Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Who is my neighbor?

Who is my neighbor? In the gospel, those words lead into the famous story about the Samaritan who took time to stop when others didn't, couldn't or wouldn't. When we think about that phrase, we're often pointed to the downtrodden and disheartened in communities around us. That is a good place to look, to be sure, but does anyone ever look at the person sitting next to them in the pew?

What has happened to the community in the church? In a time of busyness and over-scheduling, church does not need to be just "another thing to do", but what can it be? What do you expect to receive from your faith community?

Recently I have heard many people lamenting the changed times, when it is difficult to get people to come to confirmation or weeknight Bible studies or Sunday night youth group- things that were congregational staples even ten years ago. So what happened?

I don't know that the answer to this question is one about "making time for God"; maybe it is a question about neighboring. Perhaps the church isn't the second social home for people anymore. Maybe it's not where people want to be and they get all they need from church on Sunday mornings. And yet- the whys and hows of ultimate concerns remain in the hearts of people everywhere and they look to faith communities to point to the blowing of the Spirit in the world.

People say they wish they had more time or that the church offered more things to meet their needs. Where would these things- Bible studies, support groups, alternate worship services- come from? Your pastor cannot do it all. The church council cannot do it all. The body of Christ needs limbs and God's wind does blow over dry bones. Are you open to that?

In the story of the Samaritan who stopped, there is a priest who did not. We often think it was because he didn't want to touch the impure body of the beaten man. That reaction was not borne out of squeamishness, but from the exhausted knowledge of knowing if he did touch the man (who might be dead) there were a variety of purity rituals to perform and prohibitions in effect if he touched blood or discharge or dead flesh. The priest did not stop because he knew the extra work it would create and he hoped someone else would do it.

With the knowledge of the priesthood of all believers, have we forgotten the importance of being a Samaritan?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Paul's Conversion

In the Christian calendar, today is the day we celebrate the conversion of Paul. Paul remained a Jew for all of his life, but when he was embraced by Christ- he took the message of Jesus to the world in a new way and a new light. Here's how Frederick Buechner describes the call of Saul of Tarsus:

He was still in charge of a Pharisee goon squad in those days and was hell-bent for Damascus to round up some trouble-making Christians and bring them to justice. And it happened. It was about noon when he was knocked flat by a blaze of ligt that made the sun look like a forty-watt bulb, and out of the light came a voice that called him by his Hebrew name twice. "Saul," it said, and then again, "Saul. Why are you out to get me?" and when he pulled himself together enough to ask who it was he had the honor of addressing, what he heard to his horror was, "I'm Jesus of Nazareth, the one you're out to get." We're not told how long he lay there in the dust then, but it must have seemed at least six months. If Jesus of Nazareth had what it took to burst out of the grave like a guided missile, he thought, then he could polish off one bowlegged Christian-baiter without even noticing it, and Paul waited for the axe to fall. Only it wasn't an axe that fell. "Those boys in Damascus," Jesus said. "Don't fight them, join them. I want you on my side, " and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment. He was blind as a bat for three days afterwards, but he made it to Damascus anyway and was baptized on the spot. He was never the same again, and neither, in a way, was the world (Acts 9:1-6, 22:4-16, 26:9-18). (Peculiar Treasures, 146)

It is difficult to imagine what the Bible would be like without Paul's letters. Our understanding of grace and much of the language we use to describe God's actions toward us is straight from his pen (via translators, redactors and years). Yet could it be more appropriate that the man whose conscience was burdened with the knowledge of years of persecuted Christians (at his hands) could inspire, comfort and teach generations of believers.

It is good to remember that if God can, did and does use Paul... you too are being used for the good of the kingdom. And you've qualified for that job through Christ's resume. For your thoughts today, here are some of the most inspired words that flowed from Paul's stylus, words that he had reason and hope to believe in with his whole heart:

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 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 8:31-39

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Curiosity

"Curiosity is the unknown fruit of the Spirit, the stealthy expression of God's presence." - Michael Yaconelli (Dangerous Wonder, 44)

As I was reading today, this sentence burned a whole in my mind. We do not often embrace curiosity as an element of faith, as something we should embody as people of God. Yet Jacob was curious enough about that angel to wrestle a blessing out of him. Thomas was curious enough to demand further evidence of the risen Christ. Mary was curious enough to ask the "gardener" where she could find the Jesus' body.

Curiosity implies an active faith. A faith that demands answers to questions and wrestles with mystery is a faith that is in continual renewal and relationship with God. Curiosity spurs us onward, turns us outward and pulls us forward toward the presence and the answers of God, revealed in the world.

What are you curious about? How curious are you? What can you do about it?

Friday, January 18, 2008

A Light shines in the darkness

I recently read a book by a well-known Catholic author and I was surprised at how much this writer seemed to struggle with what he could do to make himself accept God's grace, which highlighted his larger struggle of whether or not such grace is for him. He repeatedly discussed how far away he felt from God and how God wants to grace the world.

The thing is, what God wants to do, God does. God does not watch us from afar, waiting for us to say the magic words to merit forgiveness, grace or the gift of greater faith. God gives us these things because of who God is.

It is important not to confuse the mysterious side of God with the idea that God is distant. God does have a side we do not understand. Think of the seven thunders in Revelation 10:3b-4. The author is told not to write about them and this reminds us that we do not know everything about the mind of God.

However, we do know about the promises of God. In Jesus' words at the end of Matthew, he promises to be with the disciples even to the end of the earth. God who has been revealed as the Alpha and the Omega, the A and the Z, is also everything in between. God has promised to be with us, throughout all of our lives. Though we may not always be able to sense or comprehend our presence, God doesn't leave us.

There used to be an old saying, "If you don't feel God, He isn't the one who moved." God does move, though, through us, in us and for us. God is with us in the pigpen, when we search for the lost coin, when we are thirsty at the well, when we are at the bedside of a loved one, when we are in our dark night of the soul.

God's ways are not our ways and God remains a mystery, which is why God supplies our faith. But for proximity, God, who has promised to do so, remains with us always and is never further away than the hairs on our heads.