Monday, June 20, 2016

plum season

Over the last few weeks at the Hixon home we witnessed the arrival and the departure of plum season. It's a pretty exciting time of year, for me, when I can just walk into the backyard and acquire free, delicious food. It's also an exciting time of year for the squirrels.

And this year plum season got me thinking about the Bible.

You see, the scriptures were written for people who knew about agriculture and husbandry first hand. Unfortunately, for most of us reading the Bible in the US today, all of that work happens out of sight, without ever intersecting our lives (except as fresh veggies, sticks of butter, and packages of bacon at the store), and so we don't always hear all the resonances of the images and metaphors that the Bible is using. Paul talks about the "fruit of the Spirit" (Gal 5:22-23), and I know a lot about eating fruit, but I don't know so much about growing fruit, which is the whole point of the image. This is fruit that the Holy Spirit plans to 'cultivate' inside of me. But the image doesn't mean as much to me as it could, because growing fruit isn't a part of my life.

Except during plum season.

So this year, as we picked and gathered our fruit, I was thinking about how this plum tree and this time of year might add to the meaning of those passages in scripture. Here are three things that struck me:
  1. There's a lot of waiting, but then, suddenly, you may find all kinds of fruit. After you notice the first buds and flowers on the plum tree, there are months of waiting when it seems like nothing is happening. Maybe there are some baby plums on the branches, but they aren't good for anything. Until, it seems like overnight, they ripen and you have more fruit than you know what to do with. But growing fruit isn't quick. And that's also true of the fruit of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit works in us with the patience of a farmer. Love, joy, peace, and all the other virtues God would cultivate in our hearts develop over time, sometimes very slowly. Eventually, though, maybe without you even realizing what's been happening, you may find yourself radically transformed by God's Spirit, with all kinds of fruit. You may suddenly find that God's been nurturing within you compassion, generosity, patience, or self-control that you've never known before. One day that fruit is going to be ripe for the picking.
  2. Fruit is meant for sharing. I was reminded this year that you simply can't keep all these plums to yourself - the tree is just too fruitful, the yield's just too abundant - you have to share! The fruit on our tree wasn't meant for one person (or even one household). It's meant to be spread around and to bless others too. And of course that's also true when it comes to the spiritual fruit in our lives. God does care about our hearts and minds, and God wants to make us new and whole for our own sakes. But God also wants us to make us a blessing for others. Remember what the Lord told Abraham: "I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing... in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Gen 12:2-3). If the Holy Spirit has raised up joy in your heart, or kindness or love, how are you using that fruit to "be a blessing"? Have you looked for someone to share it with, someone who could use a fresh encounter with God's grace in their lives? Well God's grace is active in you, growing that fruit - so go be the blessing they need!
  3. It's so easy to waste your fruit. The ground around our tree is covered with rotten and split and smashed plums, like the day after some grisly plum warfare. And even if you pick as many as you possibly can, if you don't have a plan it won't be long before so much of the fruit has gone to waste - in a bowl waiting to be eaten or to be turned into jelly. It feels awful to watch all that fruit spoil, thinking about all the things you could have done with it. Don't waste your fruit. That's not why God gave it to you. The Lord has a purpose for it. Try to discern how God wants to use you and the person you're becoming. Is there a need in your church, in your community, in your marriageis there some need around you that God might be preparing you to meet? Don't wait until the opportunity is wasted and all you can do is look back with regret. Use the fruit you've got while you can. Don't let God's timing pass you by.
Jesus said that "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples." (John 15:8) Disciples of Jesus Christ are fruit-bearing people. "I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last" (15:16). Where has he appointed for you to go? What fruit has the Spirit been cultivating in your life? It's there to bless you, and to make you a blessing. So spend some time praying and wondering today: what is God trying to do with me? Where can I go, who can I go to, to bear some "fruit that will last"?

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

gorillas, zoos, and the kingdom of God

Last week the world couldn't stop talking about the death of Harambe the gorilla.

As you probably know, Harambe was a 17-year old western lowland gorilla (a critically endangered species) living in the Cincinnati Zoo, until a week and a half ago when a young boy fell into the gorilla enclosure, was seized and dragged around by Harambe, and the gorilla was shot to rescue the boy.
It seemed like the news coverage would never end. Maybe there wasn't much else happening last week; maybe it's because the story touched on both people's deep love of animals and deep concern for children; or maybe it just provided a convenient fault line for more partisan bickering (one side disgusted, saying, 'how could this have happened?', the other disgusted, saying, 'why are you so upset about this?'). Whatever the reason, the news just wouldn't quit.

Now, I love animals. I love zoos. But I especially love primates. On those rare occasions that I get to see a gorilla or a chimp or an orangutan, my heart soars. I'm lost in wonder like a small child. The fact that the western lowland gorilla's scientific name is Gorilla gorilla gorilla lights up my world. I just freaking love them.
And so when the news first broke that a gorilla in Cincinnati was shot, I didn't even want to know what it was about. My wife didn't mention it to me when she heard, because she knows how I feel about monkeys (I know, I know - a gorilla is an ape, not a monkey).

That being said, I'm also someone who tends to listen to the experts (especially in fields about which I know next to nothing). So when Jack Hanna came out and said that he agreed with the decision to shoot Harambe "1,000%", that about settled it for me. Jack Hanna loves animals too, and Jack Hanna knows his stuff, so I believe him. I know some people will disagree, and of course it's all hypothetical, but I'm going to accept that it was necessary to ensure the boy's safety.

I hate it, though. It breaks my heart.

All of this makes me think my Old Testament professor, Stephen Chapman, was right when we were reading about Behemoth and Leviathan in Job (see especially 41:1-9), and he said that "They're not for you... and that may be what's wrong with a zoo." Maybe some wild animals weren't made for our pleasure but for God's and for their own (like in Ps 104:25-26).

But there's another Old Testament passage that I haven't been able to get out of my head since I heard the news from Cincinnati. It's from Isaiah chapter 11:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (11:6-9)

This is a picture of the hope in store for God's people and all of our fellow-creatures too. According to Isaiah (also see 65:17-25), the salvation that God is bringing to the world is going to touch humans and animals alike. It's going to bring peace to the whole world: peace between the animals (wolves and lambs don't usually live together), and peace between humans and animals. And the prophet specifically describes the harmony between animals and children. "A little child shall lead them..." (11:6) In this vision, children are safe playing over an asp's hole, sticking their hands in adders' dens, safe around the wolves, the leopards, the lions, the bears.

And, presumably, the apes.

That's why I told the congregation this past Sunday, while preaching on the pictures of eternity in Revelation 21 and Isaiah 65, that in the new heavens and new earth, no one's ever gonna have to shoot a gorilla to protect a child. All of God's creatures will have a place, and there will be peace.

I love Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom paintings based on this passage. (There's a snippet of another one in the banner at the top of the blog.) For me it helps to see Isaiah's prophecy, to see the children there with the beasts.

The kid's petting that jaguar.
Here, in this world, that's not possible.
In this world we need enclosures, with tranquilizers and guns at the ready, just in case.

That's because we live in a broken world.

But in the world to come, God's going to set things right.
There, there's going to be peace.
There, in the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21:1, Isa 65:17), this picture will come to life.

In the meantime, we're called to seek first the kingdom of God (Matt 6:33), and we pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth..." As Christians, working to see glimpses of God's kingdom here on earth is our mission, and visions of the kingdom like that in Isaiah 11 should inform that mission.
In The Bible and Ecology, during a discussion of the animals in Isaiah 11, Richard Bauckham (if you ask me, one of finest biblical scholars alive today) points out that "Biblical prophecy is not merely predictive but calls its readers to appropriate action now in light of the future it outlines."* In other words, because we pray "thy kingdom come," when we hear a description of that kingdom, we need to get to work to see that picture come to life, "on earth." After we read Isaiah 11, we have to ask ourselves, "what can I do today that will help bring some of this peace to God's world?"

Maybe that means volunteering with your local humane society. Maybe it means getting some of your groceries from a dairy where you know animals are treated well and have a high quality of life - check at your local farmers' market. Or maybe it means supporting gorilla conservation efforts (you can read about some of that work and how to give here).

We're probably not used to thinking about it this way, but when you do that, you're seeking the kingdom of God.

Even if you're not an 'animal person', or primates don't rock your world, we should all mourn the loss of Harambe, because his death reminds us that we're still stuck living in the middle of the mess, still waiting for redemption and freedom (see Rom 8:18-25).

But in the meantime... in the meantime, let's seek the kingdom. Let's seek the peace and hope that God desires for the world - for us, and for our fellow-creatures.

* Bauckham, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation, 125

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

GM2016: Obedience, not speculation

As I've shared before, this year I'm slowly working through a daily reader called Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God's Love - it's adapted from sermons by the 19th century Scottish Christian author, George MacDonald.

And I'm loving it. Let me share a recent passage with you.

MacDonald has been reflecting on the parable of the widow and the judge in Luke 18, which ends with the ominous question: "when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (18:8) MacDonald writes,
The Lord seems here to refer to his second coming - concerning the time of which, he refused information; concerning the mode of which, he said it would be unexpected; but concerning the duty of which, he insisted it was to be ready: we must be faithful, and at our work. Do those who say, 'lo here are the signs of his coming', think to be too keen for him, and spy his approach? If, instead of speculation, we gave ourselves to obedience, what a difference would soon be seen in the world! Many eat and drink and talk and teach in his presence; few do the things he says to them! Obedience is the one key of life. (Consuming Fire, April 29th)
His talk about the second coming brings to mind the parable of the ten virgins in Matthew 25 and the parable of the man returning from a journey in Mark 13, not to mention the times Jesus said "about that day or hour, no one knows..." (Also, see 1 Thess 5:1-2!) Instead of ignoring Jesus and trying to guess the day or hour anyways, instead of end-times speculating, we should give ourselves to obedience and see what a difference that could make on this planet.

In other words, instead of staring into the sun, looking for a glimpse of a kingdom Jesus assured us we won't see coming, why don't we put our money where our mouth is every time we repeat the Lord's Prayer and say "thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven"?

Why don't we pursue obedience instead of speculations? (The one Jesus encouraged, the other he actually discouraged!) Maybe then we'd start to get glimpses of that Kingdom - only not off on the horizon but in our neighborhoods and prisons and nursing homes - as the Holy Spirit works in us and through us to transform hearts and lives and transform the world. "On earth," just like we always pray.

'Will the Son of Man find faith on earth?' If we take our Lord's Prayer seriously, if we take our obedience seriously, the answer can only be "yes."

And what a difference would soon be seen in the world.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

the best is yet to come

The Pentecost window at Duke Divinity School
After a flash of red, the green is rolling out in our sanctuaries - the Pentecost season is here. And this past Sunday I was preaching on the Holy Spirit, the "down payment of our inheritance" as the redeemed people of God (Eph 1:14). The Spirit has been on my mind lately.

Meanwhile I've been reading Jason Byassee's little book, Trinity: The God We Don't Know, and I'm in the middle of chapter 2: "The Spirit We Don't Know."
Byassee's discussing Jesus' incredible promise in John 14 that "the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do great works than these, because I am going to the Father" (14:12). Greater works than these? Greater than turning water to wine (John 2), making the lame walk (John 5), feeding thousands with a few morsels (John 6)? Greater than raising the dead (John 11)?

And why does Jesus' exit, his "going to the Father," mean that we will be able to accomplish these greater things?
It must have to do with that insistence in John 16 that "it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go, the Helper will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you" (16:7).

The Helper. The Holy Spirit.

While Jesus has to leave his disciples, this Helper will be with you forever (14:16), so do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid (14:27). The Helper Jesus is sending to us will bring peace and teach us everything - through the Spirit, those who believe in Jesus will accomplish amazing things.

Then Byassee writes:
The Spirit is powerfully present on Jesus unlike any before or since. And yet the church should wish for Jesus's departure so the Spirit will descend upon us in a way unlike any before or since. There are two sendings of God into human history to give life and save—the Son and the Spirit (John 6:63). And each is better than the previous. Religious communities do have a tendency to look back to a golden era and romanticize a lost time. The church should not. We know greater things are yet to come. God not only grants us knowledge about himself, God progressively comes closer to us, fills us and our world with more of himself. First Son, then Spirit. With God, the best is always yet to come. (38-39)
Greater things, Jesus said. And even the Spirit, the source of these "greater things" from God, even the Spirit with us now is only a down payment: a comforter, the giver of new life (Rom 7:6), an engagement ring, ahead of the day when God wipes away every tear, makes all things new, and God's people come to Jesus like a bride adorned for her husband (Rev 21:1-5).

A down payment. Just the beginning.

The best is yet to come.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Update from General Conference 2016

There have been some interesting and important developments over the last few days at General Conference. Let me fill you in.

First: the United Methodist Church's General Conference - the denomination's sole decision-making body, which gathers every 4 years, made up of delegates from around the globe - is meeting in Portland right now. As always, one of the most prominent and contentious topics up for discussion at the conference has been sexuality: presently the UMC holds that "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching," though many United Methodists (especially in the US) are opposed to the church's position. The discord over sexuality has been so intense in recent years that many have feared a looming split in the denomination.

This week the General Conference took an unprecedented step in trying to address this conflict: the conference (a body of clergy and lay delegates) requested guidance from the church's Council of Bishops. The bishops have no official influence over the decisions of the General Conference: their roles are generally limited to preaching in worship services at the conference and presiding over the business of the conference in accordance with Robert's Rules of Order. They don't have input in the discussions on the conference floor and don't have a vote on any proposals. As I understand it, the General Conference has never officially requested the guidance of the bishops, but this issue has been so divisive and hope for unity moving forward so scant, that the conference is looking for wisdom and leadership.

The bishops' response came in the form of a statement, which you can read online here. Essentially, the bishops recommended that all proposals related to the question of sexuality be tabled, that a special commission be formed to "develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality", and that a special session of the General Conference will be called before the regularly scheduled General Conference of 2020, solely to address this issue.
On Wednesday the General Conference approved the bishops' plan by a vote of 428-405.

(Read more about this from the New York Times.)

"Revising" the church's teachings and policies in The Book of Discipline could mean a number of things. According to the Council of Bishops, "We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current Discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts." To rectify this, the commission could recommend anything from rewriting and making more sensitive passages that have become painful to many after years of hearing them bandied about inconsiderately (like the famous "incompatible with Christian teaching" phrase), to a radical reversal of the church's stance (which seems unlikely); from a tightening of current rules concerning clergy that often go unenforced, to a restructuring on a denominational level to allow for diverging positions and practices, all under the sanction of the one, global church (for instance, see the "Love Alike Plan" that was proposed this year). Time will tell. Whatever the recommended revisions eventually do look like, the aim is to avoid a schism.

(Read United Methodist minister and author Jim Harnish's reflections on the Holy Spirit's surprises at General Conference.)

For now, this proposal (defer the conversation - commission - called General Conference before 2020) is the church's best shot at finding a way to accommodate the variety of deeply-held convictions on the question while maintaining the unity within the church body that Jesus himself desired and prayed for (see John 17).

And that's what's been happening at General Conference.

Monday, May 09, 2016

"Will the conference affect Portlanders?"

"Will the conference affect Portlanders?" she asked.

Tomorrow, May 10th, the United Methodist Church's General Conference will begin in Portland, Oregon. Every four years bishops and delegates from around the world gather somewhere for General Conference and make decisions affecting the mission, the money, the principles, and the organization of the UMC. I was just reading an article from The Oregonian explaining all of this to the locals, and the articles ends by briefly addressing the question: "Will the conference affect Portlanders?"

The answer? Yes: traffic may swell near downtown, the restaurants near the convention center will definitely be crowded at lunch, and hotel rooms will be fewer and pricier for the duration of the conference. (Also, these United Methodist will be doing some volunteering while they're in town, "so some Portlanders may benefit from their presence.")

While I am glad to hear it reported that some people may be blessed by Portland's United Methodist guests over the next week and a half, even that happy observation only reinforces another, rather depressing take-away.

Will the conference affect Portlanders?

Yes. While they're here (mostly inconveniencing us).

But that's all you need to worry about.

Beyond the immediate effects on traffic and hotel room availability, etc., once they're done and gone: No, the conference will not affect Portlanders.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But apparently Portland hasn't heard that we're transforming the world.

Which makes me wonder: have the people in your town heard? Or in mine?

Or do they just know that you don't want to turn left onto the highway right here on Sunday mornings, because the church traffic makes it tricky, and that you need to get to the restaurant pretty early to beat the after-church crowd?

Will the conference affect Portland? Will it affect Oregon? Will it affect Georgia or Michigan, Natchez, D.C., Manila, Mutare, or Baton Rouge? Will the work of United Methodists affect the world? Will your congregation? Has anyone seen the world-transforming, disciple-making power of your church?

In Portland they haven't.

They just know we have meetings, argue over different things, and occasionally some people may benefit from our presence.

So what do we need to be doing, what does your congregation need to be doing right where you are - how can we love the Lord and love our neighbors in a way that the world will hear about? How can we start to take people from assuming the conference will not affect them to never forgetting how those United Methodists affected their lives for good?

United Methodists everywhere have two critical tasks this week (and I'd invite Christians of all stripes to join in both). One is to pray for the deliberations and decisions of the General Conference, that the Holy Spirit would stir in hearts and direct the church.

Two is to go and touch someone's life in the name of Jesus Christ.

In other words, to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

GM2016: The care filling your mind

image from Christianity Today

This past Christmas my brother and I were both given a daily-reading book taken from the writings of George MacDonald, a Scottish Christian writer and minister from the 1800s. (The book is Consuming Fire, and 100% of the royalties from it go to the ALS Therapy Development Institute in Cambridge, MA.)
I don't have a great track record with this sort of book, but here we are in May, and I'm still going strong! That's because MacDonald (a huge influence on C. S. Lewis) is overflowing with unique perspectives, powerful insights, wonderful images, and just plain interesting interpretations of the scriptures.
And because I've been struck so often and so profoundly by things I've read there over the last few months, I thought I might begin to share some of his words here on the blog.

I wanted to start with a simple little passage that nevertheless seemed to jump off the page, sit down, and stare at me from an uncomfortably close distance.

The care that is filling your mind at this moment, or but waiting till you lay the book aside to leap upon you - that need which is no need, is a demon sucking the spring of your life. If you say that yours is a reasonable and unavoidable care, I ask if there is something about it which you must do at this very moment. If not, then you are allowing it to usurp the place of something that is at this moment required - the greatest thing that can be required: to trust in the living God, whose will is your life. (Consuming Fire, April 22nd)

Later on (April 25th), he warns us about opening "your windows to the mosquitoes of care," whose buzzing drowns out the voice of the Eternal in our lives.

That thing you can't stop worrying about, is there something you need to do about it at this very moment? No? Then quit making excuses, offering rationalizations. "Cast your cares on the Lord, and he will sustain you" (Ps 55:22). "Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you" (1 Pet 5:7).
Give your worries to God, quit holding on to them, because they're really holding on to you. They're the cares of the world that choke the gospel out of our lives (Matt 13:22); they're draining the spring of your life. They're distracting you in this moment - while you're looking at this screen, or just waiting for you to finish reading - they're distracting you from trusting in the living God.

And that's what life is really all about.