Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Noah's Ark Take Four



6 Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters came on the earth. 7 And Noah with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives went into the ark to escape the waters of the flood. 8 Of clean animals, and of animals that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creeps on the ground, 9 two and two, male and female, went into the ark with Noah, as God had commanded Noah. 10 And after seven days the waters of the flood came on the earth.

11 In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. 12 The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights. 13 On the very same day Noah with his sons, Shem and Ham and Japheth, and Noah’s wife and the three wives of his sons entered the ark, 14 they and every wild animal of every kind, and all domestic animals of every kind, and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth, and every bird of every kind—every bird, every winged creature. 15 They went into the ark with Noah, two and two of all flesh in which there was the breath of life. 16 And those that entered, male and female of all flesh, went in as God had commanded him; and the Lord shut him in.  Genesis 7:6-16


I am not sure how old you are...but I am guessing it is well below the 600 birthday candles Noah blew out on his cake the year he built the ark.  So, there are two ideas that are awoken in response to this part of the narrative.

First, what exactly is truth in the Bible?  In other words, does the Bible literally mean that Noah was 600 years old or is that a metaphor?  What is at stake often is that some folks see the Bible as a chain link, that every verse and word has to be equally the God's written/given truth, otherwise the whole thing is a sham.  And you know the cliche, that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  And so if Noah was not 600 years old, some might argue, does that also negate everything else written in the Bible?  In some ways this could be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  At the other extreme, people have come to see scripture as being such a work of fiction that they discount any truth it might have.  Some folks cling just as tightly to the scientific method as some do to Biblical literalness.  Those are the two extremes...I prefer somewhere in the messy middle between the two.  I think this story has truth even if every detail is not literally true.

For example, I think that many of our elders in our midst have the most knowledge, because of life experiences, that they would be the first to see wickedness and brokenness and want to make a change.  The truth of Noah's narrative may not be found necessarily in debating his age, but rather having a debate about the ways we treat our octogenarians in our world today!  How many of us would commit an 80 year old to the nursing home if he said he wanted to build a boat?  Or at least schedule a doctor's appointment!  Yet, there is a wisdom that comes with age that we need to be better about listening to in our world today.

Second, they were shut up in the ark for seven days before the first rain drop fell from the ground.  That is a great image and so true about waiting in the life of faith.  How many of us have taken a leap of faith and feel like Wiley E. Coyote hanging in mid-air waiting for the bottom to drop out or for us to plummet to the ground with a "THUD"?  So often we set up a mathematical equation for faith.  If I am faithful plus church attendance should equal God responding on my time table...rather than God's time table.  There are numerous people who like to poke fun the second something does not work out... especially in the media.  If the government program doesn't work...the opposing political party leaps like a hungry lion at that first sign of failure.  How many people stood laughing outside the ark?  How often do we snicker behind the back of someone who tells us they've seen an angel or vision or out of body experience?  Honestly, if it is not part of our experience or comfort, we call into question and poke as many holes as possible...I think to make ourselves feel better.

Which gets back around to truth.  We all think we see so clearly and know so much.  We think we've got it all figured out and everyone else is sheep lead astray.  We keep clinging to an ego that destroys relationships.  Yet, often the truth that sets us free is not of our own creation.  The truth that sets us free can come from that annoying co-worker or person whose politics are different that our own.  But do we hear?   

How do you see the Bible as truth?  
When have you felt God's nudge, but felt like the risk was too much?  Or if you took that first step and fell flat on your red, embarrassed face, only to think, "Well I will never do that again!"  

As we keep trudging through Noah's Ark and the movie opens very soon...I hope you will consider both of these questions this week...and you might feel a trace of God's grace in your prayerful pondering.

Blessings ~ 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Noah's Ark take three


Then the Lord said to Noah, “Go into the ark, you and all your household, for I have seen that you alone are righteous before me in this generation. Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and its mate; and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and its mate; and seven pairs of the birds of the air also, male and female, to keep their kind alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth for forty days and forty nights; and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” And Noah did all that the Lord had commanded him.  Genesis 7:1-4


Whoa...wait, what is this about seven pairs of animals??  That is not the song I learned in Sunday School where, "The animals they came on...they came on by two-ies, two-ies.  The animals they came on...they came on by two-ies, two-ies...elephants and kangaroo-ies, raooies. Children of the Lord."

Sorry about that...got carried away there.

But clearly there is a disconnect between our collective memories where the animals come on the ark two by two and this passage.  Most of us grew up thinking that Noah took just two elephants, mosquitoes, mice, moose, etc.  No more, no less.  Actually later on in verses 9 and 15 we have God saying for the animals to come on two by two, male and female.  But we have forgotten that God said to take seven pairs of each animal.

In some ways this is just practical.  The likelihood that every single animal would survive the boat ride is low. All living beings share in common our mortality.  This body that carries us, and all living creatures, around is susceptible to illness.  And when you are in the cramped confines of a boat, all breathing the same air, one sneeze and that is all she wrote.  

Having just stepped off my first cruise I am acutely aware of this.  One of the "souvenirs" I brought home was a head cold.  Try as I may to bathe in hand sanitizer and not touch my hands to my face every minute of the cruise, I still got sick.  I can only imagine what kinds of illness went around the ark for those forty days.

I said in my last post that the church is like Noah's Ark and sure it is not all roses/rainbows on the inside all the time, but it does beat getting stuck out in the rain.  But life on the inside does expose us to all our humanness, all our blessedness and brokenness.  Unfortunately sometimes we've been lead to believe that the church is some kind of Utopia.  The church should never fight.  The church should never disagree.  Every day we should just sit around singing "Kumbaya while drinking a Coke-a-Cola.

But let's face it, that is not real life.  And it would only be playing/pretending to be the church if we never disagree with each other...if we never feel tension.  In fact, when people say that the church and Christian are "hypocrites" what they are actually saying is that we are "acting".  That is the most original/Greek meaning of being a hypocrite...it was simply an actor.  Sometimes...truth be told...we do act in church.  We play the part with our nice clothes and say the nice words about love.  Sometimes...truth be told...we need to act as a way to practice actually living that way.

Might there be something more too?  Our choir director recently reminded me of one of my favorite books by Barbara Brown Taylor called "Leaving Church".  I stumbled across this wisdom, "Gradually I remembered what I had known all along, which is that church is not a stopping place but a starting place for discerning God's presence in this world.  By offering people a place where they may engage the steady practice of listening to divine words and celebrating divine sacraments, church can help people gain a feel for how God shows up...that way, when they leave church, they no more leave God than God leaves them.  They simply carry what they have learned into the wide, wide world, where there is a crying need fore people who will recognize the holiness in things and hold them up to God."

The church is not a place of perfection...in fact it is a place where we share our best and our worse parts of ourselves with each other.  It is a place where sometimes we need to go along to get along.  It is an ark where we come together, mingle together, and find ourselves in the messy middle of life on this planet.  I am glad Noah brought several pairs...seven pairs of each animals...because that added to the diversity and crowded-ness and realness of life on the ark.  And when you get down to it...I would rather share this with others than try to swim against the current of life alone.

May the traces of God's grace be found in sharing your life with others...both with the joy and frustrations that sharing can bring.

Blessings ~

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Noah's Ark take two


Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and put the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks. For my part, I am going to bring a flood of waters on the earth, to destroy from under heaven all flesh in which is the breath of life; everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you; and you shall come into the ark, you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you. And of every living thing, of all flesh, you shall bring two of every kind into the ark, to keep them alive with you; they shall be male and female. Of the birds according to their kinds, and of the animals according to their kinds, of every creeping thing of the ground according to its kind, two of every kind shall come in to you, to keep them alive. Also take with you every kind of food that is eaten, and store it up; and it shall serve as food for you and for them.” Noah did this; he did all that God commanded him.  Genesis 6:11-22

Most scholars believe that there are actually two versions of the Noah's Ark story spliced and sown together.  One called "J" and one called "E"...this is from two priestly classes in early Judaism, one that referred to God as "Yahweh" (which actually starts with a "J" for Jehovah) and the other referred to God as Elohim (hence the "E").  

This would explain why right before this God had already decided to wipe the slate clean and then immediately you get an echo or repeat of the exact same idea...just different words.  Only this time, God is specific that it is not just corruption or evil, it is because of violence.  

To be sure, we live in a violent world.  Violence in war; violence to take over lands and topple governments; violence done with words to each other; violence done to women, to other races, religions and sexual orientations.  Anger seethes and simmers in our world; unfortunately the fire is sometimes (too often) fanned by sermons in church.   

Sometimes, I think about building an ark just to disconnect and get off the grid and leave the media pundits behind.  Yet, the church is suppose to be an ark; a place NOT disconnected but a place where we can be honest about the brokenness in our lives and in the world.  Many of the churches I have served have steeped pitched roofs that have a high apex/point at the top.  In some ways it looks like the ark turned upside down.  One of my pastor's growing up used to say that the church is like Noah's ark, sure it smells sometimes inside, but it's better than being outside!  

Sometimes that is true...other times our churches do not always live up to our best ideals and preaching.  That is part of being human.  This narrative is about more than being human, it is about all creation.  It is not just humans that are corrupt...it is the earth.  Or as the Apostle Paul says, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time." (Romans 8:22)  Or we often miss in John 3:16 says that God's love is for the whole world!

To be sure, this is still a drastic step...and pretty early on in the book to take it.  Of course, we know eventually all will be well and rainbows with Lucky Charms at the end will greet us.  But what also stirs in me is that Noah was so willing to respond.  I don't know about you, but in my prayer life, I am much more likely to talk to God than listen.  I am much more like to debate, rather than simply be.  

Perhaps one of the un-named ways we are violent toward ourselves today is the frenzied pace we try to maintain.  You have more than likely seen that we work harder and more hours than any other generation previous.  We have constant contact to emails and texts and fall exhausted every night into bed; only to get up the next day and do it again.

This will be posted while I am on a boat, taking a cruise with my family.  While on the boat, I will not be able to check my emails or answer calls.  I am sure by Thursday I might actually stop twitching!  It is good every now and again to remind us that the earth does not revolve around us, that we are not as necessary as we think we are.  But that is scary to us.  Perhaps it can also be freeing to us as well.  

I pray you will have moments of shutting off your phone, not answering emails and text, just let the world go by for even just a few fleeting minutes.  And may there be traces of God's grace in that for you!

Blessings ~ 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Noah's Ark take one

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred twenty years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord.  Genesis 6:1-8

Geesh, talk about turning on a dime! One minute everything is sons with flowing locks of hair and people getting married, next minute humanity's age clock is turned back like daylight savings time, and the next minutes everything goes to hell in a hand basket.  Talk about a roller coaster of verses!  What in the world is going on?  And more over, is every single thought of our heart really evil...continually?  

I will own up to my own stuff...I don't always look at every person with "Bambi eyes" and an open heart.  I judge and whisper sarcastically under my breath.  I am sure God has occasionally shook God's head like I do when my children are less than their brilliant/loving/amazing selves.  That is to be expected.  But the judgement here is so swift it makes your head spin.

Was everyone really that corrupt?  Was Noah really the only one who found favor in God's sight?  Or perhaps the real question is not, "Is this true?"  But, "How is this true?"

Again, I am sure I do things that grieve's God's heart.  There are moments I feel disconnected and disoriented from the grace of God.  And to be sure, one of the most heartfelt words we can offer in prayer is "Sorry".  Yet we live in a world where there is the non-apology apology.  Some politician or athlete gets in trouble or in some scandal and the first attempt is to deflect and blame.  "I did not know!" or  "I am innocent".  As the media reports pile up, eventually the person comes on with some sort of statement like, "If I offended you, I am sorry."  What does that really mean?  Is the person sorry because:
a).  I got offended      OR
b).  the actual situation?

It is hard to tell.  Sorry is one of those words we utter quickly to try to make things better.  To be really be sorry will linger for days with a heavy heart.  The truth is when we are in broken relationships and situations words will not heal...only time and God's grace and different actions will.  Sorry helps...but it is only one small step.  

Which is why prayers of confession are often not understood, but certainly necessary.  We need to say we are sorry.  Not because of God's judgement, but because we need to own our own stuff.  AA says that until the person realizes she or he has a problem, true transformation is not possible.  Confession shines a light on all the ways our words and actions are out of tune and out of sync with God's realm.  Confession reminds us that NO ONE has all the answers.

One of the reasons why I love the United Church of Christ is that as a minister I am not expected to have all the answers.  I am expected to walk faithfully among the people, help those struggling and accept help when I struggle.  

I invite you today to ponder who you need to say "Sorry" to?  Who are the people you hurt?  Notice I did not ask, "who hurt you?"  That is a post for another time, another place.  This is about brokenness each of us causes.  And it is important part of reconciliation that I just posted about.  

I pray that you will do more than keep this to yourself.  That during Lent you will reach out with apologies and seek to rebuild relationships to people you care about in your neighborhood, at work, at church, in your family and community.  We often talk about the hymn, "They will know we are Christians by our love."  Perhaps one way of letting that hymn be sung in our lives is to admit we are sorry.

May there be traces of God's grace as we enter into the brokenness of our lives and seek reconciliation!

Blessings ~ 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lenten Posts



At the end of March, Hollywood is coming out with a version of Noah's Ark. You can click here to watch the trailer.  But before you go see the movie, I thought it would be good to read or re-read the narrative as it is written.  You may want to go right now and re-familiarize yourself with the whole story.  You can find it starting in Genesis 6.  The story goes through chapter 9.

I invite you to read the all three chapters in one setting.  Think about these questions:

1).  What as new for you or what surprised you as you read?

2).  What detail stuck out for you in a good way?  Or in a bad way?

3).  What questions do you have?

4).  Why in the world do we use this narrative to decorate a baby's nursery!??

Sorry, that last question is more of a personal issue I have.

I look forward to posting on this narrative throughout March and early April...then going to see the movie when I finish.  May God's presence guide us and grant us a holy Lent.

Blessings ~

Ash Wednesday...Better Late than never

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Please note this is the sermon I preached yesterday on Ash Wednesday:

"Normal" is one of those words in the English language that awakens a variety of responses, depending on where you find yourself at in life right now.  If life has become mundane, stuck in a rut, spinning your wheels on problems that flat out refuse any solution you try to stick to the situation, then normal is not a welcome word.  You want to break out of normalcy, leaving skid marks on the ground as you set off for somewhere, anywhere else.  However, if by chance, life has been chaotic, unsettling, like say moving your family one thousand, three hundred thirty five point five miles across country, trying to buy a house, settle into a new job, new schools, and you are not even sure which box the wrapping paper is located in …I know these are outlandish examples, but stay with me.  If you find yourself today feeling like life is turned upside down and inside out then normalcy might be like an ice cream cone on a hot May day in Sarasota.  The season of Lent is a time set aside in the rhythm of the church year.  And for some, Lent carries with it all this baggage of thou shalt not eat-th meat-th on Friday.  And this whole thing with ashes, are you sure that’s kosher in the UCC?  And then for others, Lent barely registers.  Come on, the weather is beautiful outside, do I really have to focus on my relationship with God and with others right now?  All this talk of prayer and forgiveness and reconciliation, it sounds like a lot of work.  Okay, what if I schedule God in between, say 9:45 am and 9:47 am on the second Thursday next month, does God happen to have an opening then by chance?  Lent is not about being normal.  Lent is about as abnormal a church season as it gets.  Advent at least has a baby born at the end and candles with cool names.  Lent, gets a crown of thorns, a Last Supper, and something called “Good Friday” which is a misnomer if I ever heard one.  With an invitation like that our first honest response might be, Who-hoo.
No wonder UCC folk are leery of Lent.  But what if we could recapture some of what has historically been at the heart of Lent?  What if Lent was not about raining guilt so hard you bring your umbrella to church or about a time of self-denial?  Originally, Lent was about preparation, study, and immersing our whole lives in our relationship with God.  Lent was the time converts to Christianity spent learning about the church, worship, Scriptures and what it means, really means to our lives to follow Jesus our Christ.  Then, on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, the people would gather.  They would read Scripture for hours, I know I am really selling you on this now.  Wait for it, then those who wanted to join the community would come in, be baptized, and they would have the best party you have ever been to just as the sun was raising in the east ushering in Easter morning.  But in order to get to the party, you need to do some planning.  You need to do some preparation.  If you are going to have guests over, it is work to vacuum, dust, clean the bathrooms and whatever was in that take home container from three weeks ago…I mean besides home grown penicillin!  You plan a menu, you shop, you cook, and you get all ready.  And when it is over, hopefully you think, “That was worth it.”
Lent is about preparing for the transforming mystery of Easter morning.  To be sure, you can do what you’d like for the next forty days, plus Sundays which are not counted in Lent.  But if we are going to somehow grasp hold of the truth the Apostle Paul gives us that Christ’s death is transformative; if somehow, in some small ways after these forty days life is no longer going to be normal, then it does require something of us, some kind of response to God’s presence in our lives here and now.  Paul says clearly that transformation is work.  It means first and foremost that we cannot live only for the unholy Trinity of me, myself, and I.  It is not all about me.  Because God’s love is not some treasure I possess and keep in my pocket.  Paul writes in verse 19  that when Jesus became flesh, took on human skin, that action was for the sake of the whole kosmos.  God’s love is expansive and encompasses the entire universe.  Lent is a time of broadening our understanding and realizing that we don’t have the whole truth in our minds.
Second, Paul says that we cannot just live according to the flesh.  Jesus’ incarnation that is the climax of the Advent season, God in the flesh, and that might invite us to think that as human beings we really are at the top of the food chain.  But, we miss the mark continually.  And not only that, we have a tendency today as humans to skim and slide down the surface of things.  To be human has blessings and we bare the fingerprints of God, and yet, we cannot think we’ve got it all figured out.  Instead we seek to be open and to be guided by grace that will challenge and potentially change us in the coming forty days.  We are a new creation, Paul says.  Or put another way, Richard Rohr says, you cannot think your way into a new way of living, you have to live your way into a new way of thinking.  We set aside time in the coming days, because our time with God is never wasted, it is always valuable.  We need prayer, especially when normal feels about as far away from here as Oklahoma.

What is at stake, Paul says, is the very continuation of Christ’s ministry here on earth.  We are called to be about reconciliation, to be ambassadors.  Now, I know that brings to mind images of Condoleezza Rice or Hilary Clinton, our secretary of state who darts and dashes around the world to solve international problems.  But in Jesus’ day, if you were an ambassador, you had to know, deeply know the heart and mind of the king and queen you represented.  Because you could not call them up with your iphone and ask them a question.  Often ambassadors were sent in to tumultuous situations.  What was at stake was violence and war, and some say that if an ambassador failed to negotiate peace and a new agreement, the opposing king would send the ambassadors head back as a sign.  To be about reconciliation is a matter of life; health and hope; or divisiveness, debates and death.  To be about reconciliation matters.  To be about reconciliation means we need to be willing to change our understandings, to listen and love another person, and to ultimately be open to God’s grace.  Paul invites us to hear this not as some word that comes down from a judge in a courtroom, but from the intimate invitation that is found in our family rooms.  Practicing reconciliation, listening honesty, with openness, and with heartfelt love.  Who knows, maybe that can become our new normal around here this Lent.

May the traces of God's grace guide you these 40 days of Lent.

Also:  Looking for an on-line Lent devotional??  Try Busted Halo's Lenten Calendar!!