that try to explain by recounting the believed origins of our solar system and its orbiting bodies.  Earlier wonder-ers listened for the music of the spheres for their explanations.  Most physical explanations just restate the evidence but leave the question still lingering.

I think that's OK.  Other explanations, even those directed by the psalmist bump into trouble, too. What are now Christian thinkers have continued an ancient consideration that is almost too anthropomorphic.  We've been warned to avoid a description of God that is humanity "writ large" but it's difficult to find an answer that doesn't sound like egotistical human projection.  Think William Paley's watchmaker.

I am not taken by my 2 and half minutes of totality while northeast of Anderson, SC yesterday because it leads me to "seek him."  At least not yet.  I'm still marveling, still amazed, still laughing at the event itself.  Yes I came to my viewing with my faith already in hand but I'm not ready to move beyond my experience for any meaning other than wow!

Can we venture to say that the wonder and the questions may be the best of our responses?  Not the science, not the theology, not the "mansplaining."  At least for a little longer can we just be totally amazed?

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

God's Reign = Action

I have been focusing on forgiveness these last few installments.  This is not only because I have learned about forgiveness within the larger framing of the approaching nearness of God's reign -- thank you Martin Smith -- but also because I have also learned how we need to continually practice forgiveness on lots of levels within the web of relationships of our day-to-day lives.  

The biggest piece of my learning has been to understand the limitations of a transactional approach to forgiving.  When Jesus talks about loving our enemies he criticizes an easy tit-for-tat balancing within safe circles.  He says "Even the gentiles do that." (Matthew 5:47) and by that clearly intends for us to do more.  

Loving one's enemies is "kingdom work."  It relies on an authority larger than our enclosed circles and requires much more than a "settled accounts" stasis.  

Just as important as the scope in this reading is our recognizing that forgiveness -- principle among those actions that could be construed as loving one's enemies -- must be something done.  It requires action.  

Because it is an action involving another it will have all the appearance of being only transactional.  It will have the initiating approach of the petitioner necessarily coupled with the returning and confirming response of the one being petitioned.  Like any transaction "I'm sorry/I forgive you" it risks being understood as finished too soon and portrayed as discrete and specific to the shared interests of the two parties.  Done!

Action is required and because we are creatures of time and space action it is required again, and again, and again.

This reminds me of a conversation I had at seminary about the word torah/תּוֹרָה.  Our contemporary use is to understand the word as a noun depicting the collection of texts in the first five books of the Bible and to summarize them as largely of or about a set of rules or laws.  

This is understandable because a centerpiece story in that collection is the handing of the ten commandments to Moses.  What was interesting to learn then was that the word Torah/תּוֹרָה is built on a verb ירה which means to teach. 

The characteristics I am applying to forgiveness are at work here.  Faithful living whether determined by ancient Hebrew standards or a more contemporary Christian practice calls us to continual action.

Whether it is one discrete transaction after another, cascading or expanding into an ever widening circle or it is an aroused response of love for others begun and made near to us in God's ever approaching love of us "kingdom work" requires action!

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Forgiven-ness begets forgiving-ness

There is a way to talk about the reign of God that helps to name forgiveness as of God from the beginning but even now continuously begging our practice.  The phrase is "already and not yet."

First let's not get stymied by a typical “both/and” of “Anglican comprehensiveness" in allowing two seemingly contradictory categories to coexist.  It is not a cop-out.

The possibility of human forgiveness is grounded in God and we must admit that priority. Knowing human tendencies, we are wise to be cautious about this truth to avoid presumption or taking this gift for granted.

This priority is not like an abstract argument waiting to be articulated but more like a reality entirely caught up in who God is as the "ground of our being."

You can say that we are born into forgiven-ness.  Still cautious but infinitely graced.

That's the already-ness of forgiveness as a priority from the reign of God.

But there is also a "not yet" to the reign of God because God honors our world of time and space and ". . . the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth." John 1:14

So we revel and celebrate the life of Jesus with all the questions that come in making sense of the fullness of his divinity and his humanity; what did he know and when did he know it?

Another marvel is in imagining the timing and activity of his forgiving.  No matter what you say about it's already-ness Jesus dispensed forgiveness early and often like advertising for what was to come. 

He never withheld it but his forgiving also did not presume or rush ahead.  It waited on the moments it was given to be beckoned by creatures like us and with his pronouncements then he made the world a better place.

Forgiving-ness does not presume but waits on us as well, not only for our confessions but just as much on our pronouncements.

As much as we must stay cautious so as not to take God's on-the-ground gift for granted we must also not avoid our own part in incarnating God's gift.  Jesus showed us how. He remembered from where the gift came and he gave it away.  "As the Father has loved me so I have loved you, abide in my love." John 15:9

When we forget or presume we slip into that "transactional" version of forgiveness I wrote about last week.  We become imposters who misunderstand from where all this grace comes and measure out deals, keep accounts, punish and seldom if ever forget, "only forgiv[ing] as much as our broken human frames can hold and release.

Now instead of ledgers and grudges, shame and offenses we can do even more out of gratitude for what God has already done and there's one less "not-yet" moment in God's reign.

God's reign is "already" and we are forgiven.  God's reign is "not yet" and so we can do the forgiving.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Voluntary Forgiveness

I'm still in that reverie and marvel at what it means that the "reign of God is upon us." Thanks to so many good sources: Martin Smith, Paul Tillich, Diana Butler Bass and their lively coupling with our lectionary's guidance through Matthew's middle chapters the reverie is deep and electric.

There is another source for my musings that I must acknowledge. 

My life with you this past year. 

This starts a smidge confessional so read with me -- all the way through but -- gently. 

Last summer was not easy.  My relationships with people I love were a mess.  I was still stuck in the quagmire of being until August 12, not-yet-divorced.  I was dragging along a mortgage on a house I wasn't living in.  I had to change therapists. 

For the most part I got through those challenges, just not without lots of help. The help came in two forms mostly: volunteerism and forgiveness.  Lots of you stepped up and added yourselves to the labors.  Just as many of you forgave me on the front end of my sabbatical and made it available to me in exactly the way I needed. 

When I got back to Athens after my trip to Yellowstone my accident pushed on us all.  By being both a distraction and an inhibitor it made much of what should have happened in September and later hard and in some cases impossible to do.  More volunteerism and more forgiveness needed. 

My immobility quieted my life.  There was still an air of forgiveness and still people stepping up.  We walked through what was left of the year.  I didn't run.  We didn't run.

There's another reason my world shrank.  I was miscalculating forgiveness and volunteerism.  I was measuring them transactionally.  Afraid to ask for help, afraid to take risks, afraid to move forward because I couldn't afford to pay it back.  I took on a few things but still didn't look ahead with any confidence or courage.

That brought a fresh round of setbacks.  Mostly private and personal but still restrictive.  Still inhibiting. 

Something happened.  Maybe it was related to my house finally selling.  I really can't say but it feels like a seed was planted. 

Now our attention is much more forward focused.  We can plan, we can even imagine running.  Guess who gets to come along from those old days?  Forgiveness and volunteerism.

I understand them both now as dynamic realities 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."

Otherwise we can only forgive as much as our broken human frames can hold and release. Otherwise we "keep" track of scores and never really let go of the past. 

That happens when our worlds shrink and we forget that God is with us.  It happens when we hurt and are fatigued in our disappointment.  We just want to quit and start new accounts where there is not yet a demand for our accommodations.  Some people leave church.

Volunteerism is similarly affected.  We just don't show up and we look for benefits for ourselves before others. 

Both expand when placed into the hands of God.  Both become tools for saying thank you to God for being present with us.

Like many of the truths in my life these apply both corporately and personally.  It only hurts when I am or others are stuck in "transaction mode."  Still keeping score the old fashioned way.

But God is with us and forgiveness is our admitting to the effect of that nearness of God's kingdom.  Without it our accounts are always in danger of being overdrawn and we cannot truly move forward. 

With it?  We can forgive beyond our hoping, we can step up for each other and help each move into that future where God awaits us.  

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.  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Extra-Ordinary Time

This Sunday,  June 11 is set aside to give us a chance to focus on a description of God that emerges for us out of biblical narrative, the life of the early Church and most especially out of the story of the life, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus, including the event of last Sunday's celebration, Pentecost.  The emergent description is the Trinity.

In the earliest usage we learned to say Father, Son and Holy Spirit and in various contemporary attempts Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier or my favorite -- ancient but modern -- Lover, Beloved, Love.  Lots of questions preceded the ones that are answered by our trinitarian titles.  Lots of questions remain but in these days we have come to a fairly comfortable acceptance by way of admitting that most of what we hope to know about God has lots of mystery with it.

Given that most seminarians are instructed to avoid preaching on this Sunday, its safe to say that there is a certain avoidance of this trinitarian "mystery."  Sadly, this is by the very ones who should be delving, digging, embracing this particular theological necessity.  I'll get to why we need to but for now dig into this mystery with me a little.

Remember how I described how necessary are each of those moments we've observed in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  The mystery of the Trinity is a similar necessity.

To begin we can't leave God simply as ONE (think the monotheism of Hebrew scripture) while at the same time claiming that God was incarnate by way of a fully-present-for-us divinity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. One at least must account for the conversation that Jesus has with God in prayer, especially like those moments from the gospel of John read on Good Shepherd Sunday.  What was first a christological question persists and joins our trinitarian investigation.  We have to get at some description that accounts for that relationship shared with God and Jesus.   Jesus uses Father and Son language while praying.

As we follow the story into and beyond Pentecost we have another relationship for which to account.  It is that one that continues between us and God the Father now accompanied by the post-Ascension Son sitting in authority with Him.  The Holy Spirit is how we understand ourselves as believers still to be in relationship with God, who has already redefined the divine human relationship for us.

However you are comfortable with describing the manner in which a divine relationship proceeds towards you, you can count on God to see to the proceeding.  When Jesus says "I am the way, . . . " he knows that way starts with God coming to us first.

God is always "towards" us, from before creation and that same relationship with all creation has always been of the Holy Spirit.  Think of the winds hovering over the waters, God breathing into the nostrils of the first human, how the Red sea was blown back for the children of Israel to escape the Egyptians, the army mustered into being in the Valley of Dry Bones, and the dove descending as Jesus comes up from the waters of his baptism by John.

That's why I appreciate and use the description of Lover, Beloved, Love.  For sure it speaks of how we have historically read Jesus in prayer -- from the cross as well -- though maybe not so much of how we read Paul in particular.  And that is why we dig.  We are drawn into the mystery and cannot stop, because of love.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Easter Necessity

There are so many moments in the gospels when what we read seems less like a factual narrative account of the activity of Jesus and his followers and instead is more like an attempt to frame and present -- sometimes fantastically -- a necessary theological claim.  

One of those is when we read at the end of the Luke's gospel the story of Jesus ascending into heaven to be at God's right hand.  There are several pieces that come together to make His ascension the "preferred method" for Luke to end Jesus' resurrected time on earth.  

That Jesus "born of the virgin Mary" was fully human is as good a place to start as any.  And as fantastic as are the stories of angelic visitations and announcements, and shepherds, along with Matthew's stars, and dreams, and wisemen we hold fast to the claim that he was born into the world of time and space as humans are born.  When Jesus dies it is the end of a human life, horribly ended but human nonetheless.  Time and space cannot be ignored. 

That God raised Jesus from the dead is another claim that makes ascension theologically necessary. And it is important to remember that resurrection cannot be less than incarnation.  It can be more, however.

It is more.  Luke's description of Jesus as appearing but unrecognized on the road to Emmaus and then disappearing at dinner is a fairly modest attempt to account for the difference that resurrection made to this "human one." It is similar to John's treatment of Jesus as capable of passing through locked doors and yet still possessing just as much of a body as was the one crucified.  A body that Thomas is able to touch.  

The 40 day thing is also necessary and functions as a literary device similar to its previous use when Jesus is driven into the wilderness.  It marks a completed period of paradigmatic change.  Just like the children of Israel were changed in their 40 year wilderness sojourn and the earth was cleansed by forty days and nights of rain, in this case Jesus' "work" is done. 

Another way to say it is that resurrection is NOT resuscitation, so when his work is complete, dying is no longer an option for Jesus.  The "best" way for him to get to heaven is to just go there.  And that's what he does: "he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven." (Luke 24:51)

It is a modern yet sophistic curiosity that puzzles about the location of heaven, his direction and rate of ascent, etc.  So we can get back to more necessary theologies we should admit that if Jesus was removed at the speed of light he'd still be within the bounds of what we call the Milky Way.  Better to give God credit for something other than attaining warp speed.

Obviously, Jesus' rate of ascent was not Luke's point.   What was important for Luke was to have us understand that God had done EVERYTHING that was necessary to be done: life, death, resurrection, and ascension; all necessary and all from God.

Pentecost is the next necessity.  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Easter Maturity

I haven't worshipped with other Episcopal congregations during Easter in a while. So I haven't seen what others are doing when it comes to things like standing for the Prayers or forgoing the Confession of Sin or adding alleluias to most acclamations etc.  I am aware of how difficult all of what we are doing in Madison is for several of us.

Just 4 Sundays into this most glorious season and I heard questions at the door. Yet, after what I wrote a couple of weeks ago I'm not about to make a thing out of our postures again. Remember it is our hearts we are called to lift in celebration. I'm still not a cop.

I do know that we are human and so we are prone to habits and patterns that help us to get out of our own way so that God has a chance to sit with us, to breathe with us, to sing and pray and celebrate.
One of the lessons I wink and teach to confirmands is that they should pick a spot in the church to sit every Sunday, so that God will not have to go looking for them.

Most everyone gets the joke but also gets the deeper meaning that our patterns should help us "get out of the way."  It is the first part, our part of the basic sacramental formula that bridges between us and God by way of regularity, validity and efficacy.

There is a caveat.  Sometimes we forget that our habits and patterns are a means to an end, a part of a process that should always seek to obey and and be attendant on God to take God's turn in the process.  So when we hear Jesus saying that there is a connection between our keeping his commandments and the love we share with him it should get our attention.

It would be wrong for us to lapse back into legalism and become as hidebound as first century pharisees.  Yes, we hope to get out of the way but so that we can do all we can to be in love and not just safely or solely habitual or patterned.

The effect of our sacrificial obedience is to surrender to God's love, God's power, God's authority.
I'm thinking Pinocchio.  Yes, the puppet who yearned to be human.  His struggles with learning right and wrong and having a conscience and suffering consequences were all to identify what it means to be human.  Then one day he gives up the 40 coins meant to buy a new suit, helps the Fairy who has fallen ill, and wakes up the next morning a real boy!

Besides the intriguing allusions as they echo things like the biblical changes that come after 40 days/years, there is clearly a lesson about surrender, love and maturity.

Jesus, the incarnation of God's yearning, God's love is not just giving us a set of rules with which to march our way through life's trials. His commandment -- think "love letter" not "military orders" -- is so that we will rise to the maturity of love over law, into life from death ourselves.

There will be trials and struggles.  That's what it means to be human.  There will be love.  That's what Easter means.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Easter Discovery

The stories we hear on Sunday during Easter season are meant help us discover or wake up to something we have likely missed.  That Jesus is raised from the dead brings a new light to the world without which we are blind, not only to the truths embedded in our history but the truths waiting for us in the future.  Like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus we need Jesus to accompany us to discover what God has been doing and to give us the eyes and hearts to see where God is calling us.

One of the joys of this past week was me getting to attend Conversations with Martin Smith hosted by Grace Episcopal in Gainesville.  His playful encouragement led us to consider a new way to understand the vital intersection or common ground shared by spirituality and mission.  

First he helped us to see how we have separated the two interests and made one out of and for extroverts and the other out of and for introverts.  He helped us to see how we have suffered a false dichotomy for years in the church.  His premise was marvelously presented by introducing a third concept that at the beginning seemed unrelated but very interesting.

He proposed we reconsider our understanding of God's will instead -- or in addition to -- as God's desire.  With a twinkle in his eye he encouraged us to consider that we could reclaim a lost tradition in the church; one practiced by the earliest mystics in our tradition.  It reminded me of the Richard Rohr quote we used to remember Ginger Kroeber:
Jesus promises that when the hunger arises within you to find your own deepest aliveness within God’s aliveness, it will be satisfied—in fact, the hunger itself is a sign that the bond is already in place. As we enter the path of transformation, the most valuable thing we have working in our favor is our yearning. Some spiritual teachers will even say that the yearning you feel for God is actually coming from the opposite direction; it is in fact God’s yearning for you. 
Thinking instead in terms of God's desire, God's yearning is a game changer.  Just like the realizations in Emmaus there comes a new way to understand all that we have held differently --perhaps inadequately -- before.  

Smith asked us to consider that God's yearning mattered to Jesus -- Smith said aroused -- and that when he was proclaiming the coming of the reign of God -- we can say "kingdom" but we mustn't think only boundaries and locales -- he was allowing God to do just that; to yearn, to desire, to want us to be with him into a future he already inhabits.  To discover the way, the truth and the life!  

Too often we hear Jesus say "I am the way . . ."  and we think exclusivity.  We think that we have a golden ticket that no other religion possesses or can offer.  What a discovery to think that God is God of all and all futures and that Jesus is the incarnation of God's yearning, of God's desire for us to move into a future with him.