Saturday, August 08, 2015

Admitting I am powerless- Lectionary Readings for August 9

This post is late because I've been finishing my "statement of problem" for my DMin program. It's not a full blown proposal, but it goes a long way toward matching me with the right faculty mentor for the project. Once I find out if what I turned in is remotely coherent, I'll share it here and invite feedback.

This week's lectionary readings are 2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33; Psalm 130; Ephesians 4:25-5:2; and John 6:35, 41-51. They can be found at Vanderbilt's lectionary page.

This week's psalter begins with "out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord". In the 2 Samuel reading, David is crying out from the depths as he realizes that he is in the middle of a mess he can't fix, cover up, or ignore. His son, Absalom, has died in a rebellion against him, even though David told his soldiers to deal gently with him. Even though David's side has "won" the battle, he has lost.

David wishes he had died instead of his son, because that is the natural order of things. Losing a child is every parent's worst nightmare. The very thought of one of my children dying before me makes my stomach clench up, and in my experience as a pastor, it is the hardest situation to walk with somebody through, because there's nothing you can say to make it any better. There are a lot of things that people can and do say that make it worse ("this was God's plan", "God needed another angel in heaven"). For David, knowing that it is precisely all his wealth and power that caused this situation that cost him his son makes his grief that much greater.

Not everyone goes through the pain of losing a child, but we all have horrible moments in our lives when we would give anything to make the pain go away, and realizing that there is nothing we can do only makes it worse. Friends in recovery from substance abuse call it their "rock bottom" moment, when they can't get healthy on their own. Admitting you are helpless to solve the problem and have to call upon a higher power is the first step in AA and other twelve step recovery programs.

The psalmist does the same thing, ending with "it is (the Lord) who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities". When we've really hit rock bottom, when we can no longer hide behind our see how powerless we are the only way to get through it is to let God work.

In the gospel reading, Jesus tells us how our grief, our pain, our hunger can't be satisfied by anything we can do, but only by the "bread from heaven" who happens to be Jesus himself. Some of his hearers don't like it because they're quite comfortable with the illusion of their own agency. But at the end of the day, following Jesus isn't all that different from getting sober. We recognize that we are in the depths, that we can't pull ourselves out, and look to God to meet the need we have to finally admit we can't meet on our own.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Getting Over Ourselves- Lectionary Readings for August 2

This week's readings are Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15; Psalm 78:23-29; Ephesians 4:1-16; and John 6:24-35. They can be found at Vanderbilt's Lectionary Page.

There is a pattern that runs throughout the narratives of scripture, both Old and New Testaments. God does something incredible, people are amazed and praise God for about five minutes, then they forget and either go their own way or ask for another neat trick.

That's what happens in the Exodus reading. The liberated slaves' feet are barely dry from crossing the seabed that God had opened up for them when they start complaining that there's no food out here in the desert. Instead of smiting a bunch of people because they griped (there's plenty of that later), God gives them the gift of manna, from which they make bread and are able to survive during the coming decades in the wilderness. The Psalter celebrates that story in a song about God's goodness.

The same thing happens in the gospel reading. Jesus calls out the people trying to find him because they were looking for another neat trick. Instead, Jesus asks them to see the signs he is performing not as cool things in and of themselves, but as pointing beyond themselves to the God who is engaged in the work of healing and restoration.

Read the rest of John 6 and you see Jesus "thin out the herd" by dropping some hard teaching on them about his flesh and blood being food and drink. If you want a sense of how crazy this sounded to first century people, our friends at South Park have recaptured it for us. Lots of Jesus' hearers really heard him and split. When Jesus asked those who remained why they were there, Peter replies, "where else are we going to go?" They didn't necessarily like what they were hearing either, but they were all in with Jesus.

Perhaps we gravitate toward neat tricks because they're easy to wrap our minds around. It's safer if those things are isolated happenings rather than signs of God's reign taking over our world. If God is in charge, we aren't, and that's scary!

A huge part of discipleship is getting over ourselves and letting God set the agenda for as long as we can before we start yanking control back. We're only human, after all. When we realize we've been pulling it back toward ourselves, we own up to it and trust that God will help us do a little bit better each time.

That's what Paul is talking about in Ephesians when he says we should strive to "lead a life worthy of the calling to which (we) have been called". I used to be uneasy with this passage because I thought it was about never messing up, which is an unrealistic standard to hold ourselves to.

We can spend all our time beating ourselves up over all the ways we fall short, or we can read Paul's exhortation as an aspirational statement. "Strive to do better every time, because that demonstrates your gratitude for the incredible gift of forgiveness you've been given."

If I can get over myself, my need to be at the center of things and exercise control, then I'll stop looking for neat tricks from God. I'll really be able to respond to this invitation to a journey where things more amazing than I ever thought possible will happen, because someone a whole lot smarter than me is in charge.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

What Kind of God? Lectionary Readings for July 26

For those who have asked the audio from this past Sunday's message on the 2 Samuel and Mark 6 readings is available on Christ UMC's website.

This week's lectionary readings are 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; and John 6:1-21.  They can be found at Vanderbilt's lectionary page.

The psalter begins, "fools say in their hearts 'there is no God'". In college I remember my evangelical friends quoting this verse as a way of scoffing at people who didn't share their theological convictions. I thought that was a strange attitude to have if your stated goal is to get everyone to believe the same things you do. I can't begin to count the number of times I've heard people in Bible study groups say things like, "I'd be a horrible person if I didn't have God in my life, I just don't know how other people make it!" Really? If your doctrinal beliefs are the only thing holding you back from harming other human beings, you may have bigger problems.

I've encountered many people who are professed atheists or agnostics who are wonderful, loving, morally grounded people. And some of the worst behavior I've ever seen human beings engage in has been in church. Belief in God can't be the deciding factor as to whether one is a moral or immoral person.

Actually, maybe we should make the distinction between belief in the idea of a divine being and commitment to the God who is made known to us in Jesus Christ.

Let's take King David's story as an example. David certainly believes in God. God chose him to be king and was with him every step of the way on a very long journey to the throne. Right before this week's reading, David got the notion to build a Temple for God. The man was no atheist!

David's actions don't suggest that he stopped believing in the idea of God, but that he has a functional change in who he believes God is. He acts on a very base impulse, and does everything he can to cover it up when other people might find out what he's done. In other words, David acts like no one is watching. Or at the very least, that God doesn't care what David does once he's in power.

David may be operating with a belief system that today we call Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, or MTD. In this way of thinking, God is primarily there to solve our problems, to help make us "nicer" people, and generally to help us feel good, but isn't really all that concerned about how we live our lives. David may not have yelled out "there is no God!" in bed with Bathsheba (that would be creepy), but he's acting as if the God of his ancestors doesn't exist, preferring the god of MTD.

The God who is described in the Old and New Testaments wants much more for us than to simply feel good and be nice. God cares deeply not only about what actions we take, but how we feel in our hearts, how we view every other human being around us. When David looked over to the rooftop, he didn't see Bathsheba as a whole person created in God's image, he saw an attractive body and nothing more.

In contrast, when Jesus sees a large group of people who followed him out into the wilderness, he doesn't simply see a bunch of dummies who weren't smart enough to pack a lunch. Following the god of MTD allows us to shrug our shoulders at people without food and say, "not my problem". MTD god even gives us bonus points if we give someone a dollar or a PBJ!

The God who is made known to us in Jesus leads us to view every single person as our brother or sister, for our hearts to break when we see them suffering. Following the God of Jesus means feeling bad sometimes! Jesus sees people who are so hungry for God that they just went, not bothering to prepare for the journey. So he invites them to a miraculous meal instead of letting them go hungry as a lesson to "be prepared next time". Caring for those who don't have access to the basic means of life is a baseline requirement of the God of Jesus, not a nice extra.

Choosing the God of Jesus over the god of MTD or countless other ideas of God out there is a constant, intentional choice, and it's extremely easy to adopt other gods without even realizing it. We're not strong enough by ourselves to get it right, so we pray with Paul that we "may be strengthened in our inner being through the power of the Spirit" so we can choose to follow the God of Jesus, even when it doesn't make us feel very good.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Remembering Who We Are- Lectionary Readings for July 19

This week's lectionary readings- 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; and Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 can be found at Vanderbilt's lectionary page.

I'll be preaching on the 2 Samuel and Mark texts this week, so if you're in the greater Nashville area, come worship with us at Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin at 8:30 or 11am. Or you can listen to the message the next day on the website.

I am really drawn to David's story this week. He's entered Jerusalem as a conquering hero, the undisputed king of Israel, and now that he's on the throne, his mind starts to wander. It hasn't wandered across the street to a loyal soldier's wife just yet, though that one is coming.

David gets the notion to build a Temple for the Ark of God, because he feels guilty that he lives in a palace while God dwells in a tent. David's heart is in the right place, but God says "no, this isn't your job. I've got someone else in mind."

I can't help but wonder if this was tough for David to hear. After all, David is used to being the man, the guy who gets things done. David may have started to think that he was the only person God wanted to use to do great things. He may have started to forget that while he had done great things for God, it was God doing them through him. Jr. High kids don't slay giants on their own.

We human beings are a pretty self centered bunch. Even when our intentions are good, we find a way to make it about us. Maybe David's desire to build God a Temple came with the unspoken expectation that David's name appear on the masthead, too. His intentions are good, but as a human he finds a way to make it about him.

Paul is reminding the Ephesians that there was a time when they were far away from God, and to remember that it was God that fixed the situation, not them. They're part of this great redeeming work that God is doing, but they can't forget that God is at the center of it, not them.

In Mark's gospel, the twelve disciples Jesus sent out to preach and heal come back with stories about people being healed, demons being cast out, and all kinds of other things. "Great work, guys!" Jesus says. "Now come away and rest for a while."

The disciples, in the midst of their excitement, would have quickly found a way to make it all about them. They'd decide they were pretty awesome, and the world needed them so badly that they had to head back out there right away! Jesus tells them to rest. They're in this for the long haul, so they have to pace themselves. And if they're worried about what will happen while they're resting, they need to remember that they're not the only people God is going to use.

They get to be part of the work of God's Kingdom, but they're not the center. That's an easy thing to forget. David needed to be reminded. Jesus' disciples needed to be reminded. So do we.

Monday, July 06, 2015

The Confoundingly Messy Mixture of Bad and Good- Lectionary Readings for July 12

This week's readings from the Revised Common Lectionary (2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 and Psalm 24 or Amos 7:7-15 and Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; Mark 6:14-29) can be found at Vanderbilt's Lectionary page.

We like things to be neat, to easily fit into categories. We want good news to be all wonderful, no "buts" anywhere. We want bad news to be total, as well. We might hope for a "but" in the midst of bad news, but if we're honest, it's easier to wrap our minds around something totally awful.

Scripture keeps confounding that desire by giving us a mixture of both. Sometimes the good and the bad balance each other out, but most of the time they sit side by side, somehow coexisting with no attempt to reconcile themselves. Only the most robust theological gymnastics can get us to a place where a passage fits our desired "all or nothing" mold.

In 2 Samuel 6, David is bringing the Ark of the Covenant back to Jerusalem. This victory parade marks his full ascension to the throne, the end of years of conflict where it looked like the end for him too many times to count. Yet in the midst of the victory parade, his wife, Michal, the daughter of the recently deceased former King Saul, looks at the parade and despises David "with all of her heart". And we know that David quickly gets complacent and bored on the throne, leading to misery for nearly everyone in his life. Good news and bad sit side by side.

In Amos 7, the news is mostly bad. Israel has been getting it so wrong for so many generations that it seems as if God has finally run out of patience with them (if that idea doesn't sit well theologically, it bears mentioning that like many other  Old Testament texts, Amos was compiled and redacted during and after the time of exile being foreshadowed- we simply have to consider the bias in the source). But we know that in time the people will return, that the walls of Jerusalem will be rebuilt, that Temple worship will happen again, for a time. Good news and bad sit side by side.

The New Testament texts are similarly messy. Paul waxes poetic at the beginning of his letter to the Church at Ephesus about how what happened in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the culmination of what God has been up to all along, how this beautiful cosmic symmetry is good news for you and I, and how it all makes sense in the end. But the means by which we get there, particularly the suffering and death of Jesus of Nazareth, and to a lesser extent the trials that the early church is facing and their need for this kind of encouragement from Paul make a hard road toward the happy ending. Good news and bad sit side by side.

It's pretty much the same story in Mark's gospel. We're told in a flashback how Herod Antipas is freaked out by Jesus because of his lingering guilt over what he did to John the Baptist. His insecurity and itchy trigger finger overcame what tiny shred of decency he had. His very opportunistic wife/sister-in-law and stepdaughter/niece (ewww...) manipulated him into showing how weak he really was. But John's exit from the stage makes room for Jesus. In another telling of the story, John himself says, "He must increase and I must decrease" (John 3:30). John's martyrdom is a piece of cake compared to what Jesus endures, so part of being the lesser of the two ends up being the better option.

Sometimes the good and bad news that come to us in these readings balance each other out in a Zen-like way. But most of the time, just like in real life, they exist side by side, sometimes having very little to do with one another other than proximity.

That's why the Bible is so frustrating. That's why the Bible is so wonderful.

The Bible is so human and so divine at the same time. All these things that seem like they couldn't possibly coexist do, just like you and me. And mysteriously, unexpectedly, God is somehow in the midst of it all, somehow making sense of this giant mess we have made. It doesn't fit neatly into our preferred artificial categories.

It's confounding. It's messy. It's real. This is our story.

Monday, June 29, 2015

A Different Kind of Greatness- Lectionary readings for July 5

I'm going to try blogging again. I never made the decision to stop, but for about the last two years I've been so stressed and overwhelmed I just never had enough energy to flesh thoughts out enough to post. But now I'm in a new ministry context, part of a great staff team, and I don't have to solve every single problem that comes up!

The Staff-Parish Chair here at Christ UMC (who, incidentally I went to seminary with) asked me what was I "worried about" going from a Lead Pastor role to being on a staff. Nothing really "worries" me per say but the biggest change at the outset is not preaching every single week. So to get back in the swing of blogging, each Monday I'll post thoughts on the lectionary texts for the coming Sunday.

The readings for Sunday, July 5 can be found at Vanderbilt's Lectionary site.

In 2 Samuel 5, David takes his place as Israel's king after Saul's death, and as verse 10 tells us, "David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him." God's favor and David's greatness seems intertwined. But what did this greatness get him once he was on the throne? He murdered one of his most loyal soldiers to cover up a fling with the soldier's wife, his children fought him and each other constantly, and he died alone and miserable.

Contrast that concept of "greatness" with what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12, and how Jesus' hometown neighbors react to his teaching in Mark 6. Paul keeps asking God to remove his "thorn in the flesh", never elaborating on what it is, but God replies, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Paul is not impressing anybody on his own. Anything great that comes from him is clearly from God. It may be that Paul is the one who needs that reminder more than anyone else.

The same counter-intuitive definition of "greatness" shows up in this week's gospel reading. Jesus is astounding everyone with his teaching, but the people in his hometown can't get past the fact that he used to play baseball with their little brother, or that Jesus took their cousin to the prom (he brought her home before curfew, of course). In their minds a great rabbi should have his seminary degree from Jerusalem and wear fancy robes. The t-shirt and jeans guy I used to wrestle with on the playground can't possibly be a great teacher.

God's definition of greatness looks a whole lot different than ours. Great things from God come through the means we don't expect. It has to work that way because we human beings are so thick-headed we'll come up with any reason to explain why something happened. "That guy's just really smart." "Wow, what a crazy coincidence. You sure got lucky!" It's easier that way, because if it's all up to us, if our definition of "greatness" really is true, then we have some measure of control.

The scariest thing, perhaps the most faithful thing that we can do when something unexpected happens is not rush to explain it away, but to sit back, look around, and say "huh, maybe God's up to something here..."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Prayer for Those with Mental Illness

I came across a prayer this morning in Laurence Hull Stookey's This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer (a daily prayer guide I'd highly recommend). In light of Robin Williams' tragic death and the resulting conversations around mental illness, I thought this would be appropriate to share today:

You, O God, are the author of peace, 
and in you is neither confusion nor disorder.
In Jesus you showed your compassion 
to all who suffered with troubled spirits.
Therefore look mercifully upon those whose minds are confused, 
to whom this world seems a jumble, 
or who live in a world that does not exist.
In their times of agitation and anguish, calm their spirits.
In their times of clarity, grant them happy memories 
and joy to their present lives.
Give wisdom and gentleness to those who take care of them, 
especially to those who knew them in better times 
and now feel helpless and anguished.
Grant them all the promise that in the end 
you will restore order and peace within your eternal home.
Through Jesus, the Healer