through the wardrobe

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Yay Ascension Sunday!


This morning in our worship service, we heard a beautiful soprano solo rendition of "In the Garden." This song is a favorite for a lot of folks, because it captures a feeling of closeness to Jesus that we long for: he walks with me; he talks with me; he tells me I'm his own. Jesus is that friend who sticks closer than a brother. Jesus is always with us in our hearts. There's an intimacy there that Christians love to celebrate.

So it seems a little ironic to listen to "In the Garden" on Ascension Sunday - the song about Jesus' nearness on the day that Jesus left. He had been close enough to walk with you and talk with you ("In the Garden" is about Mary Magdalene in Gethsemane with Jesus in John 20), but then he left, ascended back to heaven, no where to be seen, gone.

Yay Ascension Sunday, right?

But Jesus seemed to think it was a good thing for him to go. In John 16, while warning the disciples that soon they won't see him anymore, Jesus said, "Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you" (16:7).

It's to your advantage that I go away, that I leave you and return to heaven.

How's that now?

Well, who is this "Advocate" (or "Helper") he's talking about?
It's the Holy Spirit. In Acts chapter 1, Jesus commissions the disciples to go and preach in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth - then he jets. Jesus ascends to the heavens, and he's gone. In Acts chapter 2, the day of Pentecost arrives, and the Holy Spirit descends from the heavens, alights on the apostles, and the Church is born.

Why is this to our advantage? Why couldn't Jesus just stay?
Jesus was so close to his companions that he could touch them, speak with them, eat with them, pray with them. "The Word [Jesus] became flesh and dwelled among us" (John 1:14). But the Spirit doesn't dwell among us; the Spirit dwells within us. God's people, the Church, are the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16), the place where God lives on earth today. (That's not to say God isn't out and about and at work beyond the Church. God wasn't imprisoned in the Jerusalem temple: that was just the one place God had committed to dwell, where you knew you could encounter the Lord.) The Spirit has committed to dwell within us - not just walking with us and talking with us, but closer, living inside of us!

And while Jesus could teach his followers (with varying degrees of success) about the life God intends for us, the Spirit doesn't try to tell us how to live, but transforms us from within. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control: these the are the fruit the Spirit would cultivate in our lives (Gal 5:22-23). These things don't always come naturally, and just because you've heard Jesus say to turn the other cheek doesn't mean you've learned the art of peace (for instance), but the Spirit is at work within us, growing these fruit in the Spirit's territory, transforming us from within.

And even though Jesus did leave and return to the Father's right hand in heaven, even though Jesus is gone, the Spirit connects us to Christ still. Jesus left, but he is united with the Spirit and the Father, one God, and so the Spirit dwelling in us is the link connecting us to Jesus. It may sound backwards, but Jesus leaving made it possible for us to draw closer to him than ever, through the Holy Spirit living in us.

So... the Ascension isn't the day God leaves. It's the prelude to God's arrival, to dwell within us, nearer than any friend or brother. It means God can work in us in new and deeper ways, and we can be connected to Jesus even more intimately than before.

Yay Ascension Sunday!

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Monday, April 28, 2014

the least of these: Jesus the Homeless

A few weeks back NPR covered the installation of a new statue of Jesus at an Episcopal Church in North Carolina.

Big news, right? A statue of Jesus. At a church.

But this is unlike most--maybe any--statues of Christ you'll ever see. The piece is called simply "Jesus the Homeless," and it depicts Jesus wrapped up in a blanket, sleeping on a bench. He's only identifiable by his nail-scared bare feet that the blanket couldn't cover. The statue, according to NPR's report, is "intended as a visual translation" of a line in Matthew 25, where Jesus describes the day of judgment, when 'the Son of Man' (a title Jesus uses for himself) will return and reign as king over the world. Jesus then explains for us why the king will call some "blessed by my Father" and invite them to "inherit the kingdom prepared for you for the foundation of the world":
'For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me'. (25:35-40)

As the passage goes on, the wicked are likewise puzzled, unsure when it was that they turned Jesus away, refusing to give him food or drink or clothing... only to find out that they turned Jesus away every time they ignored the needs of "the least of these." The homeless guy, sleeping on the bench, whom you can either help or ignore--that's Jesus.


The statue has received some strong reactions. According to NPR,
Some loved it; some didn't.

"One woman from the neighborhood actually called police the first time she drove by," says David Boraks, editor of DavidsonNews.net. "She thought it was an actual homeless person."

That's right. Somebody called the cops on Jesus.

"Another neighbor, who lives a couple of doors down from the church, wrote us a letter to the editor saying it creeps him out," Boraks added.

Some neighbors felt it was an insulting depiction of the Son of God, and what appears to be a hobo curled up on a bench demeans the neighborhood.

I personally think it's a beautiful piece, and it communicates the force of the passage in Matthew more powerfully than anything I've seen before. Of course, there's also a striking irony in a church erecting a $22,000 bronze statue to teach that Jesus expected us to care for the poor, but I don't really care to get into that debate.

Instead, I just wanted to bring this "visual translation" to your attention, so maybe those of us trying to be disciples can encounter Jesus' call in a new way.

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What do you think of "Jesus the Homeless"? Is it a good interpretation of Matthew 25? How would it go over at your church?

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

why church?


Easter is only a few days away, and that means a lot of folks are dusting off their Sunday best for their annual or semi-annual trip to the church house. That's not a judgment: just a fact. These people may be dedicated to reading their Bibles, praying, giving, or sharing their faith - more dedicated than those of us who are at church every Sunday, even - but for whatever reason, they simply are not actively involved in the life of the local church.

Why?
There are as many reasons as people. There could be some pain, some guilt, some frustration behind it, perhaps from years past when they were a part of a congregation. It could be because they find church services boring, or they're busy with other commitments. Or maybe they just haven't seen any good reason to be a part of a church. I'll come for a special celebration of some momentous work of God, like Jesus' birth or his resurrection, but otherwise... why would I want to be there? Why church?

I'm a pastor, so obviously I have a vested interest in people thinking church is important. But I actually happen to believe it is important - vital, even. This is an enormous topic, but let me try to distill a few points here and offer 4 reasons why I believe church is vital to Christian faith.

1. Encountering grace. There are countless ways that you may get a taste of God's grace in your life. Some of come through company, through friends; some of them will only come in private, when you are alone with God, or alone with creation.
But there are a few ways that God has established as permanent channels of grace for our lives, regular "means of grace" (as we call them in the United Methodist Church) to which we have access. And many of these you will only tap into through the life of the church. Baptism and Holy Communion are the two most obvious examples: you are only baptized, you only receive the bread and the cup, Christ's body and blood, as a part of a community. Other believers are involved in all of that, and a minister, probably. The grace that we encounter through these acts, this is a grace you only find with the rest of the church.
[Worship itself, that encounter with God's grace, is meant to be a communal experience as well, where "each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation" (1 Cor 14:25).]

2. Encouragement, support, and challenge. Being a part of the church means being a part of a community that helps us through life. The folks around you in the pews are called by scripture to "encourage each other and build each other up" (1 Thess 5:11), to "share each other's burdens" (Gal 6:4), and to "motivate one another to acts of love and good works" (Heb 10:24). We aren't just there to sit next to each other - we're there to journey through life together and help one another along the way! If we don't get to know others in our congregations and invest in their lives, we're not being the church at all. As a member of a faithful church, you can look to your sisters and brothers in Christ for spiritual, emotional, even material support and help on your journey (and they can look to you!).

Of course, the reasons "why church?" aren't all centered on us, and the benefits we can receive through a connection with the church. Some of the reasons are simply truths that Jesus' people need to come to terms with.

3. The Body of Christ.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ... Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body... Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Cor 12:12, 14-16, 27)

Paul is really concerned here with the variety of spiritual gifts in the 'body', and the important role that each member of the 'body' plays. But his central image, of the body, has other implications as well. You, Christian, no matter how self-sufficient you might feel, you are a spiritual body part. You can't change that; nothing you say will make you any less a part of the body. The moral of the story? We're not supposed to do this on our own - if we try to, we may not really be doing it at all! You wouldn't say an eyeball or a pinky toe, off on its own, was really living life. Existing? Sure. Living life? Nah. That's what a body does. It takes more parts than that. If you don't join together with the other parts of the body, you're severely hampering your own Christian life, not to mention handicapping everyone else's (they're left without a nose, or a kidney!).

4. "You" is plural. The word "you" can be singular or plural, depending on how you use it. "Will you marry me?" "You lost, Denver Broncos." That's English. In ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, it's different: there is a singular "you" and a plural "you," and you can tell them apart just by looking at them - like the difference between "you" and "y'all."
And you may be surprised how many of the "you"s in the New Testament are plural. Take 1 Corinthians 3:16 for instance: "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" I'm God's temple? Cool! That means I should eat right, exercise, maybe avoid tattoos (temple graffiti?). Oh, but wait: this is plural. You all, y'all, the Christian community, are the temple of God, where the Spirit dwells. Like so many other "you"s, it's plural. Why is that? Because Christianity is a plural faith. It's all about y'all, we, us. Jesus didn't call individual disciples to follow him, each on their own: he called twelve disciples to form a Church. One more time: we're not supposed to do this on our own! That's why church.

But let's get real.
This is a blog post and a whole bunch of words. If this all sounds good to you, you probably felt that way before you started reading. If you want to see folks who've never shown an interest in participating in the life of the church begin to invest their time and hearts in your congregation, recommending a blog post to them is not your best option (just trust me on that). If you want to see people drawn into the life of your church, do what you can to make that congregation the kind of community it's supposed to be; do what you can to offer people the opportunities for growth and service that they need; do what you can to make your church look like the bride of Christ that she is. Make your church, and the experience of participating in your church, a compelling case for itself.
Then trust God with the rest.

And you might want to get started on that, because this weekend you'll have an opportunity to show a lot of new people what the church can be, if they'll give it a chance.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

honor thy father and mother

"Honor your father and mother..." - Exodus 20:12 / Deuteronomy 5:16

We recently finished a study on the Ten Commandments at Grace, where every week we looked at one commandment closely, clarifying its meaning, exploring the ways other passages expanded on, qualified, or illustrated it, and asking what it means for our lives today. I had a great time researching and preparing all of that material, and I had an equally great and equally illuminating time discussing all of this with the group each week. Since time for blogging has been hard to come by lately, I thought it may be good to share a bit from one of those studies here.

Honoring your father and your mother is the 5th commandment.

A lot of people find it helpful to break the Ten Commandments into two sections: 1-4, which focus on our relationship with and responsibilities towards the Lord, and 5-10, which emphasize our relationship with and responsibilities toward our neighbors. Those aren't hard and fast divisions. After all, all ten of these commandments are a response to God's delivering Israel from Egypt and making covenant with them. And even in the first four commandments you can see a concern for neighbors (for instance, notice the insistence in Ex 20:10 / Deut 5:14 that 'resting on the Sabbath' cannot mean 'resting at someone else's expense': your neighbors -  servants, children, livestock, whatever - need rest too). But dividing the commandments between #4 and #5 can still be a helpful move.

And if you do, then the 5th commandment becomes the first commandment focused on our neighbors. Honoring your parents becomes a starting point for directing our lives towards others.

Why would that be? Why start talking about our obligations towards our neighbors with our parents?

This reminds me of a passage from C. S. Lewis's classic The Screwtape Letters, a fictional correspondence between two demons, a senior Tempter named Screwtape, and his inexperienced nephew Wormwood, discussing the man Wormwood's trying to tempt. In letter 6, Screwtape advises Wormwood:
Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary. There is no good at in inflaming his hatred of Germans if, at the same time, a pernicious habit of charity it growing between him and his mother, his employer, and the man he meets in the train.

The people we don't know, out on "the remote circumference," are the 'starving children in Africa'. Real people, with real struggles, but folks we'll probably never know and never have to learn to love as our neighbors. (We don't even know enough to say what country they're from! It's just "Africa.") It's easy to care about them, but often that care is imaginary - it doesn't have the marks or the effects of the hard-earned care you have for a sibling, a friend, or a spouse. It's little more than a warm feeling, hardly the love-in-action that our immediate neighbors demand from us. The tempters, then, want us to spend all of our 'care' on those people out on the remote circumference, rather than on the people we actually live alongside.

Why would the commandments concerning our neighbors start with our families?
Because if we want to learn to love people, we have to start with the folks we live with every day. That's where we'll learn real benevolence: with the people we know the best, warts and all, but whom we still have to love, day in, day out. Before you can get to ‘thou shalt not steal’ or ‘thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor’ or any of the others, you have to learn to love your family. When you learn how to do that (or at least how to try), the Holy Spirit's cultivated some real benevolence in your soul, and you’re ready to move past the 5th commandment and love some other folks.

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Thursday, February 06, 2014

How could a church ever support evolution?


The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which gathers every four years, is the only body authorized to make 'official' statements on behalf of the UMC. Every four years General Conference will amend and ratify the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, and so, all the rest of the time, the latest edition of the Discipline is the best, and just about the only, place you can look for the church's official position on this or that topic.

And according to the Book of Discipline, "We find that science's descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology."

I know that for a lot of Christians, this kind of statement is scandalous and disconcerting. How could a church ever support evolution?

That line, which is all you get on the topic from the UMC's website, is lifted from the middle of a paragraph in the Discipline that addresses 'science and technology', and there are several other points this paragraph makes that you need to know to really understand the church's position.
  1. "We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God's natural world." To my ear, that simply means, 'scientific investigation is good and can tell us truths about the world'.
  2. "We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world and in determining what is scientific." The first half of this sentence seems to just reiterate what was said before. The second half makes a new and important point, though: science gets to determine what is 'scientific' and what isn't.
  3. "We preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues and theology from making authoritative claims about scientific issues." This is important. The church rejects outright any attempts to have 'science' make theological statements, theology that's built on the 'unassailable foundation' of scientific authority (for instance, 'science proves there is no God'). On the other hand, theology doesn't get to determine good science either. In important ways, these two disciplines are talking about different issues and must not confuse those issues.
So, my summary: scientific work is good and useful, and it's the best judge of what's science and what's not; also, theology and science shouldn't try to dictate to each other. The church wants to affirm the value of scientific work and leave that work to the experts.

After all of that is said, then comes the claim about evolution, that "science's descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology." 
Given what's already been said, this makes pretty good sense. Science is good and useful, so we want to learn from it. Science gets to decide if something, say, biological evolution, is good science or not, so let them hammer that out. Claims like this aren't theological claims--they may have theological implications or demand theological narrations, but simply saying 'humans evolved from other life forms over time' does not make any direct statements about God. And so, the church doesn't necessarily have any issue with scientific claims about biological evolution.

The conflict arises, of course, when you start talking about what the Bible says. Some Christians see the Bible as flatly refuting the normal claims scientists make about evolution. Some Christians don't have any problem affirming the truth of the scriptures and affirming the scientific claims. Clearly the UMC's official position falls into the latter category.
That's a much longer conversation than I have time to get into here (though I have written about it many times before). I, personally, don't see any conflict between what the Bible says and what you can read in your average biology textbook today. Why? Let me just say two things for now: 
1) making room for evolution when you interpret the Bible doesn't necessarily mean you're just surrendering to modern opinions, giving up 1800 years of faithful Christian teaching because of some 19th century crackpot named Darwin--on the contrary, the conviction that Genesis 1-2 should not be read literally goes back in the Church over 1500 years before Darwin;
2) I honestly believe that a literal reading of Genesis 1-2 forces a foreign meaning on the passage and keeps the Bible from speaking for itself. That's just not what Genesis is trying to tell us. So I think that way of reading, instead of deferring to the scriptures, actually ends up making the text defer to our expectations.

There are other possible sources of conflict, besides how we read the Bible. A common one is when particular scientists and writers fail to recognize the limits of scientific inquiry and go on to make ridiculous claims about what science proves (or disproves, more likely) when it comes to religion. The UMC's not supporting that sort of thing. Remember, 'science' can't make theological statements. When someone tries to make science talk theology, they're confused about what their subject matter can and can't do. They're playing ventriloquist, putting their words in science's mouth--sometimes more skillfully, sometimes less--but they need to find a new act and ditch the dummy.

And people can still argue about evolution, as far as the church is concerned, only let the arguments be biological, geological, whatever, arguments. If biological evolution (or anything else) is bad science, terrific: let the experts work that out.

I know that this topic has been on a lot of people's minds here lately, with the heavily publicized debate earlier this week, so I wanted to just take a chance to share and explain the United Methodist position. I'd love to hear your thoughts and questions and disagreements, though. That's what the comment section is for--let's have a conversation! 
And above all, in this area as in any other, let's try to be faithful: to our calling to holy and compassionate living, and the gospel of Jesus that we've received, in which we stand, and by which we're being saved.

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

reflections on Joshua (1 of 2)

I didn't see this coming - who would? - and I didn't even really notice at first, but apparently the book of Joshua and Green Lantern: Rebirth are meant to be read together.

I got the Green Lantern volume for Christmas, just a fun, quick read that I thought I could share with some folks. I certainly wasn't expecting this superhero story from a decade ago to be an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Really, who would?
So I started reading that recently.

About the same time, I started reading the book of Joshua, because it had been a couple of years.
And I did not go in with high expectations. I mean, I would have granted that this one might be an instrument of the Spirit - it's scripture, after all - but I also went in remembering that Joshua is a very violent and, at times, very boring book (if you don't believe me, check out chapters 13-21).

What I didn't remember about Joshua was that refrain you hear again and again: "be strong and courageous"; "do not be afraid" (Josh 1:6-7, 9, 18; 8:1; 10:8, 25; 11:6).

Be strong. Be courageous. Do not be afraid.
For some reason, this was absolutely imperative for Joshua and the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land. The Lord needed them to be strong and courageous, to trust him in the face of their enemies, or they weren't going to receive the land.

Now, not long before I started Joshua, I was writing a sermon on Hebrews 2:10-18, and one verse in particular grabbed my attention. It was 2:15: the Son of God had shared in our flesh and blood so that he could "free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death." Held in slavery by the fear of death. That sounded so true, so poignant. But, try as I might, I just couldn't use it in the sermon the way I wanted to. I couldn't find the words to describe the life of 'slavery to fear'. I didn't really know that kind of fear, I thought, and so I couldn't find a compelling and appropriate way to talk about it.

But then the book of Joshua opened my eyes.
"Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go" (1:9). When I read those words I realized that I did know what it meant to be a slave to fear. The reality was: I was terrified. I was terrified failing, of letting people down, of upsetting someone. I was terrified of falling short of my calling. 

Meanwhile, Green Lantern: Rebirth is a story about the power of fear. It's about how fear can infiltrate your life, make you do things you don't want to do, break your willpower, and take control. Fear, in the story, just happens to be a big, yellow, ancient space-monster. "Please, don't be afraid," pleads one of the heroes, "You can't be afraid..." Or the yellow space-monster will get you.

As sci-fi and fantasy can sometimes do, Green Lantern, beneath the colorful garb and the epic story-telling, had put its finger on the truth of things. The vibrant, imaginative exterior de-familiarizes everything and helps you recognize a simple truth that you may have been numb to otherwise, something you wouldn't have noticed without all those colors and lights: fear - especially when you don't recognize it - will destroy your will and seize power over your life. It will enslave you.

And that's what it was doing to me. I hadn't realized it before, didn't recognize it, but it was wrapping it's tendrils around my life. Fear was suffocating me. I was afraid to trust the Spirit to lead me, to go where I needed to go, say what I needed to say, to minister to people. I was wrapped up in a straightjacket of expectations, mistakes, and guilt, and I couldn't move.

And then it was like God was talking to Nance instead of Joshua. (That's a good feeling - don't imagine that happens to a preacher more often than it happens to anyone else.) 
Be courageous; don't be afraid. That's what I needed to hear. And I could breathe again. Green Lantern and Joshua, of all things, brought me face to face with this poison in my life and with the truth that overcomes great fear: "the Lord your God is with you" (1:9).
And my chains were gone.

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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

we are here as we have never been before

I hope you have had a blessed Christmas season these last few days.
I stumbled onto this poem last winter while reading Wendell Berry's volume, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, and I've had to sit on it all the while, until the right time. Merry Christmas.

"Remembering that it happened once"

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night's end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countess times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe, in light
That lights them from no source we see,
An April morning's light, the air
Around them joyful as a choir.
We stand with one hand on the door,
Looking into another world
That is this world, the pale daylight
Coming just as before, our chores
To do, the cattle all awake,
Our own white frozen breath hanging
In front of us; and we are here
As we have never been before,
Sighted as not before, our place
Holy, although we knew it not.

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