Thursday, November 27, 2014

Advent 2014: Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph had a notion to put Mary aside
delicately, for her trouble.
 Trouble for her family and him.
But, he was a good man and wanted to keep things quiet ( as much as you can in a small town).
So quiet, he heard God speak and tell him to set aside his fears about Mary's trouble.
What seemed like trouble was really the son of God: Jesus,
 conceived by the Holy Spirit,
which is inconceivable to some who can see trouble only.
Such things cannot happen, you see, inconceivable.
Joseph believed in a virgin birth and called his son, Jesus.
 God is with us.
Some wonder how God did it, or if he did, and what does it matter, anyway.
Nothing new is conceived.
Others wonder and believe - like Joseph and Mary - and all manner of things inconceivable are conceived.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Gleanings from Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey

Kathleen Norris writes about a "cocaine whore" who would sleep with anyone who could provide her with booze or cocaine, or just show her the slightest bit of attention. She found AA, then God, then church. Soon she was signing up for everything and volunteering for every church related ministry as well as signing up for committees that others had to be begged to join. Her pastor wondered if Christians don't underrate promiscuity. Because she was still a promiscuous person, still loving without much discrimination.

An alcoholic said that when he arrives late to church people turn around and scowl or give him smug looks as if righteousness was associated with being on time to church. At AA, if he is late, people jump up to greet me, he said. They know my desperate need for them was greater than my desperate need for alcohol.

In the bulletin of an urban church in Denver:

Married, divorced, single here, it's one family that mingles here.
conservative or liberal here, we all gotta give a little here.
doubt or believe here, we all can receive here.
gay or straight here, there's no hate here.
women or men here, everyone can serve here.
whatever your race here, for all of us grace here.
In imitation of the ridiculous love Almighty God has for each of us and for all of us,
let us live and love without labels.

Ignatius of Loyola defined sin as refusing to believe that God wants my happiness and fulfillment.

Eugene Peterson: In Hebrew the root word for salvation means deliverance from an existence that has become cramped, compressed, and confined.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

God of happy endings

I watched The Lunchbox recently on dvd. It's a foreign film set in India with English subtitles. The title reflects a traditional practice where workers contract with a food vendor to have their lunch delivered to their workplace. The lunch box is a container with several sections which serve to keep the various foods separate. The sections can be taken apart and set on a table. It reminded me of some cookware we had to take camping that could collapse into an easy to carry pouch.

Of course, some men would have their wives prepare their lunchbox and arrange to have it delivered to their workplace. The film centers on one man who is a widower and weeks from retiring from a large accounting firm. He is one of many men who spend their days working side by side with other men working with figures. He lives alone and often spends his evenings watching a family in the apartment next door eating together. He is adrift in a life that is almost over for him and he has little to look forward to as he faces the end of his working days.

The other main character is a young woman with an elementary age daughter whose husband gets dressed and goes off to work every day. There is little affection between them. When he comes home he spends his time looking at his phone. She packs his lunch box every day and a delivery service picks it up. Her auntie lives up stairs and gives her advice how she could jump start her marriage. Auntie suggests some new menus to attract his attention.

The delivery service mixes up the lunch boxes and the retiring accountant gets the spicy box prepared by the young woman and her husband the boring one prepared by the catering firm. Immediately, the accountant takes notice. Something new and exciting is happening. He stops by the catering business to express his thanks and tells them to keep up their new standard. The husband hardly notices the change but asks his wife to stop sending him so much cauliflower. She realizes something is up but the lunch box mix up is exciting for her too. She has discovered her husband is cheating on her. So she begins sending notes in her lunchbox to learn more about who is eating her lunches. The accountant responds with praise for her cooking and they begin a lunch time correspondence which reveals more and more about their lives. Finally, the time comes when they decide to meet for a face to face lunch.

The movie's ending disappointed me; it was not a happy ending (that's all I'll say because it is worth seeing for yourself). I know happy endings are criticized for not being realistic. Soon after watching this film, I read the end of Job in the Bible. It's a happy ending. Some people are skeptical of the ending for that reason. John Goldingay writes that just because so many people do not have happy endings to their stories in real life is one very important reason why Job does. God is the one who brings stories to a happy ending. God is a God of happy endings.

Taking Goldingay's insight into the Job story, I revisited my first impression of The Lunchbox. No, it had not ended in the simple happy way I suspected it might. That would have been too unrealistic. But, the connection the two people made over the lunch box mix up did lead to more hopeful outcomes for them. The spicy food led to the spice of life.

It is hard to find hopeful outcomes and happy endings in life sometimes - especially when we are trying to write the script. We are afraid that some hoped for happy endings are too good to be true. But the Gospel is true and good and has the happiest ending for any one's story.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Camping trip, interrupted

This past weekend we went on a camping trip with some people from our church. We had not been tent camping in a long time. Even though it was November this was Florida (actually the camping site was just over the Georgia - Florida border), so how bad could it be? We packed our tent, and some warmer clothes, and headed to St. Mary's Georgia. It was sunny and a bit chilly - temps around 60 - as we unpacked and set up our tent. We went into St. Mary's for dinner and then met up with our fellow campers in the evening. It was starting to get cold (not Alaskan cold where we lived for the past 14 years but Florida cold!), temps falling to the low 40s. We were not prepared for this; one of our sleeping bags was designed for indoor camping, and we had no heat source and our air mattress leaked. We were not happy campers after a sleepless night. Worse, it did not warm up during the day and a chilly wind made 50 some degrees seem much colder. We made the best of it but when my wife said she might want to pack up and go home a day early, I was all ears. Usually she is the trooper and I am the wimp ready to pack it in. So that's what we did. We felt bad but mostly because the others were sticking it out and we were bailing and had earned their jokes (Look, the hardy Alaskans can't take the cold!).  We took the ding to our reputations like the mature adults we are. We enjoyed the warmth and comfort of own bed, too. We had learned our lessons: be more prepared next time (get warmer sleeping bags!), and we had some insight into the plight of the homeless who deal with our short term discomforts all the time.

Today, I was reading Mark 13 in the Message Bible. It is called the "apocalyptic chapter" in which Jesus talks about some of the signs of the End Times. A few of his disciples catch him by himself and ask him when all this End Time stuff is going to happen. He told them it was coming and times would be tough before the End but he did not give them an exact date or The Sign that would signal the End.  What he said was, "Stay with it - that's what is required. Stay with it to the end. You won't be sorry; you'll be saved."

Reading that in light of our recent camping experience, I sensed that God had another lesson in mind for me.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

On the preaching of sermons

I've preached a bunch of sermons although not many lately. Lately, I've done more reflecting on preaching than actual preaching. I've listened to a fair number of preachers in the past year and a half of my preaching sabbatical, as well. While the preachers have had as many different styles as personalities, they all preached in a similar environment. That was a traditional church setting with a 25 to 35 minute sermon in the middle of a typical Protestant service. There was no interaction with the listeners. Some times there were listening helps in a power point format projected on a big screen. There was no feedback other than the conversations my wife and I had on the way home. Soon after the sermon was forgotten.

There is one exception. This church setting is non-traditional. It meets in a small sanctuary with the chairs pulled back and tables arranged in the center. People bring food and eat a supper meal together before the church service. "Church" is around the tables with the pastor in the midst of us seated on a wooden stool. She reads the scripture which is available on hard copies as well as on a screen accompanied by images illuminating the passage. She gives a paraphrase/overview of the scripture and then relates it to the life of the congregation and our individual lives. She asks questions which are discussed around the tables. She concludes with some summary remarks, and then invites prayer and participation in communion. The sermon/discussion takes about 30 minutes. People hang around to talk with each other, and pick up a half piece of paper with the scripture on one side and a couple of thoughts or questions to take home.

I was not sure how I would like this non-traditional service but I have discovered it works quite well. It helps to be able to interact with the scripture and sermon immediately. It helps to carry home some notes on the scripture and her remarks to look at during the week. Since she mainly teaches a series on a scripture theme, such as the journey of the People of Israel in Exodus and relates it to our faith journeys as individuals and as a church, I feel more connected to the scripture. It stays with me.

Jan Johnson writes that communication is difficult because people only hear about ten percent of what we say. So, I have to face the fact that for all my diligence in sermon crafting and speaking, most of what I said was not heard. Johnson's counsel: say it short! Whether talking to your teen age son or to a congregation of hundreds, less is more.

Our goal as communicators, she says, is not to express ourselves but to create space for God's grace to flow. Wow, that's good but it is also hard to hear for some of us preachers who love to hear ourselves talk and like to get positive feedback (oh that sermon was soooo helpful, pastor).

In a world that communicates in bold print and emoticons, Johnson reminds us, Jesus said let your yes be yes and your no be no. In a new effort to avoid wordiness, I close by referring to a quote from Richard Rohr: "faith does not need to push the river because it is able to trust there is a river. It is flowing and we are in it."

Jan Johnson's book is Abundant Simplicity.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Happy Reformation Day

Last night we waited in our driveway as crowds of kids jumped out of utility trailers made up to look like hay wagons and ran screaming and laughing through the yard to get one more piece of candy. Just one, we said. Only one, some people are giving out two apiece. Ok, thank you, happy Halloween. We must of heard it over a hundred times last night, happy Halloween. We were happy and the kids were happy to dress up and get some treats. Apparently lost on this day was the fact that it was a day to remember Reformation Day, too. Most of the churches in this Southern Baptist churched (with a smattering of independents, charismatics and Catholics) town held their own "trunk or treat" celebrations where people decorate their car trunks and trucks for Halloween and fill them with candy.  Kids went from trunk to trunk gathering the candy while listening to Christian music or a Halloween themed devotion, perhaps. It's a big night down here in our little town in Florida. Nearly every church has to have their own harvest party in the weeks leading up to Halloween. There is food, and of course  fellowship and a short sermon (shorter than Sunday's anyway).

No where did I pick up a hint of the Reformation. It could be because Baptists are not big on the Reformation and proudly are a non - creedal people. So, what Martin Luther nailed to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany on that October 31 in 1517 is forgotten much as Luther himself except, of course, among Lutherans. Sadly, the current state of Christianity in our culture is seen in the way Halloween is celebrated in the churches and the Reformation is forgotten.

Luther was born in 1483 ten years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He took early training to be a lawyer and then stunned his parents with his decision to join the Black Friars, an austere Augustinian order of monks. The monks stressed confession of sins, Scripture reading, the desert fathers and the rigorous practice of the spiritual disciplines. Luther was deeply impressed and troubled by the picture of God as Divine Judge for he was ever mindful of how far he fell short of God's demand for righteous living. The great discovery of his life - and ours by the way - was justification by grace. Luther never got over God's Grace and he taught we never should either. For many Christians who were raised in mostly graceless church settings the discovery of Luther's discovery is transformational.

Luther's other big contribution to Christian faith was the distinction he made between a theology of the cross and a theology of glory. It basically comes down to who are we trusting for our salvation. While we might say, God, it often, in practice, looks more like our good deeds, i.e., going to church, tithing, regular prayers, etc. What we do for God takes priority over what God has done and is doing for us. We stand before God based on what Christ has done for us, not what we have done or not done was Luther's message.

Luther taught we find Christ through the cross. That is where God is most fully known. There we die to ourselves, our wisdom, pride, and accomplishments, and are made right with God. The cross is a scandal, it is God's judgment against every effort of our own to build a successful life.

Luther was far from perfect - which he would easily admit - and he did not tell us all we need to know about the Gospel but there is no better place to learn of Grace than Luther and the teachers who have followed in his tradition.

In honor of Reformation Day think on God's gifts of grace and offer grateful prayers. Make a practice of humility which was a big deal to the Reformers, Luther and John Calvin. Seek in your daily life to put others before you - in the lines you are in during the week, driving, eating, etc. Take a look at some of Luther's hymns which are not sung much any more, i.e., A Mighty Fortress is Our God.

Luther's last recorded words: We are beggars that is the truth but I do not despair for I have seen that because of the cross God hears the beggars cry.

Happy Reformation Day!