Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Led By The Spirit

"Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil."
Luke 4:1-2

Ash Wednesday we call it, the day that begins the Christian season of Lent, and this year it begins Feb. 17. Lent is the un-fun part of the Christian year. It's the forty days we focus on things like discipline and fasting and when we read the Bible stories about the Israelites wandering in the desert and the above story about Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. It's a time when we remind ourselves about the brutally hard aspects of life and the uncomfortable fact that a true resurrection requires an actual death. Churches often cease using the word Alleluia during these 40 days and for good reason. It is not a fun time.

It is, however, an instructional and formative time. It was during the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness that a group of freed Hebrew slaves became a nation. It was the 40 days of temptation in the wilderness that gave Jesus the focus and strength needed to embark on his life's mission. In that sense, Lent is a bit like school. It's hard...and yet the harder it is, the better you turn out in the end if you put your mind to it and have the right support.

What I find comforting in both the story of the Exodus and the story of Jesus' temptation is that God is present. In the Exodus story God takes the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, leading the Israelites across the harsh desert. Luke starts off his story by pointing out the same thing. The Spirit leads Jesus in the wilderness. God is there--even though Jesus is hungry and the devil shows up.

I also find it comforting to know that the hard, harsh desert times of our lives are not necessarily just my own rotten luck or punishment for my sins. It happened to Jesus, after all. No matter how or why those times have come, the Spirit is here with me...leading me...trying to make me into something stronger, better, and more aware than before. Too often I see the devil and fail to see the Spirit.

Around the world we are in a Lenten, desert season of sorts. Times are tough and just when we're down the blizzards come. Those who are supposed to lead us bicker like school children and call each other names. We encourage them to keep it up by voting our hatreds and keeping the ratings high for media outlets that do the same. We keep seeing the devil and failing to see the Spirit.

The season of Lent reminds us that hard times are where greatness is given birth. It was in the years of the Great Depression and World War II that the people we now call "The Greatest Generation" were molded. I would say that the Spirit led them in that time, even though some could see only the devil. I think we are in the same kind of desert now--the kind where it's hard to find water and the climate is uncomfortable and it seems like every hope turns out to be a mirage. But the Spirit is here, too, leading us to something better.

Lent reminds us that seeing that Spirit in a sandstorm requires discipline. We need to know the One we are looking for, and that requires time in prayer, study, and contemplation. Where I see a solid chair, a physicist sees a hub of molecular activity, but she didn't see that at birth. She learned to see it through disciplined training. Lent is that training for spiritual life.

We are in the desert. The devil is here and cannot be ignored. But the Spirit is leading us. Follow. The greatness of God is trying to be born in you.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Lesson of the Groundhog

"The seven years of plenty that prevailed in the land of Egypt came to an end; and the seven years of famine began to come, just as Joseph had said. There was famine in every country, but throught the land of Egypt there was bread." Genesis 41:53-54

It's Groundhog Day or, as I like to call it, The Feast of St. Chuck. As many of you know, I'm a fan of all creatures but have a special place in my heart for the lowly woodchuck. You can read about my most famous defense of them here.

More generally and more seriously, I have always believed that God's first revelation came in the created order and that everything in Creation has something to teach us. Which begs the question...what does God hope we learn from the groundhog?

The life of a groundhog is relatively straight forward: Eat all you can, get as fat as you can, sleep for several months together, wake up, predict the weather, repeat. There are times when that seems like an ideal life! But the gluttony of the groundhog that gets so many of you gardeners upset is not like the gluttony of people. There is a purpose for getting so fat. The groundhog hibernates for the winter. If a groundhog does not get fat enough, there is no spring awakening.

During hibernation, a groundhog's body temperature drops to 37 degrees F (3 degrees C) and its heartbeat drops from 80 beats per minute to 4-5. As it sleeps from roughly October - March, there is no nighttime raiding of the fridge. The groundhog lives off the fat accumulated in the Spring, Summer, and Fall, often even after waking back up, since the ground is often still snowy in March, with little to eat even then.

In short, the groundhog knows to store up during the times of plenty for the lean times ahead. It knows that some winters are longer than others and prepares for the worst, while popping back up in March, hoping for the best.

It was that wisdom that allowed the Hebrew patriarch, Joseph, to move from being a prisoner in Pharaoh's dungeon to being second in command in all of Egypt. Pharaoh had a dream and Joseph, while still in prison, gave the correct interpretation: The land would have seven years of plenty and during those seven years, Pharaoh should store up all the extra grain because seven years of famine was coming on its heels. Pharaoh did just that and when the hard times came, Egypt was the only place with food. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had to leave the land of Canaan and go to Egypt in order to survive.

It struck me how similar the plenty/lean cycle was to our current situation and how dissimilar was our preparation. When times were good, we did not look ahead and store up for the lean years. We were gluttons, yes, but for gluttony's sake--consuming anything and everything, whether we truly needed it or not. We neglected to remember God's lesson in creation that winter follows the harvest. While the groundhog dug his burrow deeper and prepared for hard times, we lived as if the abundance of summer would last forever. And it didn't.

The groundhog teaches us that hard times are a part of life. Some may be harder than others, but we can survive them if we remember that they will come and prepare. God sent that message through Joseph to Pharoah, allowing Egypt to prosper even in a time of famine. God sends that message to all of us who see a groundhog. Maybe we should put down our guns and traps and listen.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Keeping Watch

Matthew 26:38b "Stay here and keep watch with me."

Over New Year's I was visiting friends in Florida and, as you know if you've been watching the news, Florida has been having record cold temperatures. New Year's morning began with forty-degree temperatures and pouring rain, starting about 5:30 am and lasting all morning. So we got up late, felt lazy, and figured we'd shower and get dressed sometime after the Rose Bowl parade.

Then Dorothy said, "I just saw a dog." Understand that the home I was visiting is out in the middle of nowhere. You drive until the pavement turns to dirt and the dirt turns into their front yard. A dog out there meant a lost dog. It was about 9:30 am, it was still pouring and miserable and cold. I went out on the porch.

Shortly, she came around the corner--a chocolate lab, soaked through and acting as if she had been shoed away from a number of other homes, perhaps with force. But I could see she had a collar and tags, and after some persistence, she came to me. It took awhile, but I managed to get her up on the porch and got the information off her tags. Dorothy called while I stayed with the dog. Her name was Hershey, and her owner was out driving around looking for her when we called. She would come soon.

And so we waited. We got a towel and dried her off and fed her a bit of leftover steak from the night before. We looked down the road and we waited and we watched until Hershey's owner came to claim her. Then, having added "muddy wet dog" to my personal scent, I finally took a shower just in time for the parade.

Waiting with Hershey reminded me how frequently simply sitting and waiting with someone is the best form of ministry. When we sit with someone who has a loved one in surgery; when we keep vigil at the bedside of someone in their last hours; when we visit someone whose house has been empty of company far too long--what can seem like time doing nothing is actually time being Christ for others, being God with skin on.

That's all Jesus wanted during those last few hours before his arrest and death--someone to sit and watch with him. The disciples fell asleep and failed that simple request three times. We often fail as much or more. But with each new day and each new year, there is a chance to get it right--a chance to be there for the frightened, the lost, the wet and the cold. A chance to make a call, to get a towel, and to wait and watch until the One we wait for comes.

Labels: , , , , , ,

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Man Who Forgave Debts

"Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors." Matt. 6:12

Most people have never heard of Edward Tuckerman, Jr. I never had either, until I started researching the founders of the Massachusetts Bible Society for our bicentennial this past year. Artists might know him, since his portrait (pictured here) was painted by Gilbert Stuart, but the only other people who might know him are those who have studied the history of bread.

Edward Tuckerman, Jr. was a baker. He was born Dec. 27, 1740 and spent 50 years as a baker in Boston's south end, taking just a bit of time out to be a second lieutenant of the train of artillery in Boston during the American Revolution. What set Mr. Tuckerman apart as a baker, however, was not his longevity in the field, but the fact that he discovered how to keep biscuits fresh on long ocean voyages.

That discovery meant that his business grew by leaps and bounds, and soon he had over 300 employees and was serving all the ports of New England. He had many notable accomplishments, was a founder of several charitable societies and was even a state senator, but I'm writing about him here at the threshold of the New Year because of what Edward Tuckerman, Jr. did every New Year's Day.

If you owed Mr. Tuckerman money as the books were closed out for the preceding year, you got a call from Mr. Tuckerman. If any delinquent borrower, whether an individual or a business, could show that they did not have the ability to pay, Mr. Tuckerman forgave the debt. Large, small, didn't matter--every dime was forgiven. Not put on a payment plan, not deferred, forgiven. Debtors prisons would not be abolished until the middle of the 19th century, but Mr. Tuckerman took a higher road, perhaps because he followed a higher law.

Edward Tuckerman was an Episcopalian, active in Trinity Church in Boston as was his father before him. He would have known the Lord's Prayer since childhood. As a baker, I have to wonder how often he thought of "Give us this day our daily bread" in relation to his business, and of course the very next line is "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."

While many churches, including my own, substitute "trespasses" or "sins" for "debts," the word in Greek is an economic term. As hard as it is to forgive sins, I think there are more people willing to forgive sins than there are willing to forgive debt. Not so with Mr. Tuckerman, and if it had a negative impact on his business, it was not enough to impact his ability to give generously to the Massachusetts Bible Society, the Charitable Mechanic Association, his church, and others in need.

Edward Tuckerman was able to forgive all his debtors every New Year's Day for two reasons. The first is that he was not deeply in debt himself. He did not need to collect the debts of others to pay off his own debts. He built a business through persistence and creativity over 50 years, not through a capital loan overnight.

The second reason he was able to forgive debts, however, is because he knew that neither the bread he made nor the money that came as a result really belonged to him. He was a steward of God's resources, and knew that the opportunities and inspiration that made him a successful businessman were God's gifts to him. God gifted him so that he might in turn pass God's gifts along to others. So for 50 years, Edward Tuckerman, made the daily bread upon which people depended. And when they could not pay, it became a gift. He did not just pray the Lord's Prayer, he lived it.

Edward Tuckerman, Jr. died on July 17, 1818 and his obituary called him "one of Boston's most worthy, useful, and respectable citizens." I'm sure he had his flaws and, like all of us, I'm sure his life knew sin as well as the good. But I'm also sure that when he met God face to face, it was all forgiven, even as he had forgiven others.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Card

Nope...not a reflection about Christmas cards, although there's plenty to reflect on when you look at them all. I find it a stretch to think that Mary looked that refined after a 70-80 mile ride on a donkey that ended with giving birth in the smelly stable of an over-crowded inn. But hey...we think what we think, and the sentiment of this e-card is certainly what I wish for all of you.

Click here for your e-card.

Labels: , ,

Monday, December 7, 2009

When the Church banned Christmas

"It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county."
From the Records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 11, 1659

It's that season again when communities get all worked up about holiday displays and what can be shown there and retail clerks get ulcers worrying about whether or not they can say, "Merry Christmas" to those who come into their stores. In churches there is often the angst around who gets to be Mary in the Christmas pageant, whether a Christmas tree should be in the sanctuary and, if so, how it should be decorated.

Church programs are at full tilt, pastors prepare for multiple services, choirs are hard at work on cantatas, and church leaders fret that town regulations no longer allow hand-held candles at their candlelight services. And of course most everybody, both inside the church and out, is participating in keeping the economy afloat by buying things for people who, in most cases, don't really need them.

As many Christians get all worked up over "Keeping the Christ in Christmas," I've come to wonder if Jesus really would want his name associated with the holiday as it stands. And as I wondered that, I remembered my early experience as a Reference Assistant at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

The JCB is a rare book library specializing in Americana up to the year 1800, and in my time there I volunteered to work on a Christmas exhibition for our reading room. What I discovered in my research, however, was that Americans did not celebrate Christmas before 1800. In fact, the celebration of Christmas was actually banned in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659 and anyone caught celebrating had to pay a five-shilling fine.

And who got it banned? Why, the Christians, of course.
The ban lasted 22 years, but it wasn't until the middle of the 19th century before Christmas celebrations were really accepted as appropriate in religious circles. Consider this statement by the Rev. Increase Mather in 1687:

"The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth ..."

Consider also the very earliest Christians. Christmas was not an important festival in the Church for several centuries after Christ's death. The three big Church festivals were Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. Jesus' birth was relatively unimportant compared to the events that revealed his nature (Epiphany), his death and resurrection (Easter), and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost).

All of that makes me wonder if Christians perhaps should quit worrying about keeping the Christ in Christmas and simply let it be the time of warm sentiment, festive parties, and economic activity that it has become. Suppose we took the Christ OUT of Christmas and instead put Him back in Epiphany where He belongs?

Honestly, are even our Christmas Eve services accurately described as "holy"? They are sentimental, to be sure, and that is fine. I love a beautiful candlelight service as much as the next person. But I wonder sometimes if all our cooing over a baby Jesus isn't a way of guarding ourselves against the older Jesus. Jesus as a baby can't make us uncomfortable. He can't overturn our tables or tell us to love our enemies or to put away our swords. He just smiles at drummer boys, receives expensive presents from important people, and (if you're to believe the carols) doesn't even cry! Who wouldn't want a baby like that?

But the baby grows up, and as he does, the crowds of Christmas dwindle. Those who want to keep the Christ in Christmas often do not want him intruding at other times of the year. Like tax time, for example. We're only back again when Jesus has gotten through His life and that nasty execution and is safely resurrected and ready to offer us eternal life. Presents given to Him at birth are returned to us in Easter salvation and we get to avoid all those difficult lessons in-between.

Keep the Christ in Christmas if you will, but personally I think it's more important to put Him back in the rest of the year.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Keeping the Faith Alive

Judges 2:10 "Moreover, that whole generation was gathered to their ancestors, and another generation grew up after them, who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel."

"Anne Robertson!" I turned around at the large reception to see the man who had been my homeroom teacher in the seventh grade. "I thought about you just this morning," he said. "I was looking through old faculty pictures for tonight's celebration and I saw your parents' pictures. I remember you came a year early. Seventh grade and only 11 years old, but smart as a whip. 1970."

I was stunned. I knew many of my teachers very, very well. With parents on the high school faculty for their entire careers, my teachers were often friends of the family as well, and there are many I count as friends today. But my 7th grade homeroom teacher was not on that list. I don't remember even seeing him after I left middle school. But here he was at the 75th anniversary celebration of the founding of Coventry High School remembering me, the year I was in his class, and even my age.

It was an evening of such memories: The best principal on the planet, Jim DiPrete (pictured with me here), who talked about my mother's amazing skills and reliability as a colleague. The oh-so-patient Chemistry teacher and Student Council Advisor who was first taught by my father before he came to teach me. The teachers and students gone but not forgotten. The teacher who had never met me but who was consistently beaten by my father in ping pong.

Those people are why I went--to remember who I was and where I came from. To be among those who carry memories and perspectives of both me and my parents that I can get in no other way. To remember that our school motto was "Ad astra per aspera," "To the stars through difficulty," and to realize how true that was and is.

We all have our own memories, but it takes a community to keep them alive and vibrant. And of course there are those like my mother whose mind and memories have been taken from her. It is the job of her community to remember for her, just as we remember for and with each other. And memories were passed along. The most recent graduates were there along with a woman from the very first graduating class of 1935. We heard about her class and about the classes of the 40's, 50's and every decade since. Our own experiences were reinforced and given meaning and our memories were expanded both forward and backward--putting our lives in a greater context of shared community.

The Bible is full of places where God has people set up markers to hold the memory of events. Sometimes it was a physical marker, like a pile of stones or a special altar. Sometimes it was a festival like Passover or Pentecost. Sometimes it was the instruction to keep telling future generations, as in Deuteronomy 6:4ff where God instructs that the command to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, be said every morning and every evening and taught to all children. And of course there is the Bible itself, with scores of authors wanting to be sure that events and people and principles were remembered in certain ways.

The above passage from Judges stunned me when I first read it. How was it possible that a generation grew up that "did not know the Lord?" It was a catastrophic failure of community memory. For whatever reasons, a generation stopped sharing their memories, or shared them only with themselves and not with new generations. We know from the Bible itself that there were long stretches of time when the festivals were not celebrated and nobody even knew the Torah existed.

As our culture both inside and outside the church goes through a paradigm shift, it would be all too easy to allow another generation to grow up that "did not know the Lord." That doesn't mean our traditions can't change, but it does mean that if the pile of stones that used to mark an event has crumbled, the stones should not be tossed but should be reformed into something new. We are the keepers of the faith memory, both for those who have set it aside or had it beaten out of them, and for those just being born who do not know.

We need to gather to remember the stories and the people and our own "Ad astra per aspera," which might be translated to faith as "Take up your cross and follow me." When people return to faith communities they should be filled with the memories of why they came, not with flashbacks of why they left. We must help each other remember who and whose we are.

At the anniversary party I learned that my beloved principal was on Facebook and the minute I got home I sent him a friend request. Our churches should inspire us to do the same with Jesus. Rekindle the memory. Share the stories. Teach the children.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

Monday, November 2, 2009

Trick or Treat

John 3:17 "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him."

Last week the Vatican condemned Halloween. Of course if you have been reading SpiritWalkers over the years, you know my connection to Halloween and the sacred moments I've had with the holiday. Sure, there are depraved souls who use the holiday as an excuse to do depraved things, but I found nothing to condemn in the parade of children who came to my door on Saturday night. Even the banter with the teen who came late and tried to convince me that he deserved all the rest of my candy because he was last was fun.

So although I wanted to write a defense of the celebration, I've done that before. But really, the problem I have with the Vatican's proclamation is bigger than the issue of Halloween. I'm simply tired of the Church and the Christians within it condemning things. It seems to many that we are all trick and no treat.

The Massachusetts Bible Society which I lead just produced a video on biblical interpretation with Liz Walker Journey Productions, called "One Book, Many Voices." Copies will be available on Amazon by Thanksgiving, I hope. In that video, three biblical scholars express their views on the "I am the Way" text in John 14:6. Tony Campolo's view stuck with me. While he takes a standard evangelical interpretation of the text, meaning Jesus is the only way to salvation, he also takes a step back when considering what that means for those who are not Christian.

"I don't know," he says in the video. "And what's more, I'm not about to condemn them. I find that too many of my evangelical friends are in the condemning business. Jesus was quite clear that he came into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world. And if Jesus didn't come to condemn people, we shouldn't be in that business either." While my own interpretation of the I am the Way text is different (as you can read in God With Skin On), I am completely on board with his comments on condemnation. Christians should get out of that business. It is much more destructive than Halloween.

Perhaps you have heard about the ad campaign that began in the New York City subways on Oct. 26. The ad being plastered in trains and stations is "No God, No Guilt, De-Baptize." It's part of the new, and often quite militant, atheist movement. They have invented a ritual for people to remove their baptism and renounce Christian faith. Dealing with that issue needs its own post (are they saying that mass murderers should have no guilt because there is no God?), but for my purposes here, I want to simply observe that much of what the new atheist movement is reacting against is the Christian penchant for condemning people.

Our public persona has caused people to view us as the people of "Thou Shalt Not." When Jesus was asked which commandment was the greatest, he didn't pick any of the host of negative ones. He didn't even pick any of the Ten Commandments. He reached to Deuteronomy 6:5, to love God with all your heart, soul, and strength, and Leviticus 19:18, to love your neighbor as yourself. Love, not condemnation is what Jesus thought was most important.

We don't get extra brownie points with God for every person whose sin we expose or for every practice we declare incompatible with Christian teaching. God isn't impressed with our seeming ability to discern who God loves and who is hell-bound. And neither are those outside of Christian faith. Our zealous condemning merely reminds them of why they are quite happy to be free of such a mean-spirited, negative bunch of people.

Of course not all of us fit that stereotype, but until the rest of us follow Tony Campolo's lead and object to all the condemnation that is occurring in Christ's name, we will continue to be seen as the people of "Thou shalt not" instead of the people of "Love your neighbor." And more people will propose ad campaigns like, "No God, No Guilt."

On Halloween night, everyone coming to my door received treats, whether they were dressed like Tinkerbell or Freddy Krueger. Let's do the same in our churches. Let's leave judgment in God's hands and spread God's love to everyone--not just those in the costumes we approve.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, October 12, 2009

On the Merits

Matt. 16:18-19 "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

This part of Matthew's Gospel has carried a lot over the years. It is the only place in the gospels that the word "church" is used. It is the justification for Peter being considered the first Pope in Roman Catholic tradition and, since Jesus says that Peter will receive the keys to the kingdom of heaven, it ensures that Peter plays a prominent role in anything mentioning entry to heaven--art, pearly gates jokes, you name it.

This passage also re-names Peter. His name has been Simon before this, which is a Hebrew name meaning "to hear or be heard." But Jesus names him Peter (Cephas in the Greek), which means "rock." The whole passage is really a rather massive promotion. A rash fisherman becomes the rock on which the church is founded, is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and receives some significant spiritual power. Why? Because when Jesus' asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter responds that Jesus is the Messiah.

This story is just over midway through Matthew's Gospel. Peter is a lot of things at this point, but he is, frankly, nothing like a rock that anybody would build anything on. In fact, just five verses later, Jesus rebukes Peter with the words, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things." Apparently Peter is still stone-like, but his purpose has fallen from church foundation to stumbling block in a mere five verses. And of course it won't be long before Peter is famously denying that he even knows the guy who just promised him the keys to heaven.

This passage has been ringing in my ears lately because of all the "he doesn't deserve it" flap around President Obama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. I will grant the nay-sayers that no, he has not earned such a prestigious prize. But neither did Peter deserve his "rock" title, let alone the keys to the kingdom. I don't so much want to defend the decision of the Nobel committee as much as simply raise the question about why we Christians are so adamant that everyone earn everything.

There are certainly examples where Jesus responds to actual merit with reward. The whole final judgment scene in Matthew 25 is about rewarding those who have done actual good works. But there are also plenty of places where Jesus disregards merit completely--in fact, the entire theology of salvation in the Protestant tradition is grounded in the notion that we are receiving eternal life as an unmerited gift. We call that "grace." We sometimes work hard to try to make "having faith" into some kind of work that earns us that gift, but Protestants have gone to the mat for over a millennium now for the belief that we did not and cannot earn our salvation.

God changed Abram's name to Abraham, which means the "father of a multitude," before he had even a single child. Simon became "the rock" and was promised the keys to the kingdom right before his most famous and utter failure. And Romans 5:8 spells out the most outrageous gift of all: "God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us."

My entire book, God With Skin On, is based on the premise that we only come to understand the love of God by experiencing it first in the flesh. For that reason, in this world where we even make people prove they are worthy of charity, I am glad that the prestigious Nobel committee unanimously decided to bestow a new name on a promise and a hope, rather than a proven entity. It reminds me that I do not have to earn God's love, but rather live out my gratitude for it.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Urgent Candy Delivery

Matt. 6:11 "Give us this day, our daily bread."

Out on the road the other day I passed a truck for a local candy company. Written across the back was "Urgent Candy Delivery." I laughed and then began to think.

Candy deliveries are hardly urgent in the way that, oh, organs to be transplanted are. And yet, most of us know the feeling the truck slogan represents. I did once perform an actual urgent candy delivery for a diabetic English teacher who took me aside in class and sent me on an emergency run to a school vending machine. But by and large, candy deliveries are urgent only in response to a craving, not an actual need.

As I thought about the phrase "urgent candy delivery," it reminded me of what we often do in prayer. In the model prayer Jesus gave us, which we now call "The Lord's Prayer," Jesus tells us to pray each day for what we need: Daily bread, forgiveness, release from temptation, delivery from evil. But many times our prayers completely ignore the daily bread and instead pray for the fulfillment of whatever craving is tempting us at the moment. We want the candy, and we want it now!

Sometimes that prayer is relatively benign: "Please, God, let the Red Sox win!" "Make her/him notice me." "Don't let it rain on Monday's barbeque." Or my father's favorite: "Find me a parking space."

But once we begin to see God as the source for our urgent candy deliveries, we are primed to pray for fulfillment of some of our baser cravings. We pray not only that we will pass the test but that others we dislike will fail. We pray that someone's spouse will not be home so we can make an illicit advance. We pray that public figures we disagree with or personal acquaintances that make our lives difficult will die. And Jesus is uncomfortably clear in the Sermon on the Mount (especially Matt. 5:21-48) that such thoughts are tantamount to the actual deeds they represent.

Perhaps the most dangerous thing of all in an "urgent candy" prayer, however, is the way that it changes our perception of God from the Lord who supplies our daily bread and delivers us from evil to the slave who does our bidding and carries out our basest desires. Praying an "urgent candy" prayer is dangerous to body and soul. But there is another way to handle those thoughts in prayer.

Remember that the Lord's Prayer is a model for prayer. Jesus didn't say, "Use these words and only these words when you pray." In Matt. 6:9, Jesus says "This is how you should pray." It's an example of the elements in a respectful and effective prayer. Praise and acknowledgement of God. A wish on the front end that it be God's will and God's kingdom that is effective on earth. Petition for what we need in the moment: Daily bread (not daily candy), forgiveness (which is tied to our willingness to forgive others), avoidance of temptation, delivery from evil, and then closing with a final acknowledgement of God's authority.

In that template for prayer, there is plenty of room to express our "urgent candy" prayers. They are properly done in the context of acknowledging that they represent a temptation we need help to avoid, an evil from which we need delivery, or a little request for something that would please us with the acknowledgment that God has no duty to provide.

God does not insist that we clean up our prayers to get rid of our honest feelings or desires. The Psalms would be gone if that were the case. But in the Lord's Prayer, Jesus teaches us how to frame the desires of our hearts--both the light and the dark--in a way that will still honor the God we love. Maybe we should recite it less often and explore it as a template more frequently.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Preaching the Gospel

Mark 1:14-16 "Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news."

This past Sunday I got "Joe Wilsoned" as I preached a sermon to a congregation on Cape Cod. It was relatively early in the sermon and as I mentioned that the Bible was difficult to understand and contained inconsistencies, a man shouted out "No!" I wasn't quite sure what he was going to do, as he fidgeted in his pew, noticeably agitated. But there were no more outbursts, he didn't walk out, and after a few minutes he physically settled back down. He did, however, speak to me after the service.

After quite a bit of conversation, I'm still unsure why his outburst came at the point that it did. He told me he was not a hard-core literalist--for instance he recognizes that the earth is more than 6,000 years old--but he fussed and fussed at me that I didn't move my sermon to an altar call and "preach the gospel." "It's all about the blood," he said. "People are going to hell and we have to tell them that Jesus died for their sins. That's the gospel, and that's all there is."

Well, I knew where he was coming from, since I believed that many years ago. Like this man, I had been trained to believe that "Jesus died for our sins" was it. That's the gospel. But then I saw that in many places across Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus preached the "gospel" and several times sent out his disciples to do the same thing. "Wait," I thought. "There was apparently some content to the gospel years before Jesus' death and resurrection. How can that be?"

So I looked for clues about the content of this "gospel" that Jesus and his disciples preached during Jesus' lifetime. The Mark passage above shows us what that content was for Jesus, and in Matthew 10:7 Jesus also tells his disciples to preach, "The kingdom of heaven has come near." The Greek word for "near" is eggizo which is not a word about near in time, but rather refers to being physically near.

The "gospel" or "good news" that Jesus and his disciples preached during Jesus' lifetime was not the gospel of Easter (which hadn't happened yet) but of Christmas. God has shown up on earth in human flesh. The kingdom has come near and is standing beside you bringing you healing and hope in a very physical, tangible way. That is not to negate the importance of Good Friday and Easter, merely to say that to see "the gospel" as only a doctrine of the atonement is, at best, incomplete.

In fact, on closer reading "the gospel" appears not to be a doctrine at all. "The gospel" is the news that God is willing to take those made in the image of God and fill them also with the Spirit of God. The "gospel" is the life of Jesus, from birth through death to resurrection to breathing the Holy Spirit into his followers so that that they may carry on his work (John 20:21-22).

That's why we call the records of the life of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John "gospels." They are not just passion narratives, although those are critical. It's the whole life of Jesus--and even beyond. The only reason we don't consider the book of Acts (also written by Luke) as a "gospel" is because Luke ran out of scroll and had to start a second one, which we came to treat as a separate book. The gospel is not just the good news of what God did in Jesus, but also the good news that what God did in Jesus God is also willing to do in us, the Body of Christ.

Jesus could not be contained in the tomb. Neither can the gospel.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Common Ones

flock of sparrows in a treeLuke 12:6 "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And yet not one of them is forgotten by God."

Most of us in service professions get overwhelmed at times. The needs are so great and the resources so small, and often the smallest resource of all feels like our own time and energy. Even if you're not doing anything in particular at the moment, there is a constant weight of what is needed and what remains undone. The work of service knows no time clock.

On top of that, it can be thankless or even met with open hostility. Think of the way that community organizers were slammed and demonized in 2008 and you'll have a small idea. It's like that in religious service, too, and there have been many times when the question "Why am I subjecting myself to this? Why don't I just do something else?" has forced its way to the front.

When that happens, I generally go for a walk. And when I do, I unfailingly see sparrows.

When I was a young child, my mother used to sing hymns to me before bed. This is My Father's World was a favorite and, combined with her love of all living things, I learned from her that God could teach me through Creation just as surely as God could teach me through the Bible and through other people. Which is where the sparrows come in. At some point in ministry, as I pondered whatever set of trials and tribulations had driven me out for that walk, I passed a bush. It seemed like a regular bush, but as I got closer, it moved. It was filled with a flock of sparrows.

The message dropped like a 75 lb. package from UPS on my head. "You are doing it for them. For the little ones, for the common ones, for the ones that can be easily bought and sold with impunity, for the ones that kids think it's okay to shoot with bb guns. There are masses of them...they are as common as the sparrow and just as disregarded. No one listens for their songs, no one tries to attract them to their feeders because they don't have pretty colors. People get angry because houses made for purple martins or bluebirds get turned into public housing for unlovely sparrows. But God has not forgotten them and has sent you and others to care for them."

Whenever my own task has felt too overwhelming, the sparrows descend as a reminder. They fill the bushes. They are there at the dumpster behind the restaurant or on the city streets, hopping from here to there looking for crumbs. They sit outside my window, reminding me that I am in ministry because God has not forgotten them and I am part of God's provision for the sparrows of the world.

Labels: , , , , ,

Monday, August 24, 2009

Psalm 137: Honesty in Prayer

dejected man surrounded by ravens

Psalm 137:9 “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”

Understandably, this verse is a problem for a lot of people. I have heard it cited as one reason that people want nothing to do with the Bible. I have also heard of it being used literally to justify infanticide. I want to explain why I’m glad it’s in the Bible.

First, this verse is a shining example of why taking the Bible literally is not helpful. All it does is make people turn away from something that otherwise could bring comfort and relief. Take the Bible seriously but not literally. I can’t say that enough. So how do we take something like this seriously without heaving the Bible through a window?

Well, the Psalms are prayers…they are the prayers sung by God’s people for at least 3,000 years. Some are attributed to King David, some to several others. This is one of the others. The collection of prayers known as The Psalms are not written as examples of how God’s people should pray. They are written as the prayers that the people of God do pray. Across the 150 Psalms we find expressions of every human emotion, and in that sense they are a model for prayer. Our prayers should be honest. God knows what we’re thinking and feeling, whether it is pretty and proper or not. The Psalms (along with much of Job and Lamentations and other passages) show us that God is big enough to handle our darkest most irreverent thoughts, our deepest doubts and despair.

The subtitle for Psalm 137 says, “Lament over the destruction of Jerusalem.” Read the history of the destruction of Jersualem by Babylon. There was an awful siege that starved the people and resulted in cannibalism within the city. It was, simply, horrific. For those who survived, having watched their own children die, wishing the same for their enemies may not embody the principle of forgiveness, but it was a prayer of honest emotion before God. I actually used this text at a candlelight vigil the week of September 11, 2001. It wasn’t an example of how we should feel—simply an expression of how many did feel. That is one purpose of liturgy and prayer—to provide a safe place for the inexpressible to be expressed.

I was glad in that moment for the improper and unpretty parts of the Bible—the parts that, when taken seriously but not literally, can help us look at the shadow side of ourselves and see that such thoughts make us normal rather than evil. And if we can take that consolation from the Bible, rather than tossing it out because the words are ugly, we will keep reading as the text guides us in transforming our grief and anger into grace.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, August 9, 2009

God with Fur On

John 14:18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

On Friday, the day I had been dreading finally came. When Ruckus (my dog) cried out for a minute or more in a painful spasm, I knew the cancer had spread to his bones and that it was time to keep my promise to my faithful friend not to let him suffer. When I called the vet, I discovered they were closing in 20 minutes. There was no time to think or to call anyone to go with me; we just went. And then it was done.

Of course for me, as for so many others, our pets are our family and losing them hurts like few other things. I have a Ruckus-sized hole in my heart. And it wasn’t just me. Gatsby (pictured here) knew something was wrong and even now continues to look for the dog. They were buddies. So while normally I exile Gatsby to the sun room at night so he doesn’t paw my face at 2 am, I let him have the run of the house on Friday night. As I got into bed, he jumped up with me and stayed close while I read and did my evening devotions. I shut off the light to sleep and about 20 minutes later he jumped down and went out of the room to go investigate the dark.

I tossed and turned, my heart aching for Ruckus. Finally I just burst into large hulking sobs. In an instant, Gatsby was back, running from wherever he had been and jumping back up on the bed. He curled up close and stayed there until my sobbing subsided and I again settled down. Then he jumped back off the bed and went about his business.

There’s a chapter in my new book about our relationship with animals and the importance of the human-animal bond. God often comes to us in other people—God with skin on. But there are many times when God is wearing fur rather than skin. For many people, the only experience they’ve ever had of unconditional love is from a beloved pet. To discount that, as unfortunately many do, is to take away the only bridge some people have to experiencing God’s love. Sometimes it is the fog that comes on little cat feet; sometimes it is God.

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Save the Frogs

Isaiah 55:8 “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ says the Lord."

I accidentally broke a frog the other day. The frog in question had hopped himself right up to my sunroom door, and I didn’t see him. The door opens out and when I opened it to let the dog out, the frog’s leg got caught under the door. He managed to free himself, but the leg was no longer doing what it should and he kept falling over, hopping sideways, or generally having issues. By the next day he was hopping a bit better around the yard, learning to compensate for a leg that didn’t work properly, and I thought maybe he’d make it. Perhaps he did make it, but the next morning my cat threw up a frog on the carpet, so I have my doubts.

For reasons known only to my peculiar brain chemistry, my lack of watchfulness in opening the door and the resulting injury made me think of the way we sometimes open the Bible. We open its pages with force and purpose, like God gave it to us solely to support our own agendas. We open it callously, throwing around its phrases without really listening to some of them or noticing that we have just torn the leg off of someone who had been hovering close by. We open it arrogantly, thinking that its contents are indisputably clear, and that those who view it differently are at best wrong and at worst outside of God’s mercy. We open it thinking that it is our book, rather than God’s book, our word rather than the Word of the Lord. In the name of the Bible, we wound others made in the image of God, leaving them vulnerable to other predators.

This has been on my mind because on July 5 I was out preaching for the Massachusetts Bible Society and delivered my “stump sermon” to some folks on Cape Cod. The essence of the sermon is the core MBS philosophy, “taking the Bible seriously but not literally.” Since we are now on Twitter, I came home and tweeted that message.

By the next morning my video introduction to MBS, which has been on our website over a year, was posted on a fundamentalist website and I was declared to be an enemy of the Gospel. The video on YouTube as of this morning has received 1086 hits with people calling me unchristian as well as others lending their support. As I told the folks at our anniversary dinner, I haven’t had such great publicity since Fred Phelps preached about me and called me Jezebel.

But the debate is not a minor one, or something to engage simply for sport. When I preached that “stump sermon” on Cape Cod, I got the same reaction that I have in other places—an outpouring of gratitude and a new enthusiasm for reading a book that many of those listening had put away on a shelf long ago.

When I give people permission to read the Bible in its historical context and with their brain in gear instead of swallowing every detail whole, they come up to me afterwards and tell me of the ways they were wounded by those who threw open the Bible without regard for those nearby--those who claimed absolute knowledge of the ways and truth of God and then used that “sword of the spirit” to cut them down. They tell me of being afraid of the Bible because of those who threatened hell if they should question a passage or interpretation. Last I checked God was the judge and not human beings.

We see through a glass, darkly Paul says. All of us. God warns through Isaiah that God neither thinks nor acts like we do (no exceptions for those who take the Bible literally). When we open the Bible, we should do so reverently, gingerly, prayerfully, humbly, and with all the faculties of reason and sense that God gave us. When we do that, no innocent creatures will be torn apart and our own faith will be both deepened and blessed. In the meantime, those of us at the Massachusetts Bible Society are working to develop some doorstoppers, so fewer lives are hobbled by those who unwittingly forget that God’s ways and thoughts are not ours.

Labels: , , , ,

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Supreme Court Considerations

John 8:7 "If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

The process of selecting a Supreme Court justice, who serves on the bench for life, is critical to our nation’s health and stability. It’s one of those things we simply must get right. Maybe because the pressure to get it right is so great, we always seem to get a little crazy when that time comes around, although we’re not always crazy in the same way.

A couple of decades ago we wanted our justices to have no personal opinions at all. Then over the last decade it shifted and we insisted they have partisan preferences so they could qualify to replace either a liberal or conservative judge who came before them. Now there’s a new brand of craziness and people are questioning whether it is appropriate to look for a Supreme Court justice with empathy. Hello? Isn’t that the difference between administering the law and administering justice?

Because one of the main Scriptural metaphors for God is that of a judge, and because biblical leaders were also generally called upon as judges, people of faith have an interest in these matters—or should. The best-known Old Testament judgment is the case of the two women claiming to be the mother of a single baby, a case that was brought to King Solomon.

In a case hailed forever after as a sign of Solomon’s wisdom, Solomon uses his experience of a mother’s love to decide the case. He orders that the child be cut in half, with half a baby given to each. When one of the women cried out to spare the child and give it to the other woman, Solomon knew he had the real mother and gave the child to her. One example of empathy at work, resulting in justice.

We only see Jesus acting formally as a judge once, in the opening verses of John 8. A woman has been caught in the act of adultery (although oddly enough they could only manage to bring the woman and not the man for judgment) and the Pharisees bring her to Jesus to judge, reminding him that the punishment dictated by the law is death by stoning. Jesus makes his judgment based on his ability to connect with and understand people—empathy. More than that, he brings about justice by calling those present to empathize with the woman as well. They are all reminded of their own sins and only those who have no sin are allowed to administer what the law requires.

It works, and nobody throws the first stone. Then Jesus, arguably the only one there who could have thrown a stone under the rule, does not. He recognizes her sin and tells her to shape up. But he lets her go, as the Pharisees had obviously already let the man go. What Jesus continually objected to in the Pharisees was their lack of empathy in administering the law. They were legalists, caring only about the technicalities of the law and not the broader concerns of justice. They were concerned with the letter of the law rather than its spirit.

The “Good News” of the New Testament is that our ultimate judge is Jesus and not the Pharisees. We get the guy with the empathy not the one with a literal interpretation of the law. There are plenty of legitimate questions to ask about a potential judge, for the Supreme Court or otherwise; but if empathy becomes an impediment to someone's selection, we could easily become a nation of Pharisees, leaving us all in danger of being stoned to death.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Bible, A Lamp, and A GPS

Psalm 119:105 “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”

To begin with, just a bit of information about this Psalm in case you are ever on Jeopardy and there’s a Bible question about Psalm 119. With 176 verses, it is the longest of the Psalms. It is also known as an “alphabet" or "acrostic" Psalm, meaning that every eight-verse section begins with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

There are eight other Psalms that are written this way, each with a differing number of verses per letter. For this reason and because Psalm 119 focuses on the importance of keeping God’s law, it is often used to train Jewish children in the Hebrew alphabet. “I’ll take The Bible for 500, Alex.” Now you’re prepared.

But what I really wanted to talk about was last week, when I put my handy-dandy GPS on my dashboard to head to the church where I was preaching. Those of you who know me know that I can get lost in my own backyard, so the invention of the GPS instantly took the stress out of trips for me. No longer do I have to try to read directions and drive at the same time. If I go the wrong way, my lovely GPS figures out where I am, says “recalculating” without a hint of criticism for my error, and gives me a new way to get there.

Last week, however, I discovered a flaw. It apparently is not smart enough to know about bike races. I was an hour away from home and almost to my destination, when I saw the flashing lights up ahead. Bicycles flew by but the nice officer stopped me and told me that the road was closed and I would have to go another way. I asked my little dashboard friend what to do about it, but it was silent. It was up to me to make a choice and then it would give me maps and directions based on the road I was on.

Some people seem to believe that the Bible shows only one road that must be followed at all costs—a road that can be followed to its completion if you just figure out how to do it correctly. But I think this verse from Psalm 119 (made famous by Amy Grant’s song) teaches us that it’s not quite so simple. The Bible is like a lamp. It shows what is beneath our feet so we can take our next steps. That lamp might show a flat, firm path. It might show a rocky ascent, a slippery slope, or a path so covered in brambles that it is impassable. It might show us a crossroads with several paths to choose from. It is then up to us to decide what steps and what path to take.

When we make a choice, the lamp continues to show us what lies in front of us, just as my GPS always shows me a map of my immediate area. But lamps and GPS devices don’t make your decisions for you. They simply give you a clearer idea of what you get if you go a certain way. The Bible is no different. God does not take away our freedom to choose the way we will follow. God simply makes sure that we always have a light for our path.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Checking in

Since some of you have written with concerns since SpiritWalkers has now missed a number of weeks, I wanted to write.

First--yes, it will be back. I've had a convergence of family, health, work, and general life issues that have me struggling to keep even my snorkel above water, let alone my head.

It might be a week or two yet before I'm back in the groove, so I wanted to offer the following in the meantime.

If you're up for video, I've done a couple of things lately that are available in that format. The video is in a mobile format, so you should be able to watch it on your phone, too.

1. Since God with Skin on is now officially out and available (you can get it on Amazon here), I had a book signing on April 28 at which I gave a talk about the book. It's posted on the MBS website here. If you have trouble viewing it on that site you can also watch it directly on Motionbox here.

2. One of the events that has been a huge time sink was our Annual Meeting on May 2, which was followed by a bicentennial celebration worship service. I preached for that and the sermon is posted on the MBS site here or on Motionbox here.

If you can't watch video, well, there's this book you can read. :)

Thanks for keeping in touch.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Naboth's Vineyard

1 Kings 21:15 “As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, "Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead."

I was out preaching this morning in one of the Bible Society’s partner churches, where I highlighted our willingness to address questions anybody might have about the Bible. A man came up to me during coffee hour saying that he wanted to take me up on that with a question that had bugged him for some time. “You know that story about the vineyard?” he asked. My mind raced through a whole pile of biblical vineyard stories. “The king gets the vineyard and I don’t understand why,” he continued. “And there’s something about dogs.”

We finally figured out that he was talking about the story in 1 Kings 21 where King Ahab and Queen Jezebel take the vineyard of one of their subjects named Naboth. First they offer to buy the vineyard, but Naboth would like to keep his vineyard and declines their offer. So they kill him and take it. The prophet Elijah finds out and brings the word of the Lord to Ahab and Jezebel, predicting their own demise will result in their dead bodies being left unburied so that wild dogs will eat them. A lovely lunch-time story.

The man asking the question was troubled that within the pages of Scripture was a story where an evil king took away both the life and the property of a good man. Even though Ahab and Jezebel bore the condemnation of God, as he saw it they still benefited from the vineyard and in some sense got away with it.

His question was two fold. On the one hand is the question asked by most of us at some time or another and that is captured best by Jeremiah when he says to God: “Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1) I’m not especially qualified to answer that question, since I often have it myself. But this man’s issue seemed to be more specifically that this was a story in the Bible, which to him meant that it was an example of how things should be. But the bad guy won, so how could it be in the Bible?

That’s actually a common misperception, so I thought I would address it. The Bible is not a picture of life the way it should be. The Bible is a picture of how life is and always has been. What makes it special is that it is the story of how God has worked and is working within the history of what is to try to teach us to make it what God intended it to be from the beginning. So the Bible tells us the stories not just of the good people, and not just of the people who are trying to be faithful but mess up. It tells us also of the jerks and the mean and vile people and shows us exactly how they harm the innocent. Then it brings along prophets like Elijah who speak for God in condemning the evil that has been done. Ultimately it brings the story of Jesus, who shows us how to live faithfully in a world where the wicked often do prosper.

In the story of Jesus we see what all the other stories have been for. They show us God at work within human history, teaching and rebuking, pulling and shaping, to try to mold a troubled world into something resembling the Kingdom of God.

In our world today things are no different. Kings steal the vineyards of their citizens. Bernie Madoffs steal your retirement. Wall Street steals your home and laughs all the way to the bank. The wicked too often prosper and the righteous too often get hit by a bus. And God continues to respond just as God always has—by calling on God’s people to fix it and raise up our children in a different way. Easter night Jesus appeared to his disciples, breathed the Holy Spirit into them and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21) Empowered by God’s spirit, fixing the world so that the wicked no longer prosper is our job now.

The Bible is not all sweetness and light. It shows the world with all its flaws. It also teaches us what to do about it.

Labels: , , ,

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Crows and Songbirds

Proverbs 12:18 “Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

While out walking yesterday I heard a very strange bird call. It sounded almost like a human trying to imitate a crow and another human calling back. The call was “caw, caw” but not in the raspy tone of crows…more like a conversation between two human actors trying to make their point understood by saying the word “caw” in different tones. It’s hard to describe. As I searched for the source, however, I discovered that it was not people saying “caw,” but actual crows. I found them and watched and listened to the two of them “talking” to each other. No harsh sounds, no raspiness.

Hearing that made me remember a number of years back when I lived in Dover, NH and had birds and critters of all kinds on my back deck. It was there, for the first and only time in my life thus far, that I heard a crow actually sing. It was a song as lovely as any traditional songbird, and it drew me to the window to see what new bird had come to bring such a melody. And there, on the deck railing not ten feet from the window, was a crow…singing. I had heard that it was possible. Crows are known to imitate other birds and even the human voice. But in thousands of encounters with crows in the wild, I have now heard something different than a raspy caw only twice.

Thinking of that made me remember that a key theme in the book of Proverbs is the use of the tongue. Actions may speak louder than words, but words reveal the heart and can get you in a pile of hot water. Whether you’re talking about lies or gossip, angry words or just mindless blather, Proverbs comes down on all of it, contrasting the fool with the wise as in the passage quoted here.

In this season of Lenten discipline, I am remembering the crow. The bird who usually just makes a harsh racket but yet is capable of beautiful song and gentle speech reminds me that I, too, am capable of both. For which type of speech am I known? Do others so associate my speech with harshness that they would call a lovely song a rarity? Do I whine more than encourage? Is my speech a sword thrust or a healing balm?

It’s easy for us sometimes just to claim we’re not songbirds…that we don’t have the gift to make our speech a soothing melody. No, they are the songbirds and I’m the one who has to convey the harsh reality. I’m the prophet crying in the wilderness until my voice is raspy from the effort. Perhaps. But I will never forget the day I heard a crow sing.

Labels: , , , , ,

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Undeserving Neighbors

Romans 5:8 “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

We live in pretty strange times. During the Bush years we heard a lot about the Christian influence on government and how we were a “Christian nation.” And there was a lot of emphasis on social values related to abortion and gay marriage. Christians differ about those things (although you never would have known it from the media) but you did have the sense that the religious community was thinking about policy and at least trying to apply it.

Now, in our new reality, we are really in trouble. We have major, major issues that affect not only all of America but the entire globe. What strikes me is that for at least six months now, the “secular” media has been devoting large chunks of airtime to what are, in essence, religious issues and questions. Even specifically Christian ones. The table is prepared for us, yet no one is coming to the feast.

As the collapse began, it was the issue of greed. Everybody talked about it. The Roman Catholics have named it a deadly sin. The Bible is so full of talk of greed that if you cut those passages out, you’d be left with tatters. Even now that first course of the meal remains largely untouched by people of faith, although it is an issue that we agree on across the liberal-conservative spectrum.

Next came depression and despair. I wrote here about TV anchors wondering aloud how to give people hope. We had a huge election that was all about hope. Some of that salad course might have been consumed in the privacy of local churches, but I didn’t see the religious figures on the news in the way the gay marriage and abortion folks had been. Hope is a uniter, not a divider in Christian faith. We could speak together, but largely we haven’t.

And now, the entrée has been served, and if we don’t get our butts into those dinner chairs, liberal and conservative alike, then we deserve every bit of criticism that has been heaped on the Church and organized religion. Since Congress began putting together the meat of a stimulus bill and now into the rich sauce of a housing proposal, almost half of every news program I watch is people arguing against any part of a proposal that will help people who don’t deserve it. More than that, this course is so rich that the mainstream, secular media is asking almost every single night, whether it is right and proper to help our neighbors, our honest-to-goodness-live-next-door neighbors, if they contributed to their own misfortune.

Neighbors. Get it? Love your neighbor?

The core of the Bible for mainliners is generally the Great Commandment: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. The core of the Bible for evangelicals is Jesus dying for our sins even though we didn’t deserve it. Grace is the church word for receiving what we don’t deserve. That’s why we sing that it is amazing.

It is completely understandable that those with different faith systems or no faith tradition at all would worry about helping out the guy across the street who doesn’t deserve help. But, literally for heaven’s sake, not a single Christian on either the right or the left, should be objecting on those grounds. You may not like it for other reasons, but if you profess anything at all like Christian faith, you should be able to recognize and support grace when you see it.

My new book, God with Skin On, is all about the concept that the job of Christians is to continue to do to others what Jesus did for us. By doing so…by giving others the experience of God in the flesh—God with skin on—we help others recognize and accept God’s love. If you have never received something you didn’t deserve on this earth, recognizing that God would do such a thing for you is too big a chasm to jump. There are proposals on the government table that would offer grace. Will Christians oppose it on that very point? Oppose it on other points if you will, but not that one. Has there been any climate since the Great Depression when it was more fitting for Christians to speak out on “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors?”

Where are the Christians at this meal? The main course is served!

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, February 16, 2009

God with Skin On

I've been up to my eyeballs this weekend and there won't be a regular SpiritWalkers, but instead I have another project in which I invite your participation. As you know, my third book will be out in April. It's called God with Skin On: Finding God's Love in Human Relationships. Last night I launched a new, simple website for the book here.

I used a very simple program to make the site, so it's not all that flexible, but I wanted to get some interactivity in there anyway, which you'll see on the blog page. I'm inviting people to send me (short!) stories of people who have been "God with skin on" for them. And a picture, too, if you've got one. The plan is to make the blog a collection of stories and pictures of what it means to be God with skin on for others. I'm going to trim names down to just first names, and if you send any pictures with children, please assure me in the e-mail that you have the permission of parents or guardians to put the photos up. It wouldn't hurt to check with the adults either, but with the children it's a must.

The book is available now for pre-order on Amazon, by the way. The links are on the godwithskinon site.

If you could send along your own stories, I'd love to have them.

Thanks, and I'll be back with a regular issue next weekend.

Labels: , , ,