Saturday, January 31, 2015

Reflections on the Lord's Prayer

Matthew 6:7-21 

God of all people and places, you dwell in heaven and you walk with your creation.
Your name is holy. Your deeds are amazing.

Your name is the source of all hope, joy, and consolation.
Your name is holy. Your deeds are amazing.

Your ultimate reign is that for which we dare to long.
Your name is holy. Your deeds are amazing.

Grant us what we need for today and the courage to share it with others.
Your name is holy. Your deeds are amazing.

Dissolve the guilt and shame of our sins in forgiveness and strengthen us to do the same for others.
Your name is holy. Your deeds are amazing.

Do not allow us to be waylaid by the forces that oppose you.
Your name is holy. Your deeds are amazing.

At the end of all things, draw us to yourself through Christ.

Your name is holy. Your deeds are amazing.

People like solutions. There is hardly anything more aggravating than not being able to fix something or know an answer. In this room, right now, with the human knowledge plus the technological benefit of smart phones- there are many questions that could be answered, many problems that could be solved. Facts and figures and history and science- at our fingertips, in our minds, remembered and recorded

Prayer seems like it should have a solution, or at least more facts and more tangibility. So much depends, we think, on being able to do it correctly, on solving the prayer problem, that we hardly notice when we’re praying all the time. We focus on the “how” and we forget the “who”.

            Jesus teaches disciples to pray, in Matthew’s gospel, by beginning, “Our Father in heaven, holy is your name.” God’s name is holy because it is the name upon which we can call for all things- for healing, in distress, in joy, for hope, for help. We begin by calling on the name of God because we can ask things of this name (and in this name) that cannot come from anyone or anything else.

            Yet, when people tell me they have a hard time praying, often they are concerned about “getting it wrong”. We want to have all our ducks in a row because, surely, if we pray in the right way, we will receive the thing for which we are asking. And that, right there, is the tough mystery of prayer. The part we want to solve. It is hard accept that a God who has made us, who has lived as one of us, and who sighs with us in prayer is present and at work in all things, even when our experience is bleak and dark.

            If things are improving (in the way we expect), then God must not be listening (so we think) and if God is not listening (according to us), then we must be doing it wrong (it stands to reason). We are able to do so much, so quickly now and to know so many things… waiting with mystery is hard. What is hard is uncomfortable and what is uncomfortable is to be avoided. No one ever says, “Let’s go to the park with the hard benches! I love how uncomfortable we are there.”

            Part of living in faith, in trusting God, is learning to be consoled by the mystery of God’s relationship to God’s ownself (as Father, Son, and Spirit) and the mystery of God’s relationship to us- as we experience it through prayer- our prayers with words and our prayers with actions. God is bigger than our knowledge, than our imaginations, than our dreams. We cannot solve the mystery of God. That actually is good news. A puzzle has a solution. A riddle has an answer. But God, God is forever- and we live and rest, not through our own doing, in that eternity- even when we do not understand it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: You and Me Forever (Marriage in Light of Eternity)

As far as I can tell, Paul (the apostle) liked to be right. Luther and Calvin, may they rest in peace, both liked to be right. Yet none of those three ever wrote anything like this:
“I told you! I told you it would be worth it!!! This is unbelievable!!!!!!!!” I imagine shouting that one day when I see Lisa and the kids in heaven. They will no longer be my wife and kids, but we will love each other more than ever. I picture myself looking them in the eyes and saying, “I told you He would come through! I knew He would be true to His promises. I knew every sacrifice would be worth it. This is insane! He is amazing!!!” (p. 131)
If, at the start of the world to come, someone greets me by gripping me tightly and saying, “I told you so”- I will know without a doubt, no matter the scenery, that I am in hell. Unless the voice is coming from Jesus, in which case I will fall on my knees and say, “I believed, Lord, forgive my unbelief.”

Be that as it may, Francis Chan’s You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity was not exactly hell to read, but it was not a glimpse of heaven, either. In this book, the Bible is to be taken literally. Marriage is an institution created by God and it is hetero-normative, period. Both partners exist within their commitment to one another to be certain that each will experience heaven (that is NOT a metaphor). The mission of their marriage is discipleship, a pure witness to the work of fulfilling the Great Commission (Matthew 28). Men lead, through submission to God. Women follow, through submission to God. The practical advice of the book consists of guides for both individual and mutual conversation, study, and prayer.

How many times did I want to throw this book against the wall? Many. However, I more frequently found myself despairing. Chan and I, theoretically want the same thing. First, that the world may come to know and trust in the grace, mercy, and faithfulness of God as those truths were revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. Second, that marriage would be understood to be a loving partnership for faithful growth and support- a sacramental gift from God that is the foundation of hope, stability, sanctification, and peace in communities. Our ability to agree on even these two sentences can only occur in a sterile environment because once we hit the ground, we are at odds which is lamentable to God (as far as I understand 1 Corinthians).

Chan writes:
Things are different nowadays. Sin is more accessible and acceptable. Two specific areas come to mind, both deadly to marriage: pornography and flirting.When I was a kid, a guy had to let everyone in the store know he was a pervert when he walked to the counter to buy a Playboy magazine. These days, people can look endlessly at pornography on the privacy of their own phones. And many don’t even consider that perverted. It’s the norm!When I was a kid, a woman would have to flirt with a man face to face, in a normal social setting. Once again, there was the shame of people seeing it and labeling her a “whore” or “slut”. Now with Facebook and text messaging, women and men can approach each other in secret to test the waters. And the affairs that spring from it, as well as the divorces that result from it, have become more acceptable. Even in the church. (26)
When I read the Bible, it seems to me that sin was fairly accessible to our forefathers and foremothers in the faith. None of them seemed to struggle with finding ways to violate God’s covenants and laws. If God is the same- yesterday, today, and forever, then, sadly, the forces that oppose God are the same. They may have shiny new ways to tempt, but they are no more powerful than they ever were or ever will be. Arguing that humans are more sinful or that evil is more prevalent denies the reality of history and the reality of God’s relationship to creation in history.

Furthermore, all sin (sexual and otherwise) is a result of failing to acknowledge that God alone is God (here Chan and I would agree). Thus, breaking the first commandment (I am the Lord your God, have no other gods before me) happens when we objectify and deify anything- bodies, natural resources, money, work, power, control. The examples Chan gives do not go deep enough to the reality of sin, a felt separation from God in the world. They are superficial, shaming examples with no followed-up basis for repair or correction. The failure of the church in this situation is not a failure to preach strongly enough against pornography, adultery, or divorce. It is a failure to lift up the reality that ALL is a gift from God- our bodies, the bodies of others, our sexuality, natural resources, other animals, money, time, talents. Failure to respect and honor God’s glory revealed in all of these is a perversion of God’s desires. Period. There is no hierarchy in sin.

According to Chan, many churches lack faithful elders who can teach the faith and the faith lived out in long marriages.
In speaking to young adults in America, they tell me of how they would love to be mentored by older people who are living by faith. But they can’t find any. Some may be joyful and friendly, but no longer living by faith. Sadly, their lives consist of visiting grandkids and taking vacations. Some are still acquiring more possessions, hoping to make the best of their last few days on earth. (185)
I recently did two back-to-back funerals. One for a man, aged 93, who had been married to the same woman for 68 years. He had been a stalwart member of three congregations, quietly revealing his faith in service and perseverance. The second service was for a pastor who died just short of 70 years of ordination. His funeral was standing room only. His wife of 63 years sat just to the side of his casket. Until just before he died, he could tell you what psalm he wanted to hear for the day and why. There are many older people who live by faith, but maybe not in the churches Chan visits. Has he encouraged these seeking young people to find faithful elders in the churches where they might be (mainline denominations) or do they lament together with no action, but prayer?

All in all, this book was disappointing. Other reviews praise it, but they seem to be people who knew what they would hear when they read the book. That’s called preaching to the choir. The literal Biblical interpretation, the frank substitutionary atonement (as the only understanding), and the failure to acknowledge the mixed history of marriage as an institution and the church’s need to grapple with that fact all combine to prevent me from recommending this book to anyone.

You need to know that this theology is out there and that your parishioners will encounter it. Since I can’t recommend this book and I don’t have a ready-made suggestion to go in its place, I’ll make an alternate recommendation.

I suggest that instead of reading this book, you re-read the book of Ruth and consider the following 1) that God took generations to bring healing out of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, 2) the most famous words of commitment in the Bible are between a daughter-in-law to her mother-in-law, 3) marriage is a wholly different scenario in the Scriptures, and 4) we are all called to emulate the righteousness of Boaz by using our time, resources, and faith in redeeming those who would be left on the margins.

I received You and Me Forever: Marriage in Light of Eternity (Francis and Lisa Chan) for review. I was not offered anything in exchange for the review other than a copy of the book.

This review was first published for RevGalBlogPals:

Reflections on the Beatitudes

If I could ask Jesus a question or two about Matthew 5, my first question would be this: What do you mean “blessed are”? Does it mean that mourning is a blessed state that is to be pursued? Does it mean that we find a sense of blessing or a tangible blessing when mourning happens in our lives, but we don’t need to seek it out? Is mourning a basic reality of a faithful life and so we will receive the blessings that inherent in that life, through mourning and these other realities?

This passage seems confusing to most of us. It seems like a good one to hear on All Saints’ Day or at a funeral, when we can attribute the blessings to those faithful who have died and now rest in light. They have inherited and surely now they are blessed. As for the rest of us, we just muddle about as best we can.

How, then, do we sort out the bits about salt and light? Or that part about the law?

When Matthew, the author of this gospel, wrote, he was organizing the teachings and works of Jesus for a Christian community of Jews and Gentiles, people gathered in hope for the kingdom of God at hand. Matthew knows that the spread of the gospel, the very reality of God’s relationship with creation, depends in large part on this early community understanding what is at stake for them in following Christ.

They cannot take for granted that it will be easy or that they will not suffer. The struggle itself is not what brings blessing. There is an inherent state of blessedness, of inner joy and peace, that comes from knowing that the kingdom is at hand and that God has chosen to use you as part of how it comes about. Participating in God’s work- seasoning a community with faithful, loving action that points to the Light that does not fail gives shape to discipleship.

This cannot be achieved through personal, private inward religious or spiritual thought. It is a truth born out in sweat, tears, blood, water, and wine. For the early Christians, it was only when they gave themselves fully and knew that God fully using all that they had… it was then that they perceived the truth of this great sermon that there is blessing enough in being a child of God and knowing that alone is constant and unfailing.

It is the same for Christians today.             

Be Blessed

God has brought us too far to leave us now.

The Lord is with us in times of trouble,
God has brought us too far to leave us now.

The Lord is with us in our hunger for mercy and our pursuit of justice,
God has brought us too far to leave us now.

The Lord is with us in time of humility and humbling.
God has brought us too far to leave us now.

The Lord is with us in the depth of righteous anger.
God has brought us too far to leave us now.

The Lord is with us in the height of peacemaking and reconciliation.
God has brought us too far to leave us now.

We are the salt God uses to season creation and the lamps through which God’s own light shines.

God has brought us too far to leave us now.

Selma and Excuses

When rejecting an invitation, according to Amy Sedaris, one simply says, “I can’t come.” You don’t add a reason. “Anything after ‘because’ is bullshit,” according to Sedaris. That’s what I think of when I see the dearth of nominations for Selma in the Oscars. There weren’t more because the movie didn’t play the game, send out screeners, open earlier, deal with political backlash well. Frankly, my dear, anything after because is bullshit.

I have already seen Selma twice and I’m trying to figure out when I will see it at least a third and maybe a fourth time. I am not much of a moviegoer. I think I saw three movies last year. Selma, though, is a big screen phenomenon. There is a nuance in the faces, in the looks, in the gritted teeth and the beads of sweat that will be missed on a small screen. Furthermore, there is a public sensitivity to the directing that is palpable when one is sitting in proximity to other bodies, hearing the gasps, sighs, cheers, and tears.

David Oyelowo is as powerful an actor as I have ever seen. The movie was not permitted, for various reasons, to use any of the actual speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The script, then, had to be written for the power, syntax, and deliver of one of the greatest preachers in American history. Oyelowo delivers like the prophet Dr. King was. In the scene where Coretta Scott King, played by Carmen Ejogo, confronts him about infidelity, one thousand emotions play across his face, before any words are spoken. I haven’t seen all most of the “Best Actor” nominees, but I am not really open to hearing why Oyelowo wasn’t chosen. Anything after “because” is bullshit.

There has been quite the furor over the portrayal of President Lyndon Baines Johnson in the movie. Those concerned with his legacy argue that the movie portrays him as obstructionist to the voting rights of blacks in a way that is unfair to his true feelings and his true actions. LBJ was the consummate politician of our time. Generally known as an SOB and someone who made deals to get things done, he comes across as profoundly true to character in the film.

While it is certainly true that LBJ was a powerful force in advancing the paperwork and legality of civil rights in this country, it is also true that he did not do all the legwork or showing up that was possible. So the movie didn’t make LBJ into the savior figure that some want him to be. Too bad. There are plenty of other films of historical figures that aren’t letter perfect to character, motivation, and/or action. Should we destroy them all? I just want a one-word answer, since anything after “because” is bullshit.

The reality of Selma that sticks in my head is how King and others grapple with the reality that the response to the non-violent protests means some people will likely be killed. Each of the leaders is weighing in the balance the lives of those who will come, who will march, who will be beaten, with the denied full civil and human rights of an entire group of people. Children, elders, and bright young adults will be slaughtered out of sheer hatred, malice, and fear. The film has some footage of the actual Selma to Montgomery march, in which you see not only the marchers, but white people standing along the sides of the roads- flipping middle fingers, spitting, showing the Confederate flag, screaming. As those faces go by, I can’t help but think, “For shame. There is no explanation. Anything after ‘because’ is bullshit.”

There is something about Selma- about seeing innocent black bodies, beaten and broken in the street. There is something about knowing that the denial of the vote to many people is still ongoing. There is something about seeing the terrorist act of bombing a church and killing four little girls and knowing that no one paid for that crime until years later. There is something about seeing an all-white slate of best actor and actress nominees. There is something about denying the recognition of even a Best Director nomination to Ava DuVernay.

These things say that we are not yet post-racial. We are not yet to a place of equality for all Americans. We have not reached the mountaintop. We are still working to overcome.

There is a scene in Selma when Dr. King is confronting John Lewis and James Forman, the sons of thunder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He tells them that SNCC is concerned with “raising black consciousness”, but the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is concerned with “raising white consciousness”. This work is not done as long as any body of any color can be and is denied both the actual and the implied rights that are inherent to all American citizens. Until that day, we must stay awake, keep our consciousness elevated, and keep our feet marching forward in work of praying with our votes, our dollars, our letters, our sermons, our prayers, our neighbor love, and our rejection of the false idols of Oscar recognition.

To those who say “no” to this call, we know what you are. No qualifiers, explanations, or caveats are needed. Anything after “because” is bullshit.

Originally published on RevGalBlogPals:

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Inspiration of the Living Word (Sermon)

2nd Sunday in Christmas

Sirach 24:1-12; Wisdom 10:15-21; Ephesians 1:2-14; John 1:1-18

            Today we had readings from the books of Sirach and the Wisdom of Solomon. Most of you probably don’t have those books in your Bible. (Yes/no?) These two books, along with Judith, Tobit, I and II Macabees, Baruch, and Esther, make up the seven extra books that appear in the bibles of the Roman Catholic Church, but not usually in Protestant bibles.
If they appear in your Bible, and you don’t have a “Catholic” bible, they will appear in a section called the “Apocrypha”.

            These seven books were written in a four-hundred year space that is otherwise unaccounted for through the history of the Hebrew Scriptures and the start of the New Testament books. They were originally written in Greek and not in Hebrew. At least one council of Jewish leaders rejected these books for the canon , or collection, of the Hebrew Scriptures.

            Some later Christian Councils debated keeping them in the canon- with some saying yes and some, no. For our purposes, Luther rejected them as since they were not written in Hebrew, noting they were useful reading, but weren’t at the same level as sacred scripture. When Luther set them aside in this manner, it raised a debate forever as to whether these texts should or should not be included in Bibles- collections of sacred texts.

            Furthermore, there is much heat as to whether these books can be considered “inspired” if they are not part of the sacred canon. Can God inspire words and work that are not part of the printed and bounded bible? (I should say so, otherwise Martin Luther’s whole career is somewhat questionable.)

            By reading from these texts, just like singing hymns or offering prayers written by ourselves or spoken extemporaneously, we are acknowledging God’s ongoing work in the world. We are saying that God is not done, that God is still speaking, that God’s work continues. When we look to poetry or painting, wood carving or theater, quilting or knitting, we see that God’s majesty and might did not have an expiration date. God’s revelatory power was not limited to one place, one language, or one group of people.

            We are still in the Christmas season, wherein the heart of the message is God’s self-revelation through flesh and blood, Jesus as Emmanuel- God with us. As a baby- a real, live, crying, eliminating, eating, baby- Jesus shows us God’s tendency to be revealed in the usual, the simple, the regular, the ordinary, the normal and thereby transform these things into new realities.

            The upshot of today’s sermon is not that we should include the seven deutero-canonical books in Protestant bibles. It is that the arguments that “because they are not in there, they do not count as ‘inspired’” are ridiculous. If we are to learn anything in this season of shepherds, young unmarried mothers, confused, but earnest fathers, magi, angels, and innkeepers, it has to be that there is not a limit to God’s ability to inspire, to use, to shape, and to create. The human failure to understand this is not a failure of orthodoxy, it is a failure of faithful imagination- rooted in the truth of grace and forgiveness.

            We live in a world that shames people who struggle with their identities, with self-understanding, with rejection, and with trusting in the reality of God’s expansiveness. Understanding God’s inspiration to be broader that we’ve ever imagined, broader than the Church has allowed, broader than we dare to hope- is the gift of Christmas that is for all people. It is the Christmas message that we are to carry.

            Both of today’s readings were about wisdom- as a part of God and as a gift of God. In more than one place in the Bible, including in Proverbs and Job, it says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom…” What does the fear of the Lord look like? I believe it begins with an unwillingness to limit God, a refusal to box God in or nail him down.

            Thus we turn, like John the baptizer or the writer of Ephesians, and proclaim the lavishness of grace, the incredibility of the Word made flesh, and the glory of God we understand to have been revealed through Jesus. And then we swallow deeply- in grief or joy or worry or hope- and say, “And God is not done yet.”

Merry Christmas.