Tuesday, January 29, 2013

wonders of creation

This past Sunday at Grace we heard a sermon from Psalm 19: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork..." This incredible world we live in, the writer suggests, is a testament to the incredible Maker behind it all. John Calvin once called the natural world a "dazzling theater" of God's glory, for obvious reasons.

In the spirit of Psalm 19, I wanted to offer just a few examples from creation--I'm limiting myself to the animal world for now--of spectacular and unique creatures that might just leave you in awe of the glory of their Creator.

First, check out this piece from NPR on katydids. Yes, katydids. But these aren't just any old insects: these are "leaf mimic katydids" that look exactly like leaves. You won't appreciate it until you see them--absolutely amazing.

Second is a similar wonder (but maybe even more mind-blowing), the mimic octopus. Here's a short video on this fantastic critter:

Finally, here is another, longer video--but you don't have to watch it all for the effect. You always hear about how fast a cheetah is, but this is a unique chance to see the power and motion of that creature on the move. It's really something.

Take a look. All three of these, I think, are well worth your time. And while you're at it, think about the One responsible for these magnificent creatures.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

a new norm

Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness... If you want to be great - wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's your new definition of greatness.

- "The Drum Major Instinct" Sermon, preached Feb. 4 1968, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA

With the nation celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this week, I thought it would be good to reflect on some words of Dr. King's here on the blog.
When Dr. King spoke of Jesus giving us "a new norm of greatness," he was reflecting on Christ's teaching in Mark 10:43-44. After the disciples James and John sought Jesus's affirmation that they were the greatest of the twelve, our Lord responds: "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all."
And this new 'greatness' wasn't just something Christ talked about--he was the great servant of all. Jesus who fed the hungry; Jesus who tended to the sick; Jesus who washed the disciples feet. "Even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:45).

But greatness isn't the only thing flipped on its head by Jesus's topsy-turvy vision of the world. Far from it.

Penniless is the new definition of rich. (Luke 12:33)

Mercy is the new definition of judgment. (John 8:3-11)

Forbearance is the new definition of self-defense. (Matthew 5:39)

Laying down your life is the new definition of love. (John 15:13)

Jesus calls us to all sorts of new things.

And more than all of that, Jesus himself, his life, is the new definition--or, better, the new picture of the old definition--of human life.
Human beings were created in God's image (Genesis 1:26-27), but when sin came and warped God's creation, the image of God in us was distorted, in need of repair. We need to be new created in God's likeness again (Ephesians 4:22-24). And Jesus is the mold we're to be conformed to; he's the perfect image of God (Colossians 1:15). Jesus is the new norm for human.
And so we try to imitate Christ and those following his example (John 13:15; 1 Corinthians 11:1); we try to let the Holy Spirit transform us by renewing our minds (Romans 12:2).
But it's not finally a question of what we do or don't do, how much we can mold our lives after Jesus.
If you want to be new created, you need to be 'in Christ' (2 Corinthians 5:17). "In Christ" means participating in Christ, being a "member" of Christ, a part of his body (Romans 12:5; 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). In Christ we reach the new norm, the new definition of our lives. Or rather, he reaches it for us.

The norm's been changed; the definition's been rewritten. Go be new.

Go and imitate Jesus and the people who seem to look an awful lot like Jesus.
Let God's Holy Spirit touch you with grace and transform you; make yourself available to the Spirit, in prayer, in worship, with Holy Communion, through hearing the Word.
Let Jesus claim you; be new "in Christ."

If you let it, this new definition, this new norm, will redefine your life, re-norm your life--turn everything upside down.

You can read Dr. King's entire sermon, "The Drum Major Instinct" online here. It moves in a completely different, but powerful, direction with Mark 10.

Monday, January 14, 2013

scary God?

Yesterday I started reading the book of Proverbs. Seven verses in you hear these familiar words:
     "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
          fools despise wisdom and instruction."

This is the first proverb in the book, the gateway you have to travel through to reach the 31 chapters ahead. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge..."

Chew on that one a bit. That's what the proverbs are meant for: each one is like a piece of gum for you to chew until the flavor's gone or your jaw's tired. Then, when you're ready, you take another piece (the same proverb or another one) and start chewing again. You want to get every bit of taste out of these words of wisdom that you can.

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge." The beginning of knowledge... like a seed that other knowledge sprouts from--if it's carefully tended? Is it like the starting line of a race, the point of departure but not the destination? Or is it like a foundation that you need to lay before you can set down one single brick of wisdom, unless you want the building to crumble?

And what about "the fear of the Lord"? What is that? Should the very thought of God scare me--give me goosebumps?
A lot of folks are quick to point out that this talk of 'fear' isn't about terror but reverence. We should be in awe of God. That's true. But, as Ellen Davis, a long-time teacher (and student) of the Old Testament, points out: "to experience the full measure of God's power and not to feel some stirring of fear would indicate a profound state of spiritual numbness, if not acute mental illness."* The hardheartedness of Pharaoh that brought the plagues on Egypt in the book of Exodus--that was Pharaoh's lack of fear (Ex 9:30). And Egypt found out that the Lord was capable of some really frightening things.

But, Davis goes on to point out, "fear of the Lord" isn't just an emotional response to God and God's power. As we see later in Proverbs chapter 1, it's a choice (1:29).
It's the choice to serve the Lord. It's the choice to acknowledge God's moral authority and shape your character around and commit your life to that authority. This, she writes, "involves developing the habit of making choices that do not merely reflect our own self-interest or the mood of the moment. Acting in accordance with our proper fear of the Lord means putting God's preferences before our own."

Fearing God may not be first and foremost about shaking in your boots, but it's not about some bland sense of reverence either. It's something tangible--you can see it in someone's life in her deference to God and God's preferences. You can see it in her humility. Talk about 'fear and trembling' might make some of us uncomfortable, but we can't get too comfortable with the fear of the Lord. It makes demands of you. It calls for a certain kind of life--not one about the pursuit of happiness or of security or comfort, but the pursuit of God. This fear should unsettle you; not by giving you the creeps, but by turning your world upside down. It's the call of the life of faith.

And it's that life, not any book or degree or information, that's the beginning of knowledge.

* Ellen Davis's comments on Proverbs 1:7 come from her book Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs, pages 28-29.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

improve our justice

This week the New York Times ran a piece on a former forensic pathologist in Mississippi, Dr. Steven Hayne, whose autopsy work and testimony have been considered in hundreds of civil and criminal cases in the state. The news-worthy bit is the fact that "several murder convictions" that depended on his work and testimony have since been overturned or thrown out, and the doctor's credentials and expertise have come under intense scrutiny in recent years. Another physician, the former state medical examiner in Alabama, has described Hayne as "a forensic analyst with inadequate training who was given far too much deference in the courts."

In recent months, four petitions have been submitted on behalf of individuals claiming to have been wrongfully convicted on account of Hayne's testimony--and several more such petitions are expected in the months ahead (including a few from individuals facing execution). Meanwhile, Mississippi's officials have been disinclined to review Dr. Hayne's past cases.

Whether or not Dr. Hayne has left any more wrongful convictions in his wake remains to be seen, but there have been some uncovered already, and more are alleged. And injustices like this aren't limited to one forensic pathologist's work--Dr. Hayne has just received a lot of attention from the press. Wrongful conviction is a reality.
You can read another recent story of a woman who served years in prison and was later exonerated here. And you can read about yet another case where new evidence raises serious questions about a young man's conviction--with a new hearing slated for March--here.

In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus calls his followers to care for those in prison, right alongside other, more familiar commands, like feeding the hungry and giving a drink to those who are thirsty. Hebrews 13:3 says to "Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them." Jesus and the author of Hebrews don't say we should care only for those who are wrongly convicted, or only for those who, like Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, serve harsh sentences that don't fit their crimes. Christians are called to care for any and all prisoners. We should be concerned that many have no support outside of the prison walls, no one to lean on when they are released, that our nation has outrageously high incarceration rates, concerned about those awaiting deportation after they serve their time and those counting down their days on death row.
And, obviously, we need to be especially concerned with the shameful injustice of wrongful imprisonment. That's why, on Sunday mornings at Grace United Methodist, we will often pray: "When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us and teach us to improve our justice." Of all the weaknesses in our 'correctional' system in the US, this is one of the most terrible, and one that everyone can agree on. We need God to improve our justice.

These are issues and people it's easy to forget about. Most of us don't come face to face with questions about wrongful conviction on a daily basis, not to mention a living, breathing person who is serving time in one of our prisons. Yet the Church is called to care. If nothing else--if you don't have any way of physically taking part in a ministry to incarcerated persons--you can pray; you must pray. Remember those in prison.
If you don't know what to say or where to begin, I'll leave you with this, one of the prayers we offer up at Grace for those in prison:
Remember all prisoners, Lord, especially those in [the Adams County Correctional Center and our local jails]. Bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future. When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us and teach us to improve our justice. Remember those who work in these institutions; watch over them, keep them humane and compassionate. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.