Monday, March 17, 2014

Storefront church

This was a storefront church in an older part of the city that is undergoing some revitalization. The homes look old, for the most part, although some are being rehabbed and you can find some new construction next to the dilapidated homes which look like they should be condemned if they haven't been already. The church is in a small strip mall on the main street. There is an ice cream store next door and a restaurant at the end of the mall with a real estate office around the corner. The building is new and attractive. Church members (loosely speaking because there are no members) arrive at 9 am to set up the rented space. They put the coffee on and arrange the baked goods on a table. People start straggling in about 10 and continue to straggle all the way through the morning service. We are greeted warmly by many of the people. I know the pastor because I met her at a clergy luncheon just this week. I told her I would like to come and see what was going on. There were several brochures and sign up sheets on another table alerting people to ministries and services awaiting volunteers in the community. It is a community with no end of needs, it seemed. The announcement time reflected more community needs and the sharing and prayer time allowed people to talk about personal needs of which there were many, as well. It could seem like a needy place but there was much laughter and talk of hope and prayer, too. The people, 50 or so, knew each other well and were comfortable with each other so some good natured teasing flowed easily. Two women got up and played guitar and led a couple worship songs. A man in a wheelchair worked the computer projecting the words on a screen. Someone read the scripture for the day, from Genesis 12, and the pastor preached on covenant. What does covenant mean to you, she asked. Promises, a couple of people responded. I wondered at that. Here were people who mostly knew a promise as something not kept. Covenants were made to be broken. The boarded up and broken buildings around us were mirrored by the broken lives in the church. Mostly, we felt the pain of broken promises in that room. People living after promises failed in families, marriages, jobs and even churches. Lots of people here have had negative experiences in churches we were told after the service. In this place, on this day, we were learning what covenant meant as the pastor preached about God's call to Abram and Sarai. It was no small thing, the pastor reminded us, to leave everything and follow God's promise. It took a lot of trust. The pastor, looking at it from Sarai's point of view, said Sarai had to trust her husband (who wasn't always the most trustworthy man if you read the rest of his story) who said he had heard from God and this is what I heard: We are leaving! So get packed up! Promises need trusting responses even when there is little evidence of fulfillment (20 some odd years til their promised child was born). So hang in there. Don't give up on God. Mostly, what we felt was that this group of believers was still believing. Strongly. They had not given up. We sensed hope there, and grace, much grace. Like the scripture in Genesis 12 said, God speaks a promise to us, that is grace, and we respond because what else are we going to do.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Knowing God's will

God's will is not hard to understand, it is often said, only hard to do. Well, it is not all that easy to understand either. The most frequent question I was asked in pastoral ministry was, What is God's will for my life and the decisions I have to make. We wish there was an app for that. Instead, there are numerous books, courses, and sermons that would help us discover the way to know God's will. Having read some, taken some and preached some, I can say there is no definitive answer.

In an interesting chapter in his new book, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N.T.Wright suggests Paul struggled with this issue, too. In Paul's day, knowing the will of the gods was a growth industry. It was a concern of everyone from the Emperor down to the lowliest servant. So, there were many people you could consult. There were diviners, and wise men who could tell you the will of the gods by consulting an animal's entrails or the flight path of a bird. These priests could explain what seemingly ordinary events like a thunder clap might mean for you. There were sacred texts which in the hands of the right interpreter could show you the path to take. It was a very religious age and people did not want to end up on the wrong side of a god. It could mean a poor harvest, or infertility, or famine or some other catastrophe.

Paul did not practice the ways of his religious culture to determine God's will. But, he certainly believed God guided him, and us. In Acts, there were a few definite times when God directed Paul's way with a word or vision. There were other times when Paul saw the hand of God after the fact. There were also times when he gave it his best guess like when he wrote to Philemon about Onesimus and said, maybe this is the reason he was separated from you… Wright comments, "to believe in providence often means saying perhaps".

Wright's point is that even though there are those moments when God is crystal clear about what His will was for Paul, those times were infrequent. Most of the time God's guidance for Paul was "oblique". That's why Paul urged his readers to work hard on thinking things through, and try to develop a wise Christian mind, Wright says. Paul was doing the same thing himself. It would seem that Paul was less sure of God's guidance on a day to day basis than his pagan counterparts were - or thought they were, Wright adds.

But we have to keep in mind Paul believed our minds were being renewed daily (Rom 12:1) and that the Holy Spirit is always with us guiding us, even if it is tough for us to sense that all the time. We have the Scriptures, as well, which is no small matter in the work of knowing God's will for us. Here is Wright's perspective: "Paul saw the Scriptures as much more than a rag-bag of sayings and cryptic wisdom, oracles waiting to be decoded and applied randomly to this or that situation. They told the story of God, his world, and his people, in such a way, as to lead the eye not only up to Jesus but on beyond, all the way, to the expanding apostolic mission." Knowing Jesus, Wright suggests, gave Paul a  clear sense of how his own life and calling were to be shaped.

That's a key thought. There is more than enough in what Jesus said and did to show us what God's will is. There are issues of everyday life in which God's will seems not so clear. We may not know for sure whether to move or not, or to take this job or that, or which church to attend. We might not be certain if we are to marry or if so, whom? But, if we do, we know how to treat that person, and how to treat others. We know what to do with the money we make from that job we decided to take. And if we move to a new community, and attend a different church, we know what the shape of our lives will look like. Be imitators of us and the LORD, Paul wrote to the church (1 Thess 1). That's about the best guidance anyone could have.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Civil wars

There was a battle fought a few miles from my home here in north Florida a couple weeks ago. You could hear the cannon's fire from my house. No one was in danger and, as far as I know, no real bullets were used in the rifles. It was a re-enactment of a civil war battle, the battle of Olustee. Every year the hotels fill up with people who come to watch the re-enactors sleep in tents, eat their meals on the battle field, wear authentic uniforms and even fall on the field as if dead. The outcome of the battle is never in doubt: the Confederacy wins as they did back in the day. Locals come out to cheer on the victors, enjoy the sunshine and talk to re-enactors. There is the obligatory beauty pageant, as well. Miss Olustees of all ages are crowned.

Today Olustee is a state historical site that marks that important Confederate victory - a complete victory over a much larger force - is the way the historical revisionists have it.  T. D. Allman in his book, Finding Florida, points out that this historical re-enactment misses a few important facts. The Confederate troops were slightly out manned by about 300 troops, 5500 Union to 5200 Confederate. The Confederates had the advantage of knowing the lay of the land. The Confederates had far fewer casualties than the Union forces (93 dead, 842 wounded to the Union's 203 dead and 1,152 wounded) but the really surprising fact was the Union soldiers missing in action. The missing Union soldiers numbered 500 more than the Confederate missing (506 to 6). Most of these were part of a black regiment that fought at Olustee. Allman says that instead of continuing their offensive, Confederate soldiers halted their advance  in order to specially target the black soldiers wounded on the field of battle. General Hatch, commander of the Florida Union forces later said that most of the wounded black soldiers were murdered on the field (pages 230-232 in Allman's book). General Beauregard wrote to Jefferson Davis and informed him the fruits of the victory at Olustee were insignificant because there was no serious attempt to pursue the federal forces as they withdrew. The black soldiers laying wounded on the field were from the regiment made famous in the film Glory. It seems it was more important to make sure the fallen black soldiers were dead rather than pursue the larger Union army. This sordid chapter of the fighting is not re-enacted. Neither is the report of a U.S. lieutenant that a shallow grave was disinterred by wild hogs a few weeks after the battle and the bones of soldiers strewn all over the field.

There is a large Confederate monument at the battle site honoring the Confederate men who lost their lives there. There is a movement by some people to place a Union monument there, too. But, that has been consistently vetoed by the powers that be. There is nothing there that mentions the sacrifice of black soldiers.  Nor, for that matter, is it mentioned in most history books.

The weekend of the re-enactment was a fine couple of days to be outdoors. Although invited to go and see what was going on, we declined. It's fun, we were told, and educational.