Wednesday, April 29, 2015

In the wilderness

Christians have often looked at the wilderness as a place of adversity that tests one's faith. It is place to learn some hard lessons about what it means to follow Christ. Some lessons can only be learned through the adversity of the wilderness. God allowed his people in the Old Testament to live in the wilderness for years. Jesus went out into the wilderness at the start of his ministry where he was tempted by the devil. Many early Christians sought to live in the wilderness as a means to fortify their faith. The wilderness meant stripping life down to essentials. It meant the end of self - sufficiencies and depending on God.

The wilderness is the place where God can become real. His power is seen in forces of nature. His glory in the mountains and the sunrise. His abundant grace in the variety of flora and fauna.

The wilderness is the setting for the movie, Wild, which stars Reese Witherspoon and was based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. Ms Strayed is an unlikely hiker to show up one day to begin the Pacific Coast Trail. She embarks on a 1200 mile journey through unforgiving wilderness with no preparation and so much new REI stuff in her backpack she struggles to stand up with it on her back. She is there not to experience the hike but to find some order and discipline in her chaotic life. She has to do this for survival. Her mother died young of cancer and her life has spiraled out of control through a series of very casual sexual relationships and drug abuse.

She is seeking her salvation in the wilderness. She is looking for God who she does not believe cares about her or even exists yet she is angry at him nonetheless. Surprising herself, she finishes the trek and in the process becomes an able hiker. She has found some peace in her life and she is confident she has a future. Looking back on her life, without regrets, she wonders if she needed to be redeemed or if she had been already.  It's an interesting choice of words from someone whose life was lived on the brink often and there is no hint of a redeemer or redemption before this. Her father abused her mother until she fled with her daughter and son. Her son was estranged from the family and her daughter confused and bitter at the way her mother tried to remain positive when there was so much negative going on in their lives. Cheryl was angry at her mother, life and God if he was there. She starts her wilderness trek angry. Her anger is channeled into energy for hiking miles through tough terrain, and fears about what is out there in this wilderness world. She sits on a mountain top and watches the sun come up and remembers her mother taught her to delight in the best times of the day. She is on a journey to become the best person she can be - another lesson her mother tried to teach her. On this journey, Cheryl is becoming teachable. She is vulnerable to the unexpected, the weather, the wildlife, the men she meets whose interest in her is suspicious.

She is in a much better place when her trek is over. She has found healing or healing has found her. In the wilderness, she has learned lessons about her life. Grace is evident but she has no vocabulary for it. There is the beauty of nature, and the companionship of a fox, and a number of provisions that show up at the right time. It reminded me of manna in the wilderness. Her healing has a source but Ms Strayed has not recognized it, yet. In the wilderness, God is nearer than some of us ever know.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

River Church

We just got back from a trip to Wisconsin. Our niece got married. We drove up through Atlanta and Nashville and then a long slog through Illinois. We bypassed Chicago by driving through Rockford. On the way home we stopped in Chattanooga, TN and walked around the downtown. I am usually looking for coffee shops and/or bookstores. On E. 7th we stumbled upon Cadence Coffee Shop. It was a comfortable place to sit and and read the books and newspapers on coffee tables. The coffee was superb and the barista professional. I noticed a sign on the counter that invited you to pay $2 extra and buy some one else a cup of coffee. Interesting, I thought, and it made more sense in a moment. Looking around the room I saw an opening leading to a room next door. I walked over and found a large room with portraits of the words Grace, Hope, Love, and Gospel on the walls. It looked to be something like a worship space. Returning to the coffee shop I had some questions for the barista who turned out to be the pastor of the church that met next door. When he greeted the homeless man who came into the coffee shop and handed him a cup of coffee, I thought of the $2.

The pastor had been on a staff of a larger church in another city before he came to Chattanooga. He felt like he was always talking about what the Church should be doing but not doing it. Now, he said, he was. There was a midweek Bible study and a Church service on Sundays, and, of course, it was a coffee shop so there was lots of conversation. The Church was located in a busy downtown area and had a ministry with the homeless.

While we were there a number of business people stopped by for their morning cup of joe and a few homeless guys sat around talking. I asked for more information and he handed me a small card that was available on the counter. It told the name of the Church: River Church and gave a description of what some one could expect to find there. A list that began with the words We ... said things like, We are a melting pot of all types of denominations, and We are big on community; building it and being part of it, and We honor all people, and We believe and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and We are moved with compassion for the least and the last, and We are generous in our giving, and We worship passionately because God loves us, and We are disciples who make disciples, and We are risk takers. Finally, We invite you to join us this week.

While we looked around and read the info card, Pastor/Barista Shannon continued to serve others and talk to them. We wished we were going to be around on Sunday for Church but we felt like we had experienced their ministry on Monday.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The end or is it

On the first Sunday after Easter, our pastor took for her Scripture reading the disputed ending of Mark's gospel. Mark's Resurrection account ends with verse 8 on an abrupt note of amazement and a kind of fear that seems to mute the testimony of the gospel. For many interpreters and readers it is an incomplete and unsatisfactory way to end Easter Sunday! So, many of Mark's scholarly interpreters conjecture that a later editor came along and taking some facts from Matthew and Luke along with his own thoughts "finished" the gospel of Mark. Most scholars observe that the last twelve verses or so do not fit Mark's style or language. Many popular commentaries ( see Michael Card and Tim Keller) assume the ending is not original and barely mention it.

However, our pastor did last night and I wondered what she was getting herself into. I have preached on the Resurrection from Mark many times and I had usually commented on the controversial ending and let it go at that. I mean there is uncomfortable stuff like snake handling, and a harsh rebuke to the disciples for their lack of faith and a graceless note of condemnation for those who do not believe. I preferred not to deal with it. But, our pastor did and I wondered what she would say about it.

She, too, acknowledged the scholarly opinion on the ending of the Easter story. But, she suggested that since it got there somehow we needed to deal with it. She said it was clearly born of a desire to tidy up Mark's story, to complete it with questions answered. And she talked about how that is with us - we don't want any loose ends especially when it comes to our faith.

I was thinking it is like a lot of churches today. It's important to know and do all the right things (what should a Christian believe?), and get everyone on the same page. A nice, tidy faith without any doubts or questions or even any room for questions or for people who do not "fit" in. As, I look around our church every week it seems full of people who would not "fit" in many churches. There is no permanent building and even though we have an order of service it often becomes a "disorderly" service with technological glitches, musicians who are a no-show, and little ones wandering about. We do manage prayer, Scripture readings, a sermon, and some singing and end with communion but it is never a fine tuned program. There is an openness to what each of us brings that night. I would call it the "unchurch". Not surprisingly, it has attracted people who have been hurt, burned out, or just plain felt unwelcome in other churches.

On Sunday night, I heard God speaking out of this questionable ending of Mark. Kimberly Richter has suggested (in her comments on Mark in the Renovare Study Bible) that we need to get over our fears and find our voices as the women at Jesus tomb did. We are the ones "who continue this story" as we share the good news of Jesus. We embody this story as we work for healing, and wholeness and overturn legalisms that limit God's forgiveness and mercy. We "complete" this story as we practice Jesus inclusive love so that no one is treated as unclean, an outcast or a sinner but all are welcomed into discipleship and the coming reign of God.

Mark's "incomplete' ending is no mistake. It calls each of us to a continuing journey of believing Jesus and taking up our cross and following him daily. Our pastor was right. The ending of Mark is there for a reason.

Friday, April 10, 2015

NY Yankees "old" edition for 2015

I had my first chance to watch the new "improved" Yankees the other night. NY, I hardly knew ya! Tanaka pitched, it was opening day, and he was underwhelming. Once the batters figured out he couldn't throw a fastball they weren't tempted by his split. Pineda pitched the next game and looked good but the offense did not. Sabbathia pitched game three and whatever he did over the offseason to rehab didn't look like it helped. Jeter is gone and so is Mariano. While NY came up with the money to get Beltran and McCann, they let Cano go and he was better than any one they have now. Who is that on second and at shortstop? And they have a couple of Red Sox in the starting lineup? And a Padre at third? What is going on? Do I even have to bring up A Rod who looks to be their offense thus far. Oh, and there is Gardner in left field, who is good but no one who can carry the team on his back. Pitching is suspect except for Pineda and a couple of relievers. And they are going to need a bullpen. But who is going to score any runs? My money is not on Texiera. I hope I'm wrong but there won't be a lot to cheer for with A Rod leading the team, Gardner leading in home runs and Pineda the ace of the staff. I like Girardi and I don't long for the days of Martin but I heard Bobby V was just down the road in Fairfield, Conn. Maybe he can light a fire...

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wolf hall

Wolf Hall debuted on PBS on Sunday. The reviews were generally favorable but there was some concern of anti-Catholic bias which was a criticism of Mantel's books on which the series is based. (See Gregory Wolfe in the Washington Post.) Hilary Mantel's books tackle an important but confusingly complex time in history. Many are the books on the entertaining times of King Henry VIII. Sex, religion, violence, it's all there. It is the time of the beginnings of the English Protestant Reformation. Mantel's books tell the story of Thomas Cromwell who along with Thomas Cranmer facilitated Henry's manipulation of English religion. Henry seemed to be out for himself mainly and he used religion to serve his best interests. Cromwell and Cranmer and many other priests, pastors and monks got caught in his religious machinations. It's hard to see much spiritual good coming out of all this. Yet, God does bring good out of even our worst intentions as the Bible and history make clear. Henry's time known for ecclesiastical reforms inspite of Henry. The English Bible was making an appearance. The Book of Common Prayer was put together. Both of these reforms have been around for a long while and have had an enormous positive impact on Church Life.

While Henry leaned first one way toward Catholicism and then toward Protestantism depending on how it pleased him at the moment, religion in his realm suffered and many people paid for his vacillating with their lives. But, he did one thing that breathed Life into his realm. In 1538, he ordered English Bibles to be put in every parish church and 5 years later he made it a crime to read the Bible unless you were a religious official. Apparently, he was convinced the common person was unequipped to handle the Bible. There were arguments and even fights breaking out in the pubs and on the streets because of what people were reading. Henry's solution: silence God's Word. Henry blamed the devil for all the commotion and in order to stop all the devilish misunderstandings of Scripture, Henry took the Bible out of most every one's hands, except for those trained to understand it.

It's a common problem. The Bible is a dangerous book. It shook up Luther and Calvin. It started Wilberforce and the abolitionists on the path toward ending slavery. It fortified Martin Luther King and others in the fights for civil rights. Anyone who heeds it's teaching could become a radical.

As we watch Wolf Hall and perhaps do some more background reading, keep track of the Bible. What place does God's Word have in this history? I think Henry unleashed a powerful cultural force for good when he put Bibles in the pews. What he didn't see happening was how it would stir things up. He was not very good about discerning the spirits though; the devil didn't do it!

Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter hope

There are many ways to celebrate Easter Sunday and a great many churches in which to celebrate. On our way to the Easter Sunday service at our church we drove by lots of big churches with full parking lots. I could imagine the decorated sanctuaries and full choirs or loud praise bands (with lights and fog) and a heartfelt sermon on the Resurrection. Our church which rents sanctuary space in another church and so usually meets in the late afternoon chose to have a morning service outside this year. "We are a mobile church", our pastor explained to what would have been an overflow crowd of 40 or more in our rented space but barely covered the shaded space under an old tree in a corner of the front yard of the elementary school in the community. Our church has collected coats and hats and mittens for the children of this school in the winter months and now we are collecting granola bars for them. The principal was happy to let us use their front yard which is not normally available on weekends. A high wrought iron gate encircles the grounds and had to be unlocked at the entrance so we could drive through. It was a cool, windy day and some people moved their chairs out of the shade seeking some warmth from the sun. We waited for the person who was offering the opening prayer and then sang our Easter songs to the accompaniment of a guitar. We prayed for our community and then our pastor preached about the "extraordinary ordinary". The Scripture text was the Resurrection story which Mark tells in his gospel. It is one of my favorites. I like the part where the women are on their way to the tomb when they "worry" about how the stone is going to be rolled away so they can anoint Jesus body with spices. Worrying they might have been but they were on their way anyway. God would find a way. I think that is a good message for any day. We are worried  or fearful and sometimes hope feels far off but we are on the way, anyway. We get up, get coffee, pray and read a portion of Scripture worried or not. If it's Sunday we may feel that hope is far off but we get on our way to church. As long as we are on the way, God can meet us. That's where hope comes from. Hope found us Easter Sunday under the tree breaking bread together in the presence of the Risen Christ.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Footwashing service

Ford Madox Brown's depiction of Jesus washing Peter's feet is a favorite. According to John 13, Peter did not think much of the idea at first and protested. Jesus told him he would understand later. When was that "later" time? Did it occur to him when he denied even knowing Jesus? Did he think of it as he saw Christ dying on the cross? What about on the day after? On the day of Resurrection and the first time the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples? The day on the beach when he was personally confronted by Jesus and told to follow him and feed his sheep? Perhaps, all those times. It was something he could not shake. It was a lesson in humility and service he would not forget and he needed to not forget as he "shepherded the flock" of God. In his first letter, the impact of that foot washing in his life is echoed over and over. "Live as servants of God, i.e.,washing other people's feet, in 3:16. In his teaching to the elders - leaders - of the church, he wrote, "I exhort you to tend the flock of God... not under compulsion but willingly....not for sordid gain but eagerly... do not lord it over the flock but be examples..."(1 Pet. 5).

I wanted to attend the foot washing service that the ministry to the homeless in downtown Jacksonville, The Church Without Walls, was doing today. It was over the noon hour and our church was participating. I was saying to my wife how much I wanted to go. But, we have meals on wheels to deliver today, she said. Well, I know I said (pause for effect) and I know one of us has to be here to do it. This is your foot washing service, she reminded me, sweetly. And of course, she was right and how appropriate to be able to do it on the day we remember our Lord's humble service to others.