Friday, January 28, 2011

Five Fave Verses

The Friday Five is to list five of my favorite Bible verses.

In no particular order and feeling limited:

1. But God said to Jonah, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?’ And he said, ‘Yes, angry enough to die.’ Then the Lord said, ‘You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?’ (Jonah 4:9-11)

This verse always tells me that God has a sense of humor, that God loves and intends all creation for salvation and that God is very, very, very patient. I know someone who likes to point out that the greatest miracle in the book of Jonah isn’t the whale, it’s a whole city repenting. Indeed.

2. When they told Mordecai what Esther had said, Mordecai told them to reply to Esther, “Do not think that in the king’s palace you will escape any more than all the other Jews. For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:12-14)

I don’t tend to believe in that God has orchestrated all the details of our lives, but I do believe that God’s hands are always at work in us and around us and sometimes we just look up and, um, suddenly the world’s need and our skills and passions meet. (Buechner’s definition of vocation) Sometimes you are where you are for reason and God goes before you and the Spirit pushes behind you. And you try not to screw it up in your bold sinning.

3. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13)

I think we should beware verses that get plaque-ified, ubiquitious and impotent. But I don’t see why we don’t see THIS verse a lot more.

4. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. (Revelation 21:3-6)

I know the author is citing Isaiah, but I like it summed up in this post-resurrection, end-time way. God makes all things new, not all new things. I can’t say anything more since I can’t think over the sound of “Blessed Assurance” in my head.

5. Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. (John 8:34-36)

Every Reformation Day I think, “This text, again?” Then I read, gulp down the lump that forms in my throat and think, “Thank God for this text. Again.” 

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What is Church for?

I'm reading Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth right now and it's stirring up all kinds of things within my head. It's a novel about the building of a cathedral, among other events, in 12th century England (1100s). The discussion around the monks, priors and religious life both frustrates me and makes me realize that not as much has changed in the church as one would think. I'll write a different post about my reaction to peasants/lay people helping to build the cathedral in exchange for forgiveness of sins, something else is moving me right now.

I read this part earlier this morning:
Sermons were becoming more common in churches. They had been rare when Philip was a boy. Abbot Peter had been against them, saying they tempted the priest to indulge himself. The old-fashioned view was that the congregation should be mere spectators, silently witnessing the mysterious holy rites, hearing the Latin words without understanding them, blindly trusting in the efficacy of the priest's intercession. But ideas had changed. Progressive thinkers nowadays no longer saw the congregation as mute observers of a mystical ceremony. The Church was supposed to be an integral part of their everyday existence. It marked the milestones in their lives, from christening, through marriage and the birth of children, to extreme unction and burial in consecrated ground. It might be their landlord, judge, employer or customer. Increasingly, people were expected to be Christians every day, not just on Sundays. They needed more than just rituals, according to the modern view: they wanted explanations, rulings, encouragement, exhortation. (Follett, Ken. Pillars of the Earth. Penguin Group, USA. November 2007. p. 533) 
Wow. That's what I feel like I'm working with now- 1800 years later. Except I don't know that I ever had an idea that the Church was landlord, judge, etc. (though sometimes a church is). Even in this hardscrabble English village, people know there is something more they can get from their ecclesial experience.

Somehow, though, we're still in this framework. The Church provides certain services, particularly to its members, and eyes the rest of the world (and life) with suspicion or from a distance. Even now, when churches are struggling, the greatest concern is turning inward and being sure we continue to care for those who are already inside. Yet, that's hardly what Jesus did, encouraged or commanded. The Bible consoles, but it also charges, convicts and creates.

I think we are, again or still, in a time and place where people don't want empty ritual. They want meaning, understanding and purpose. But those things come with a price. They mean examining God's desire for the world and trying to align ourselves with that desire (as opposed to aligning God with ourselves). "Explanation, rulings, encouragement [and] exhortation" all come with great pressure to the preacher and to the congregation.

The leader must seek God's vision and be brave in proclaiming it. The congregation must realize that what they are hearing is meant to stir up, not smooth down, move forward, not put down, and open conversation, not shut it down.

I don't preach to indulge myself, but because the Word doesn't sit silently within me. It agitates me until it comes out- in one way or another. (If you've ever talked to me, you understand how that happens eventually.) However, I can indulge myself in preaching- I could fall more easily to consolation than challenge and, thus, neglect the exhortation- that part that's supposed to get people (you) moving.

"Increasingly, people were expected to be Christians every day, not just Sunday." I know that. I think congregations know that. Am I equipping people to live that way? Are we encouraging one another to live that way?

Indeed the church has lasted beyond the 12th century because of the people who carried the Word out and forward. There are always mysteries about faith, but we don't have to be mysterious about faith. The more open, the more focused, the more determined we are to carry the gospel into the far corners of the earth, the more we realize that the Spirit has gone ahead of us and goes with us yet.

We have to move beyond the rituals. We're still working on that.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Friday Five: Books

For once the Friday Five plays to my strength: my love of books.

So tell us what you're reading, what you would and would not recommend--five books or authors! And if you don't want to do that freestyle, here are some questions:

1. What books have you recently read? Tell us your opinion of them.

I recently read True Grit (Charles Portis) and was amazed at the swift plot, the sharp language and the clear characterization of the novel. It's held up well. I've also read The Fortune Cookie Chronicles (Lee), The Partly Cloudy Patriot (Vowell), and Bucolic Plague (Kilmer-Purcell). 

2. What books are awaiting your available time to be read?

I'm currently working on It Must Have Been Something I Ate (Steingarten) and Pillars of the Earth (Follett), as well as well as A Field Guide for the Missional Congregation (Rouse). In the soon to be read pile are Weekends at Bellevue (Holland) and Deadly Sins- a collection of essays from the New Yorks Times Book Review.

I have a continuing ed event in February combined with a little vacation and I'm looking to read Storyteller (Sturrock) (the biography of Roald Dahl), The Outlander (Gabaldon) (can it REALLY be as good as I've heard) and Hillel:If Not Now, When (Telushkin). 

I also just received notice that I'm going to get a copy of Fortunate Sons (Leibovitz) to review, so I'll have to get to that at some point. 
3. Have any books been recently recommended?

I recently crossed my 1000th book threshold (since 2002) and received many recommendations including The Boneshaker (Milford) and Shantarum (Roberts). 

4. What genre of books are your favorite, along with some titles and/or authors you like best?

I like travel narratives (Bill Bryson), historical/Biblical fiction (a la The Red Tent) and well-written biographies (Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex). 

5. What have you read lately that you have a strong urge to recommend? (or to condemn?)

I really enjoyed reading My Life in France, Julia Child's autobiography. Her voice has such enthusiasm and a great deal of joie de vivre shone through the book. It helps to know some French. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

I recently read True Grit, the novel by Charles Portis and went to see the new film adaptation. I remembered not loving the John Wayne version and I'm smitten with the new one. I'm already scheming for a way to see it in again in the theater.

The soundtrack to the movie is spare and slightly haunting. Throughout the movie, the background music is variations on the the old hymn, "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms". If you know this song at all, the chorus "Leaning (on Jesus), leaning (on Jesus), safe and secure from all alarms" is probably the most familiar part.

In the book, Mattie Ross is a staunch Presbyterian. You don't get that so much in the movie, though she does say that the only that's free in this life is God's grace. Yet the song plays throughout the movie with seemingly no connection to Jesus.

Thus I've been trying to ponder what the "everlasting arms" in the movie are. The positions of the Federal Marshall and Texas Ranger? The bond of people who've made a contract? The good against the bad (though that's not the clearest line)? Is it a reference to God that I'm missing? (Perhaps the Coen Brothers are intimating that while we may well take matters of earthly justice into our own hands, we are still leaning on Jesus.)

The question of whether or not "everlasting arms" could be the marshall or the ranger is an interesting one for me. I was thinking recently of what to say to my child about what to do if he gets lost (when he can talk). Who do I tell him to go to? Though most, nearly all, police, teachers, pastors/clergy and strangers are trustworthy, I have personal experiences that make me queasy about each of those as a category. I know many fine individuals in each of those groups, though. Thus, I'm hesitant to assume that a Federal marshall or a Texas Ranger are worthy on the authority of their badges.

And maybe that's something along the lines of what Mattie learns as well. She's a cynical and skeptical young woman, but in order to avenge the death of her father, she has to rely on men she hires on faith- the faith that they will do what they promise, fulfillment through character, not just job description.

In the end, what one person does reflects on a whole profession. And each of us is more than our title. We go forward and forward and forward, knowing that nothing is free except the real presence and the felt absence of the grace of God. True grit, indeed.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Not Safe for Children

Last week, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to explain the concept of the "Lamb of God" to children. It's hard to make the leap, for kids, between Jewish heritage and Christian imagery, between a sacrificial lamb and Jesus, between the ideas of corporate and individual sin. I decided to talk about baptism again, but there were no kids for my children's sermon.

I actually spend a lot of time thinking about to explain Bible stories to people of all ages. Since I have a background in developmental psychology, I have a very pressing awareness of the concepts a child might grasp at a given age, concepts that might be challenging, concepts that will be far over their head. Most of the children I'm around are still very concrete thinkers and Scripture is difficult to explain to concrete thinkers, unless you default to the object lesson. (Something I avoid.)

I like to joke that there are three basic story lines for young children: 1) God loves you, 2) God made everything and 3) God helps us to love other people. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But as I go through Bible stories, occasionally it's hard to sort out what the concrete lesson could be from popular stories. The Flood? The Garden of Eden? The crucifixion? Hosea? Okay, maybe Hosea doesn't come up that often, but I think you see my point.

Life-long church attendees say to me, "I grew up hearing those stories and I know what they mean. I don't remember not knowing. I'm fine." True enough, but if you've been in or around church for most of your life- there were people around you to absorb some of the more difficult details and walk you through them as you aged.

That's not always the case. What happens when the 9 or 10-year-old suddenly asks, "What happened to all the people who weren't on the ark?" What about the sensitive child who feels overwhelmed by the idea that Jesus died for her sins and who begins resisting going to church because of her confusion and guilt? What about the preschoolers who blink at the idea of the "Lamb of God", "the sins of the world" and "mercy upon us"?

Children's sermons and services have to be thought through very carefully, for the sake of the children, for the sake of the gospel and for the sake of Christ.

Then, of course, the question eventually becomes, "When do we deal with these things? When do we face the inadequacies of our understanding, the annoyances of translation, the bounds of time and space?" When do we want to talk about them with our children? When do we want to discuss them amongst ourselves?