Thursday, October 28, 2010

Changes in latitudes, changes in platitudes

Right now I'm reading the apocryphal book of "Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus Son of Sirach."  For all of its wordy and self-important title, I find this book to be drab.  Today's passage was concerned with etiquette while at banquets and how to exercise proper restraint while drinking wine as if that was the end all and be all of morality.  Boring.

Unfortunately, much of modern Christianity harps on platitudes like these, pretending that they represent some greater ethical Truth.  "Good Christian boys wash their hands before they eat."   Actually, I think Jesus wasn't all that concerned with how clean you are before you eat (see Mark 7).  Or, when somebody dies, "well, he was a good person, so he's in heaven now" (check out John 14). 

Many modern Christians adhere to what scholars call "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism."  MTD essentially says that God created the world and wants us to be happy, that we don't need to ask God for anything unless things get bad, and that good people go to heaven.  This isn't Christianity; this is a way to feel good about yourself.

True Christianity looks beyond these platitudes and is centered upon a life: Jesus Christ.  Christians want to lead holy lives, not for the sake of being nice, but for the sake of Gospel.  Christianity should make us uncomfortable, it is not be all about being nice to one another and believing that "good people go to heaven." 

Christianity is about following Jesus.  Lord knows that the Lord wasn't nice all the time.


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

i'm back...

Attention all dedicated readers, periodical perusers, semi-regular skimmers: I apologize for my absence from the blogosphere.  Since last Monday, I have traveled to Baltimore once and to Camp Allen twice.  My blogging, and sadly, my scriptural study and personal prayer life has suffered during these travels.

I'll be back to my regularly scheduled blog starting tomorrow morning.  Until then: Peace.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Faithful readers and friends: currently I am in Baltimore at a continuing education conference put on by the seminary. And this is from my phone, and my fingers are already beginning to hurt.

But here it is, the Bible is funny. It is okay to laugh when Psalm 39 says "my heart is hot within me." All I could think of was some southern belle fanning herself after a strapping young "beau" asked to be her partner on the square dance.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

one meal, one ship, one life

Paul, the brave apostle to the Gentiles, while a prisoner for the sake of the Lord, is taken on board a ship so that he may sail to Rome and proclaim his defense of the Way before the emperor.  The seas turn angry, the sun cannot pierce the pall of rain, and the ship is rocked and buffeted by the rain and reef.  The sailors, fearing for their lives, have forsaken food for fourteen days as they struggle to keep their ship upright in the midst of such a tempest.

Aware of their physical and emotional state, Paul urges the sailors to take and eat so that they may be strengthened.  To set an example, Paul takes bread, give thanks to God, breaks the loaf, and begins to eat.  These were the same divine actions that Jesus initiated at the Last Supper and at the feeding of the multitudes.  And now, here on board a battered ship upon a tempestuous sea, Paul imitates his Lord and Sovereign by offering holy food for sustenance and strength in the storm.

When the ship of our lives are in danger of being capsized, when the storm of life is too much to bear, when exhaustion from our futile attempts to hold things together threaten to topple our sails, we need not go hungry.  There is a meal, a gift from Christ, that is strength and sustenance throughout the storm of our lives.  A thankful sliver of bread, a humble taste of wine, and we find that we are not alone on this rocking ship of life.  Ah yes, that ship of our lives has a Captain, one who will steer us through to fairer seas.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

it's a holy sort of vomit

Let's be serious: Jonah is one of the greatest books of the Bible.  It's such a weird, revealing, powerful, and fantastic story, that I love going over it again and again.  We don't know anything about Jonah, other than the fact that he tries to run from God's call.  He's faithful and faithless, wimpy and brave all at the same time.  In other words, Jonah is us.

From the midst of the great fish that God sends to swallow this would-be prophet, Jonah offers one of the most heartfelt and sincere prayers that I have ever encountered.  Even from inside this watery tomb he proclaims: "But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay.  Deliverance belongs to the Lord!" (Jonah 2:9)

And Jonah was delivered indeed.  The NRSV translation of the Bible says that the great fish "spewed Jonah out upon the dry land" (2:10).  That's right, the fish vomited Jonah. 

What I'm getting at is this: when we find ourselves in sticky situations, when it seems that everything we're doing is going wrong and when we pray for deliverance, God will release us.  But it may not be pretty.  Our deliverance may be covered over with some "holy vomit."  It may require tears and heartbreak to be spewed out from our watery tombs.  Thanks be to God that, no matter how sticky, messy, and smelly that deliverance may be, we will find ourselves upon a fair shore.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Defenestration of Conviction

Just yesterday at the St. Alban's Youth Group, or, as I like to call them, "Teenage Theologians," we ran through the whole Bible in just 45 minutes.  I talked fast, drew a lot of pictures on the whiteboard, and told some really great Bible stories.  Part of my plan, and I think it worked, was to show that some of its stories aren't exactly what we would call "holy" and that the Bible doesn't always agree with itself.

Take what we have from Micah 6.  Throughout the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, there are lists of laws describing and prescribing the ritual sacrifices that are to be offered to God.  There are sacrifices for all manner of conditions, emotions, and events in the life of a person. 

But then we encounter the prophet Micah, and we are presented with a totally different outlook.  "Will the Lord be pleased with thousands or rams, and with ten thousands of rivers of oil?" The answer is a loud NO.  What the Lord is truly pleased with is to do what is good: "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Micah 6:8). 

But that's the great thing about the Bible.  We think we get it, and then we read a little bit more, and all of the sudden, everything we had thought was right is thrown out the window.  It's the defenestration of conviction! 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

who are we?

Paul testifies before Felix, one of the Roman authorities, and is also confronted by some of the Jewish authorities.  The Jewish leaders claim that Paul is a "ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes" (Acts 24:6).  Jesus, being from Nazareth, is identified as the leader of a sect.  But Paul won't have any of that, claiming, "that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our ancestors" (24:14).

So what's the big deal?  Who cares is his detractors call him a Nazarene and he says he belongs to the Way?  Isn't that just like the difference between being an Episcopalian and a Methodist?

Well, no, actually.  Because it is a definitive statement on who Jesus is. 

If Paul claims that he is a Nazarene, that means that Jesus was primarily some guy from Nazareth.  He lived, had some followers, but then died.  All in all, the most important part of Jesus was that he was from Nazareth.

But this isn't the case, and that's what Paul is contending when he claims that he worships God according to the Way.  For Paul, Jesus was much more than some man from some forgotten little town.  Jesus is living, having been resurrected from the dead.  Paul follows the Way of Jesus, he doesn't just acknowledge that he's from Nazareth.

For us, it's the difference between saying "I believe in God" and "I follow God."  We can believe all sorts of things but never do anything about it.  I believe that the world is round, but that doesn't change my life.  But I follow Jesus, and that one fact has changed my entire life.  And indeed, it has changed the life of the world.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

conspiracy theory

Don't you love a good conspiracy theory?  And there are a lot of really good (read "outlandish") ones out there.  The moon landing hoax, global warming conspiracy, JFK assassination conspiracy theories, 9/11 conspiracy theories, One World government theories and on and on.

I think, that like many folks, I pay little attention to these conspiracy theories and move on with my life.  I'm pretty sure we landed on the moon, and I'm pretty sure that is incredibly awesome.

But, every once in awhile, we happen upon a conspiracy that proves to be true.  Seriously, just check out Acts 23.  An angry group of men join in a conspiracy intent on killing the apostle Paul.  By hook or by crook, Paul's nephew hears about this conspiracy and is able to warn both his uncle and the Roman authorities.  Paul is rescued from the secret plot to take his life.

Perhaps we can learn something from this: the danger of binding ourselves to such covert tasks as killing Paul.  It is frighteningly easy for us to get so wound up and worried about a situation that we lose our common sense and choose to shout down our opponents rather than listen to them.  Rather than allowing the Holy Spirit to move us to new and different places, our fear can drive the Spirit from us and into dark and dangerous places of the soul.

Monday, October 4, 2010

those sneaky Christians

Today's New Testament lesson in the Daily Office recounts the story of Paul before the Council in Jerusalem.  After being arrested by Roman authorities because of some perceived rabble-rousing, Paul is made to stand before the leading members of the Jewish community and give an account of this strange, new teaching about the resurrection of the dead.

Paul, clearly an astute observer of his situations, notices that his inquisitors are both Pharisees and Sadducees (Pharisees believed in resurrection, Sadducees did not).  So, in order to weasel his way out of the questioning and to shift attention from himself to the internal squabbles, Paul uses this divide to save himself from their questioning.

Which brings me to my point: Christians need to be perceptive when we engage others when we are witnessing to our faith.  In his testimony, Paul spoke of things that the Pharisees and Sadducees understood.  Well done.  In the same way, when conversing with others we need to start in a place that they understand.  Pardon the extreme analogy, but you wouldn't say to an Eskimo that something tasted as sweet as a pineapple.  Duh.

This might be a sneaky way of engaging people in conversation, finding those places in their life that will help you make your point.  The cool thing is that you won't be the first Christian to do it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

conflict is never fun

In Matthew 18, Jesus sets out some good guidelines concerning church behavior and conflict.

"If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector."

Sadly, with the advent of mass communication and the treachery of the "Reply All" button, it has become increasingly difficult to follow Jesus' prescriptions.  It's awfully easy for all of us (and yes, I'm including myself) to shoot off angry emails without giving them the proper thought.

When you confront your neighbor face to face, you can truly communicate because you can sense body language, facial signs, vocal tone and volume; all of these are flattened when black words appear on a white computer screen.  And even though it's harder, it's holier to meet your neighbor face to face.