Sunday, September 28, 2014

What a Covenant...Wait! What is a covenant?


What a fellowship, what a joy divine! Leaning on the Everlasting Arms!
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,  Leaning on the Everlasting Arms!  
First verse of the hymn, What a Fellowship

In the last post, I laid out one understanding of a narrative arc in scripture going from creation to crisis to community to Christ to church to culmination.  And like all human understandings there are pros and cons to this idea.  One drawback is that it does not emphasize enough the word, covenant.  Our modern day understanding of covenant tends to conflate or confuse it with contract.  While culturally there are similarities, I think within Scripture the two are  not synonymous.  A contract has a legal aspect and well-defined consequences for breaking the contract.  If I decide to jump ship from Verizon and go to AT&T, there is a well-defined financial consequence for that choice.  We are bound by contracts from the places we live to the credit cards we carry to even our jobs.  So, it makes sense that we view covenant through that same lens, it is convenient and seems to be the way the world works.  

Yet, a covenant is different.  A covenant is a vow made between to people.  A covenant is most concerned with the relationship.  Marriage vows are a covenant.  When my wife and I exchanged vows, we made a covenant to each other.  We did not sign our names on a dotted line with those words printed above, we looked each other in the eyes.  We did not talk about "early termination fees" or ways the vows would be "null and void", although there were implicit, if unspoken, ideals about what it meant to live out and live up to the words we were saying.  What I remember most is our final words of our vows, "I give myself to you as I am, as I will be, and I do it for all of life."  There is an elasticity to covenants that a contract simply cannot capture.

Often, when we think about the 10 Commandments, Exodus 20 (click here to read),  we read that as a kind of contract.  When that is the mindset we bring, it means that if you break one of those commandments, there is, "Gonna be some splaning to do" to quote Desi from I Love Lucy.  Or some even preach that God is going to have some smiting to do.  But what if these are viewed through the lens of a covenant?  Of God's relationship with us?  God's vow of connection?  God's hope for our lives?  Like wedding vows, God looks into our eyes and says, "I desire to be at the center of your life; I ask you to not confine me in easily understood boxes, I pray you will not causally throw my name around..."  That is a different way of reading.  Perhaps we prefer to keep the commandments as more of a contract.  But I wonder if we do this so we can stay in control?  Because if the commandments are primarily about us, then the onus is only on us, not equally on God, then we are in the drivers seat.  But all relationships, all good relationships, are about mutuality.  Covenants are about mutuality, a willingness to dance and have a give and take with each other.  

In the next two posts, I will comment on the Ten Commandments.  But for now, I offer you the chance to ponder prayerfully if viewing these Ten statements as covenant in our unfolding relationship with God might be helpful.  I pray it is and I pray you sense more than a trace of God's grace as you do so.

Blessings ~  

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Rest of the Story



Have you ever wondered if there is any connection between Genesis and Revelation?  Are there threads that run from verse to verse; book to book; from beginning to end?  To be sure, we need to be careful with this.  When these are offered as authoritative, my way or the highway, this is the ONLY way possible, I start to nervously twitch.  When such suggestions are just that, proposals to discuss and debate, then I am more than glad to join in the conversation.

The fancy word for finding common thread is a meta-narrative; that is big story.  I am compelled by Brian McLaren who has written on this topic.  Yet, I also want to add to his understanding and ideas.  I think the big narrative of scripture is creation to crisis to community to Christ to church to culmination.  Six movements, like a symphony, that are tied thematically and rhythmically together.  You don't move linearly from one to the next, but there are riffs and melodies that get integrally interwoven together.   

Scripture starts with creation, two creation stories, laid side-by-side with little said about the fact that there is tension between the two.  By chapter 3 of Genesis there is crisis, Adam and Eve sink their teeth into a fruit, juice drips off their chins, and crisis becomes an important theme.  Creation and crisis keep dancing together in the book of Genesis, then we land in Exodus and suddenly a new melody is added to the mix.  We start to hear the refrain of community too.  Those three themes keep coming back.  In some ways, Exodus is about the creation of community and community in crisis.  These three themes play with each other.  Moments when community seems strong (like when King David rules) and moments when crisis creeps back into the symphony in times of Exile or prophets who keep on trying to nudge the people of God back to being a faithful community.

In the New Testament, we hear a new set of notes, in Jesus Christ.  While I don't think Jesus came to form a new church, that is what happens in Acts.  However, it is not as though the themes of creation, crisis, and community are left behind.  Instead, the Gospel of John gets it beautifully right when he pens, "In the beginning (creation) was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God...he came to his own people and his own people did not receive him (crisis).....but to those who did receive him, he gave the power to become children of God (community).  Click here to read the whole passage in this light.  

Out of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the community becomes known as the church.  But the church is NOT the end.  The book of Revelation tells us about the culmination, Scripture tells us in the end, there is a river of life flowing by the throne of God and there are two trees which produce fruit for the healing of the nations.   Does that sound familiar?  It is creation, crisis overcome, community restored, with Christ our light, and the church packed with people from all nations finding peace, love, and basking in grace.  Or, culmination, in short.

Creation to crisis to community to Christ to church to culmination.  One way to see an overarching narrative in Scripture.  As you listen to a reading in church, where does that narrative fit in the ark?  Which themes from the list above to you hear?  Which themes would you add?  Another way to read Scripture that I pray will provide more than a trace of God's grace!

Blessings ~ 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

One MORE way to Read Scripture


In my last post, I offered six ways of reading Scripture.  We explored Scripture as a chain link; Scripture as concentric circles; Scripture as moral/ethical truths; Scripture as conversation; Scripture as embodied truth (emotional connection); and Scripture as story.  As the class that explored these ways was talking, we found another way to read Scripture which is as Stained Glass.  This makes sense.  Originally Stained glass told the scripture stories through imagines.  When the Bible was read in Latin, a language the common person did not understand, the windows brought the stories to life in living color.  The windows were a way of communicating the faith.

To think about reading Scripture as Stained Glass awakens our imaginations.  When you look at stained glass there are many different levels.  You can look at the individual colors in each pane, each of which will communicate a truth. You can look at the ways the colors come together, culminate together to create a beautiful image.  Yet, it is not only about us as individuals.  Stained glass looks different depending on the light and especially how much or how little.  Stained glass can shift depending on where you stand.

All of that is truth of us as we approach Scripture.  What is going on inside us and around us will color our reading, much like where we stand as we gaze at stained glass.  We can focus on a few verses or we can try to step back and see the whole story/book of the Bible/where the passage fits in the whole Bible story.

In the church I serve now, in our chapel, is a beautiful/huge stained glass window of creation.  It is amazing.  It comes alive and looks different every single time I look at it.  Scripture is similar for me.  Scripture comes alive as I think about the passage.  What it must have been like to be standing there as Abram received a call to move or Miriam danced with a tambourine.  What it felt like to like to sit in the grass as fish and bread were passed around to you and five thousand of your closest friends.  That is the power of Scripture.  It is colorful and color-filled if only we let the light shine through.  And Scripture looks different every time I pick it up, even when I read the passage just a few short days later, especially when I read a passage a year later.

How does this way of reading Scripture sound?  Does it make sense?  Does it help?  For me, no one image of reading Scripture is the be all and end all.  Each way offers me a needed set of lenses or windows to look through.  Some are more meaningful, but each has a place in life at some point or time.  I pray you continue to think about the ways you read Scripture.  Which one resonates, which one feels too difficult or different, which one you might want to grow into.  But perhaps the best way is to open the good book and start reading!

I pray you will and will provide more than just a trace of God's grace.

Blessings ~

p.s. In my next post, I want to offer a way to read Scripture as one whole book.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

How do YOU read Scripture



All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,  2 Timothy 3:16


How do you read Scripture?  If you are like the majority of faithful, church-going, hymn-singing, blog reading people...the most honest answer to that questions is, "Not very often."  At least, not very often outside of Sunday morning.  Well over half of people surveyed by the Pew Form a few years ago admitted that they don't read Scripture outside of church.  Let's face it, that makes some sense.  The Bible might not be nearly as compelling as the latest novel from your favorite author.  Not to mention the print is a bit on the tiny side, the pages a bit on a thin side, and a little to much emphasis on, "So and so begat so and so who begat so and so..."  And you thought Harlequin romance novels were only interested in sex.  Seriously, that is a lot of begating!

Each of us brings a perspective to Scripture.  At the church I serve, I have been talking about approaches to reading Scripture.  My hope and prayer is that by giving folks some tools for opening the pages of Scripture, it might pique the interest and cause/inspire folks to pick up the Good Book on a day other than Sunday.

There are six approaches to Scripture, you might think of these as six eye-glass lenses you might put on to read or understand Scripture through.

The first is Scripture as a chain.  Each verse in the bible is inter-locking, inter-dependent, and equally important.  Folks in this camp operate out of the cliche, that a chain is only as good as it's weakest link.  Often, this group defends the Bible as being the literal Word of God.  

The second is Scripture as concentric circles.  Think of dropping a rock in the middle of the water and watching the ripples go outward, further and further from the center.  Folks in this camp cling to a verse or idea that is their rock.  They might say Jesus' commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is the center or the claim that God is love.  Then, when people with these glasses read the Bible, they evaluate how close or how far way the passage of Scripture is from the center.  So, the Parable of the Prodigal Son would be close to the center of God is love, many verses in the book of Leviticus...not so much.  Maybe past the shoreline of the water.

The third is Scripture as a moral code or ethical guide.  Folks in this camp want to read Scripture and for every verse/story come up with one take home message, rule, idea to apply to their life.  So, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is...Don't have any kids!  Just kidding.  It is that we are suppose to forgive.  Of course, there are some passages this can take a great deal of mental gymnastics to try to find one kernel or moral lesson from.

The fourth is Scripture as a conversation.  The Bible is a record of a dialogue between God and humanity, we are invited to join the conversation.  Folks in this camp want to add their two cents in response to Scripture...maybe even debate Scripture.

The fifth is Scripture as embodied truth.  Whereas the above four work primarily at the intellectual level, what does my mind say in response to these words?  This way of reading works on the emotional level, what does Scripture make me feel?  What would my life look like if I took this seriously?  Folks in this camp read the Bible with their heart first.

The sixth is Scripture as story, that Scripture is a narrative.  By story I do not mean to minimize or discount the Bible's importance.  In fact, I believe that stories are the ONLY thing that make us change our life.  I can give you all kinds of facts about me...my age, height, weight, college and higher education degrees.  OR I can tell you a story about growing up in Iowa...God's heaven on earth.  You see the movie, Field of Dreams was a documentary.  Or, it was just a really good story about how our family relationships matter and our hopes for what is beyond our life here on earth.  "Tell me a story," is a phrase we never out grown.

That is it.  Six lenses.  Of course, you could you wear a couple different lenses at once, but just as in real life it is hard to focus!  Give this some thought and prayer this week.  Which one to you find yourself nodding as you read?  Which one gets under your skin?  Which one do you want to know more about?

May you sense MORE than a trace of God's grace this Sunday as you enter into worship and dwell with Scripture.

Blessings ~ 


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

At the Intersection



This week we celebrated Labor Day, a tradition that goes back more than 100 years. (Click here to read more about the history of this day.)  Work holds an interesting place in our lives today.  A generation ago, work was interwoven into your identity.  You were a doctor or lawyer or pastor.  Your job said a great deal about yourself.  Work offered you a pay check and, hopefully, a pathway to retirement.  But today, that story feels like a fairy tale of an age gone by.  Many today work without benefits.  Many today work for wages that cannot sustain the costs of housing, food, and raising a child.  What is the place of work?

For those of us in the Protestant tradition, work has an interesting place.  Some Protestant theology suggests that if you are successful at work, it is a sign of God's blessing or providence.  That theology, now often called Prosperity Gospel, is no longer preached in many mainline churches.  Yet the ripple effects are still felt; and waves of such understanding are still part of several churches today.  

We find ourselves in a tense place with work.  We pay unimaginable amounts of money to people who can throw a ball in a particular fashion.  People live in homes that could have there own zip codes.  Yet, recent attempts to raise minimum wage have been met with fear and resistance, it is not likely to gain much traction, even after the election in November.  On top of that, the nature of work has shifted.  No longer do we want our job to be the only, or most important, part of who we are.  If you hang out with people under thirty, most interesting question is not, "So what do you do?"  Rather, we want to know what people are passionate about.   Yet, the reality is that many cannot pay the bills with what they are passionate about.  So, instead, many end up working for a paycheck.

This is not that uncommon.  I am sure there are many of our grandparents who would have preferred to not be a farmer or a factory worker, but that is what their dad did.  Many women who went to work during WW2 did not want to give up their job, but societal pressure was strong....Rosie the riveter had to let go of the tools and move to the newly constructed suburban, to live the "good life".  Before, we all start complaining too much or saying, "Woe is us", work has always brought positives and negatives.

Do you/or did you enjoy your work?  What about your co-workers?
If not, where do you allow what makes you feel fully alive find expression?

Work is important.  Our Protestant reformation has always affirmed the role of work in our lives.  Some say that even in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, had to tend the garden.  Work was not a punishment east of Eden, but a part of our life from the beginning.  Yet, work can be consuming.  Work can capture more of our energy than we'd like.  We work from home more easily now than ever (it is actually where I post to my blog!)  We can work practically anywhere...so we do.

The problem is that most issues surrounding work are so divisive (like the positives and drawbacks to unions, whether we can afford a raise in minimum wage, what benefits should employers provide) that people quickly pick a side and refuse to admit that there is a lot of room for compromise and common ground (perhaps two words rarely heard in any legislative body across our country).

So, maybe the church needs to be the new public square of reasonable, thoughtful, loving listening.  Maybe church needs to be the new common ground place for us to acknowledge that moving side to side going no where is only leaving us dizzy!  I am not sure exactly what that looks like.  But this Labor Day, I think I need and hunger for more than just another grilled hamburger.

May there be a trace of God's grace guiding us as a people to start talking about the role of work in all our lives.

Blessings ~

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The center of faith


And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13

Chances are pretty good that you've heard the above passage at some point.  Chances are more than pretty good that it was at a wedding.  I think 1 Corinthians has occupied the number one most requested Bible passage for wedding now for decades.  It is the crowd favorite.  And because of the setting, it is easy to miss that middle word, "hope".  When in the world did "hope" come into play?  When was the last time the minister at a wedding went off on a tangent about "hope" being an important ingredient in marriage?  Forgiveness, you bet.  That is a daily need in a relationship.  Love, well duh, why else get married?  Yet, hope not only under-girds our relationships; but ultimately our connection with God.  Hope is the chewy, caramel center of the faith candy bar.  

Wait...you might say...shouldn't that be love?  After all, Paul says above the love is the greatest.  Love is number one...love is number one...feel free to chat along with me.  Hope actually helps keep love grounded in reality.  If all we do is talk about love, it can be a slippery slope.  We can sound naive or easily fall into sappy sentimentalism.  Yes, it is true, all you need is love.  But a healthy dose of hope can help keep love going and growing.  Hope is like fuel.  Often, I think marriages fail as much because the couple falls out of love, as they fall out of hope.  Hope that they might rekindle the love or hope that out of this difficult time a deeper love might be found.  When we stop hoping that our best days are before us and instead are behind us, we've lost not only that loving feeling, but also our sense of hope.

Hope is (as Emily Dickinson wrote) a thing with feathers.  It is light and flighty...it is hard to pin down.  Love seems easier.  I either feel love toward someone or I feel indifferent or I feel hostility.  Hope, being like the Holy Spirit of Paul's trinity of words, holds out the possibility that I was wrong.  Hope teaches me that my first impression about someone can be way off base, especially when I learn an important truth about why the person seems cold or indifferent.  Hope teaches me to hold on and hold out for more understanding.  Hope keeps searching and probing.  Love can come and go in waves; but hope keeps asking us to hang in there.  

Maybe it does not need to be only hope at the center of the faith candy bar.  There is plenty of room for love too.  But the two seem to need each other in wonderful, even delicious, ways.  I think for love to last there needs to be hope.  At the great end, when God's realm is fully realized, I am with Paul, love will be the greatest.  Until then, I am hanging on to hope as equally as important for the living out of my faith as love.  Together, they may just help us taste more than a trace of God's grace today and in the days to come.

Blessings ~ 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

But WHY do we worship?



This is the third, and final, post about worship.  And our focus question is, why gather at all?  I suspect we have all heard someone say, "Oh, I can worship God in nature...or on the golf course." (although usually the way I heard God's name evoked in that particular setting does not seem very worshipful).  So why get together?  I recently heard Brian McLaren say that, "It is not as though God every seven days goes itching for an prelude."  Or a sermon either, I might add.  

I think part of the problem is that we think worship is only about at God.  But in some ways, worship is also about the participates.  Worship says a lot more about us and our understanding of who God is.  Consider the all-too-tired-now worship wars over "contemporary" music.  I put that in quotes because this debate has been going on so long, that some of the initial music is no longer contemporary at all!  Some find it easier to worship God with drums and guitars, others with organ and choirs, still others in silence and chants.  Too often, we approach this conversation as a zero sum game...one of the above options HAS to be right (or more right), so the others can only be wrong, right?  I actually think that approach is wrong.  Each of the proponents of the particular worship style, I think, has found something meaningful there.  People who like drums and guitars often say they feel this type of music reflects what they listen to in their car so it connects with their daily life.  Perhaps they feel more authentic singing along with such music in church.  Others believe passionately, that worship music should feel and sound differently, hence they gravitate more to organ and music that we are not surrounded by so frequently in our every day lives.  And still others say that what really speaks and sparks their souls is God's still singing voice, so we need extended quiet in worship.  And I am sure there are options D, E, etc... out there too.

So, the starting place is to accept that we like what we like.  And yet, if worship is about something other than just consuming a product, and I think many of us can agree that we want worship to be something other than a play we pay to see, one way we jar ourselves out of the consumerist culture is to make sure every worship service has elements we don't like.  You read that right.  If worship is not all about you, then at some point you need to say, "That particular moment does not get it for me, but I am glad that my friend here finds it meaningful."  And maybe even deeper, "The meaning of that prelude, is that it mattered so much to Sally."  Worship is a dance where we get to participate fully, and sometimes we sit watching as others dance.  There is a give and take.

Too often, I wonder if we have missed that.  We have made worship an "all or nothing" zero sum game.  Far too many meetings have been spent chasing this issue, when we could have said, "It does not get it for me, but I am glad, truly glad, it gets it for you."  And even more so, "Can you help me understand how this type of music, prayer, style of preaching and worship is meaningful for you?"  Then listen to the answers and thoughts the other gives...hopefully s/he will ask/listen the same of you.

One of the reason, I think we argue, is because we do want to be right and we want to feel our preferences affirmed.  Second reason is because worship is art.  Remember the last time you wandered around a museum?  Chances are good that you liked the Picasso, but not the van Gogh.  You cried in one wing and whizzed through another.  And did you go to the museum curator and demand they only have your preferences?  I hope not.  I hope you noticed that the museum was not only for you, it was for others.  And while you walked through one room quickly, you maybe saw someone else linger there for a long time.  So, here is my invitation to you; talk.  Talk and listen to others about worship more.  We cannot have this conversation enough with our friends inside...especially outside the church.  We need to move from arguing and trying to score points to coming to find the beauty in worship through a variety of styles.

If you can, ask why don't your neighbors...or children...or grand-children come to church?  What do they find meaningful and what kinds of music, prayers, sermons, and rituals would help each group feel alive?  Then how can you, yes you, work with the pastor and church to make that happen?  What is at stake is helping people connect on a deep level with the grace of God together, with each other and for the sake of each other!  I believe with my whole heart, the more we ask "Why", the more we sense a trace of God's grace.

God's blessings on your conversations with each other!

Peace ~