Thursday, May 31, 2012

Coming soon...to a blog near you



Dear Friends,
For the next three weeks I will be at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota working through my third year of  my doctorate program.  So, I am going to shift gears and I will be blogging about what I am learning.  I pray this will offer two blessings.  One it is a great way for me to process and share with you.  Second, it is a great ways for you to hear a bit about what I am learning and respond in the comments.  Please, it really is okay to post a comment.

Over the three weeks I will take three classes.

June 4-8 is about preaching in a context.   See my last post about our geography impacting our faith.
June 11-15 is about parables...stories Jesus told that challenge us, even offend us, or stories that have a sideways message.
June 18-22 is a week devoted to learning more about writing my dissertation.

I will try to share with you twice each week or when the spirit moves me...and the wireless internet connection allows.

I appreciate your prayers...may the traces of God's grace in your life and mine guide us as we enter June.

Peace!

Where are you from?




I grew up in Iowa.  And even though I was a city slicker (living in both Cedar Rapids and Des Moines), what most people know about Iowa is corn.  Every state is known for something.  Wisconsin has cheese or beer.  New Hampshire (where I served my first church) is known as the granite state...and having tried to dig a garden there I know full well why!  Idaho of course is linked to the potato.  Even though these images are a bit cliche and there is always more to a state than any one item, the item also points to a certain truth.

In the pages of Acts we see references to some of the places where Paul penned letters that are a part of the New Testament.

Acts 17 details Paul in Thessalonica...and to whom Paul will write 1 & 2 Thessalonians.
Acts 18 tells of Paul in Cornith...to whom Paul will write 1 & 2 Corinthians.
Acts 19 tells of Paul in Ephesus...to whom Paul will write Ephesians.

Within these chapters we hear hints of what was going on when Paul founded the communities that sought to follow Jesus as the Way and meet some of the same people who Paul will greet in letters to these house churches.  

Just as we have stereotype images of states...so too these cities are remembered most by what Paul wrote to them.

Thessalonians deals with the very real concern of what happens when people die before the kingdom of God  is fully established and Jesus return happens.  Paul is pastoral and reassures them.  This tells us just how much Paul and those who came to the church through him thought Jesus' return was imminent and what happened when it seemed that Jesus was delayed.

Corinthians argued about...EVERYTHING.  Food.  Who should talk.  Where you should sit.  You think your church has issues...Corinthians makes us all feel better about our community of faith.

Ephesians deals with people's relationships and how we live the Way when we bump elbows with each other.  

Where you are from makes a difference.  To say that another way, our geography leaves an impression upon our hearts.

For five years we lived in New England.  As one of the original colonies of the United States, there is a pride in the rich history.  In New Hampshire, people also inherited through DNA a self-reliance and distance.  There was a ruggedness that matched the rough rocky ground.  The different geography from living by the ocean to living in the mountains or in a valley or on some windy road that twists and turns like a roller coast meant that people where a bit more separated both physically and emotionally.

When I came back to the Midwest and remembered the ethic of 'you can't say anything nice...don't say anything at all!'  I thought about the open space...how a farm can be blocks away...yet in the winter you can still see your neighbor and remember him or her.  Our geography leaves an impression upon us.

So too in the places Paul knew.  Corinth was a sea side cosmopolitan city...so it had different issues than the smaller place of Thessalonica or Ephesus.  

I invite you to think about the places you've been.  How has the geography shaped the people who call that place home?  How does where you live now shape you?  

To be sure the traces of God's grace are woven into all geography and all creation.  Wherever you are, may you sense God's grace in a real way!

Blessings and peace!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Friends

Acts 13

When you saw the blog title for today, did some names and faces fluttered through your mind?  Who are the people who bring the word 'friend' to life for you?

Usually our friends are people who we can count on, trust, be honest with, and are there for us when we need them most.  Friends are the people who are a walking embodiment of the word, 'love'.  Yet, on the other hand, words often fail to fully capture or describe what a 'friend' means to us.

Barnabas and Saul were friends.

Barnabas in chapter 9:27  is the one who comes to Saul's defense.  Barnabas lends his credibility as a disciple to Saul, essentially saying "I will take responsibility for this person who once tried to round up early followers of Jesus like some vigilante.  I trust that his conversion is credible."  It is a huge risk for Barnabas.  It is incredibly vulnerable for them both.

Which are also attributes of friends, right?  They take risks for us.  They will drive all night to come and hold our hands when we are grieving.  They are also people who know us so well precisely because they have been through the ups and downs with us.  Such vulnerability is good.  We need people like that.  The ability to be vulnerable is one of the key pillars of people we are closest to and we need people in our life who we can practice being vulnerable with.

But it takes a lot of trust.  Because within our lives we also have moments when we were vulnerable, when we trusted, and when we got hurt.  The person talked behind our back spilling a secret we thought was safe.  That is painful.

And within the book of Acts there is also the broken relationship of Paul and Barnabas.  In 15:36-43, eight short verses tell us that Saul (now Paul) and Barnabas get in such a heated argument and exchange about whether they should take another disciple called, John Mark, with them, that they decide to part company...dissolve the partnership...stop being co-missionaries for the early church. 

Ouch. 

After six chapters (more or less) of friendship and doing amazing ministry, they part ways because of another person.  In systems theory this is called triangulating.  When two peoples relationship is impacted by a third.  In my experience it is called life.

We get jealous when a duet becomes a trio.  We have cliches like, "being a third wheel" or "butting in" talking around the emotions we feel in these situations.

We just had new members join the church I serve on Sunday.  I think joining a church is one of the hardest parts of the Christian journey, second only to the first time you visit the church.  When you join a church it is hard to shake that feeling like there are all these sorts of inside jokes and processes that you know nothing about.  You feel this excitement to be part of a community, but yet still don't feel fully included.  It takes time.

Of course, so does forming friendship...unless you are my daughter who is instant BFFs with every girl she meets.  But lasting friendships need to withstand the test of time.  Is this person really going to be there for me?  Can I really trust this person with that secret?

You often hear people come out on the other side of a tragic event say something like, "Well, I now know who my true friends are."

As you think about your friends, the people who you count on and people whose love supports/sustains/strengthens you, I encourage you to give thanks to God for people like this...and maybe give that person a call tonight.  I know I will.

blessings and peace!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Listening






Acts 12:1-16

Peter was in prison and surrounded by sixteen soldiers who were supposed to make sure he did not escape.  Asleep on one of the guards shoulders, in the middle of the night, Peter was nudged by an angel (a messenger of God).  And while Peter got up and followed, he thought it was all a dream.

Outside in the cool evening air, eventually he came to his senses.

Rhoda, who worked as a servant in Mary's house heard the knock on the door.  When she saw that it was Peter she was so overwhelmed with joy that...she forgot to open the gate.  She rushed back into the house. 

"You'll never believe who is here...Peter!"

"Nah," everyone pessimistically retorted, can't be...he was in jail.

Why is it in the Bible people so often discount the witness of women?  It happened on Easter morning when the women raced back from the empty tomb to tell the good news of great joy!  It happened in the early church.  And it still happens today. 

When might we come to our senses to listen to what people have to say?

This is not easy.  Most of us were taught to think critically in school and to point out the flaws in a person's argument, paper, and even story. 

Most of us can remember a time we got a paper back...covered in red ink (always red ink) pointing out where we'd made mistakes.

Pointing out to someone where his logic has gone astray is easy to do not only because we trained to do so.  Also, because most of our logic goes astray pretty quickly.  We may cling to an ideal that we are rational beings, but most of the time our arguments come from a deep, emotional place within us.  Beliefs and emotions are tangled in ways most of us don't always realize.  And so, while we think we are being completely rational...we miss that our stomach is churning.  And we also miss that because belief and emotion are tangled up we tend to believe that our rationality cuts through it all.

Case in point: Washington D.C.

We have two parties who have two fundamentally different belief systems.  Rather than actually examining the flaws in both sides...and they are there on both sides...what we get is petty bickering and soundbite management...and of course very little listening.  Unless, of course, you agree with what the particular party is pandering.

When might we come to our senses to listen to what people have to say?

When might the church come to our senses and model this for the world?

Too often we want the church to be a safe haven, a shelter from the weary world.  And in creating such a church, we make it difficult to have conversations that are actually worth listening to.  I can only hear so much of people complaining about the pitching of the Brewers before I tune out.  Don't get me wrong, it is a problem.  But is a problem I have very little say about.

What I do have a say in is how much I listen.  Not just to people who are on "my" side, but people who I don't always agree with.  Not just talking heads on radio, television, and blogs...but to people I actually sit next to in the pew.  That kind of listening will stretch us.  That kind of listening will not settle for just taking a vote using Robert's Rules of Order.  That kind of listening will awaken us to a different kind of world... or what I think of as "God's realm."

In God's realm we come to our senses.  We see God's presence active in our world, breaking us out of prisons of narrowly held beliefs that "we" are right and "they" are wrong.

That's the kind of realm the church should not only proclaim and celebrate on Sunday morning...it is the kind of realm God is awakening our senses to every morning when we step outside into the cool air.  We realize we are not dreaming.

God's presence is surrounding us.
God's presence is sustaining us.
God's presence is a promise we can trust.

It awakens our senses.

Grace and peace be with you.
 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Sermons






Acts 7:2-54

More than 1/3 of the book of Acts is speeches, confessions of faith, testimonies, talking, sermonizing, yadda, yadda, yadda.

No wonder people really have not read this book of the Bible.  After the "begot" sections of Genesis, I think reading sermons are always a little dry.  For me, sermons are a "had to be there moment."  The next best alternative is to see a video of a sermon...but that will fail to capture the atmosphere of the sanctuary.  The next best alternative is to listen to the sermon...but that will fail to capture gestures.  And when all else fails, you can read a sermon and still get something wonderful out of it.  But when you view a sermon, listen to a sermon, or read a sermon the key reason why it doesn't really work is that it becomes an isolated, individualistic exercise.  It becomes about you.  A sermon is always preached in a context to a group of people. 

Or as I like to say, a sermon preached in an empty sanctuary isn't really a sermon.

Have you ever really sat back and thought about your expectations for a sermon?  Have you ever thought about how your expectations from the person sitting behind you in the pews might be similar and different? 

Dragged before the council, Stephen today offers a sermon.  He connects the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ to the on-going, unfolding work of the disciples.  He offers a reading of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Now, to be clear here, everyone listening to Stephen had been steeped in the scriptures we call the Old Testament.  They knew the larger context out of which Stephen was pulling his reference. 

Why is this important? 

A quick illustration.  Let's say we have all just finished reading A Tale of Two Cities and we are having a book discussion.  We can turn from quote in the book to quote in the book because we know the larger context, the plot, and each person brings an interpretation to the table because s/he read the book. 

So, when Stephen connects Jesus to a passage from the book of Exodus or Amos or Isaiah, he is preaching to people who are on the same page.

Today, when we throw out a passage of scripture to people who have never heard it before, it is not the same experience as what is happening in this passage of Acts.  Just like if I say, "I was the best of times, it was the worst of times."  If you have read Dicken's, you know how those words foreshadow what unfolds in the pages of A Tale of Two Cities

To be sure, you can still understand a literary quote without reading the whole book.  You can understand verses of scripture without reading the whole book.  But, when we read the whole book it adds depth and new insights.  That is one of the reasons why I think going through a book of the Bible chapter by chapter is so helpful, especially since many in our culture today are not as well versed in scripture as years ago.

As I enter my third year of a program on preaching, I have given thought to what it means for me to stand up on Sunday morning and try to offer from my heart a response to scripture.  That, for me, is what a sermon is.  It is a heart-felt response to scripture, a confession of faith, but it is not just the pastor's responsibility.  That heart-felt response, the confession of faith, comes from the People of God sitting in the pews. 

Otherwise a sermon can easily become a 'talk' or a 'motivational speech' or just more words amid a culture saturated with words.  Because I believe that the People of God are actively involved in adding and completing a sermon I encourage you to read the Bible verse(s) before coming to worship on Sunday morning or when you first sit down to worship.  I encourage you during the sermon to keep the Bible open so you can look back.  I encourage you to write down notes of your own thought that you might return to during the week.  And my radical vision for the church would be for the People of God to respond to a sermon; not through intellectual critique of why you liked it or did not like it.  But through saying..."When the pastor said this...I thought of this."  "When the scripture said that...I was challenged/given hope/confused."  That would move the sermon from something people consume or the weekly product offered by the pastor to being the ministry of the life of the church.

I think that is what Stephen was trying to do centuries ago...and what I will try to do this Sunday.

Blessings and peace to you all.
See you in church!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Wisdom of Waiting

Acts 5:33-42

After Peter and John healed the man at the Beautiful Gate, it created a ruckus in the temple.  The high priests and governing council who were in charge of keeping things calm and in control questioned Peter and John and asked them to stop performing signs.  They demanded them to stop preaching about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Peter said he could not do that.

It was a tense moment.  To be sure, if we were in the high priests sandals and someone was out in front of our church causing a ruckus, healing people and saying we were responsible for someone's death, we would take offense at that.  We'd call the police.  We'd want them to stop saying things that hurt and made things feel out of control.

Peter does not stop preaching and teaching.

Again he is brought before the council.

Then there is the beautiful passage above.  Gamaliel said that the best thing the council could do was wait.

Wait to see if this teaching and preaching about Jesus fizzled out.
Wait to see if this teaching and preaching about Jesus was taken care of by the Romans.
Wait to see if this teaching and preaching about Jesus was from God.

Taking that wisdom for our own lives to wait to see if something is from God or to wait to see where God's presence is in the midst of an unfolding situation sounds good in a blog.  But in real life waiting is (to quote Tom Petty) "the hardest part."

We want to text someone; post something on Facebook; do something to move forward.

Waiting is too passive.

Waiting was exactly what Jesus told the disciples to do in Acts 1;
Waiting was exactly the wisdom of Gamaliel.

So, what are you waiting for?  And why do we often feel like we need to wait alone?  Can we, as a church, share in the waiting?  And can we talk about whether we are sensing God's presence in the waiting, guiding us or calling us or feeling in some way the reassurance that God is with us.

Thank you for waiting alongside me in the unfolding of these days.