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Thinking about Lent already…

I started using a new Bible for daily devotions, one that divides the Scriptures according to “timeline,” or when events detailed in Scripture occurred.

To be honest, I was a skeptical about reading this thing.  We don’t have a calendar notifying us that Light was created on April 21, 5 million B.C. — and I get tired of people arguing over that subject.  No matter how we humans got here, I still believe we were created by God to enjoy and glorify him.   (See the Westminster Catechism!)

Yet the Bible was a gift, so I cracked it open.

What I’ve found has surprised me.  Immediately after giving me the stories of the Fall, Cain & Abel, Noah, and the tower of Babel, the book plunged me right into the Book of Job.  Right off the bat, a new year beginning with daily readings about suffering and sin.  I haven’t put Job and Genesis together before, and it has been a welcome challenge.

So I may write some more posts on this come Lent.  Specifically, some posts dealing with the question, “Is God Mean?”  We’ll see how it goes.

In the meantime, I’ll hopefully post something before Lent gets here — it’s on the way!

The First Day

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Happy New Year! The first thing God created was light. I pray that the Light of the World will shine in your life this year.

“give it to God”

Something weird happens when people talk to me about prayer.

Most of the time, whoever is talking to me will mention the phrase “give it to God” or “let God handle it.”  Sometimes I also hear “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle,” but that will be a subject for another post.

And when I hear the phrase “give it to God,” I nod my head.  I recall Philippians 4:6 (Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.)  Yes, as God’s children we are not left to handle everything alone.

But what do we mean when we use that phrase?  Give what to God:  the issue itself, or the anxiety over it?  And do we relinquish all responsibility for events in our lives when we give things to God?

I think there’s a great treatment of the concept “give it to God” in the movie The Dilemma, released earlier this year.  In the movie, the lead character Ronny discovers his friend’s wife in an adulterous relationship, and prays to God about the situation.  Alone in the city at night, he prays, “I know I’m supposed to give things up to you… .”

I’m not sure if the movie character realizes it, but sometimes we actually have very little to “give” to God.

In some situations, there is not much that we can control.  The character Ronny is worried about an upcoming business deal, but there is little he can do once he’s made the initial sales pitch and signed the loan papers.  The project is now in the hands of his partner the engineer, who will have to muster up enough creativity and stamina to see the project through.

What can we “give” to God when a situation is out of our hands?  It may serve us well to clarify things:  to ask God for help in letting go of anxiety, to ask God to help those whom we care about but can’t control.  Perhaps what we need to give away is the desire to control other people.

The character’s other “give it to God” struggle involves dealing with the adultery he discovered.  He begins to act like a jilted lover who is out of control.  He wants to be the judge, the lawman, the punisher (and maybe the redeemer, if people meet his qualifications) but he’s not doing a great job at any of those things.  He freely admits to God that he doesn’t quite want to let go of this situation yet.  He wants to be The One who sorts everything out in a way that makes him happy.
What he’s really asking for is a blessing — a divine OK, giving legitimacy to his vigilante justice.  Truthfully, he doesn’t want to “give” anything to God in this situation.  He wants God to well, make him God instead.   And the thing is, in the areas where he could exercise power, he doesn’t want to.  There may be a million creative ways to deal with this sticky situation, but this character doesn’t want creativity.  He wants things to be fixed, his way, now.
So I’m still stuck with the question, what does it mean to “give it to God?”  Are we giving away selfish and senseless desires?  Misguided intentions?  Misunderstandings?  I just hope we don’t give away our creativity and desire to do the right thing.

let them

Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’  (Matthew 19:14)

Yesterday at our church a man who had been homeless was baptized.

He gave his statement of faith to the congregation, and talked about how the love and acceptance he felt here enabled him to begin rebuilding his life.

The thing that astounds me is, he said that it all started when we “allowed” him to volunteer at our annual mission fundraiser.

Allowed?

Sure enough.  A couple in our congregation volunteer with a local homeless ministry, and they recruited some of the men being served by the ministry to watch over the items during our huge yard sale/bake sale day.  The men were astounded, I guess, that someone trusted them with this much responsibility.  Then these men started to attend worship here, and they were astounded again at how people shook their hands and greeted them, as if they were any other visitors.

Sometimes we church folks get so caught up in worry about the supposed decline of the church, that we neglect the very people who want to be here.  It may seem unbelievable, but there are still folks in our towns and neighborhoods who would receive the church with childlike amazement and delight.

Indeed, let them come.

egg money and leadership training

During my first call as a pastor, I found out about egg money.

One Monday evening, I was listening to the treasurer’s report at the Presbyterian Women meeting, and asked why the group was giving a donation to the general church budget.  Doesn’t everyone already give to the general offering, I asked?  Well, I was told, that’s the egg money.

And what is egg money, I asked?  I learned that it was money women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries earned on their own, without their husband’s oversight, raising chickens and selling eggs.  The tradition had lasted long after women gained equal access to the family checkbook.

Sometimes the church gets criticized, and rightly so, for being a place where only the select few are allowed to belong or participate.

Yet, sometimes the church is the only place where people can find opportunities to use their gifts and express their thoughts.  Women, slaves, unemployed people … these were groups that were cut off from full participation in the rest of society, and often from full participation in church.  So they created their own space.  Women’s groups, religious meetings in the woods, and youth groups for the countless young adults out of work during the Depression are just a few examples of how people have taken the do-it-yourself route when the system failed them.

future community gardener, maybe?

And these spaces provided great opportunities to become leaders!  I’ve always been impressed with the resumes of women from my mother’s and grandmothers’ generations … but those resumes were not necessarily formed at work, because their opportunities were restricted.  Those resumes were formed at church.  We may come in to the church building with just our egg money, or just our clothes dirty from pounding the pavement looking for work, but if the church is doing things right we can be transformed into people who claim their place at the table.

The old days are gone, and perhaps the need for an “egg money” account is no longer, but we still have people who are denied a full place and full participation.  We still have people coming to our door who could be uplifted, educated, trained, and sent out … by the church.  Think of the folks who have been edged out of the workplace, because they are too old or too fresh-out-of-college.  Or think of the refugees resettling in your area (it’s amazing to me how many little corners of America are home to communities of refugees.)  Or the people who have always been underemployed, living on the margins.

Who in your community may have a little egg money and a lot of potential?

10-A: raising the bar?

My friend Ed Brenegar commented this morning on my last post, talking about the balance of local control and the connectional system of the PC(USA).  I appreciate how he brought up the presbyteries’ role in helping congregations, so that no congregation is stuck trying to figure out how to do ministry alone.

A lot of folks have wondered how 10-A will apply in the broader contexts, as governing bodies of the church continue their functions of calling, ordaining, and installing the officers of the church.   A lot of people are wondering — if sessions and presbyteries seek to interpret the new text faithfully, will every candidate for office be painstakingly scrutinized?  And if so, what will that mean?   (I remember speaking about this ten years ago at presbytery meetings!)

It remains to be seen how this one amendment will change (or not change) the preparation and selection of the church’s leaders.  But I do know one thing, regardless of what’s in the Book of Order:  it’s time for officers of the church to humbly kneel in awe of the sacred trust placed in our hands.

We pastors, elders, and deacons ask a lot of church members and visitors.  We ask them to conform their lives to a standard that is totally foreign to some cultural contexts.  We ask them to give their hard-earned money.  We ask them to give the precious time that seems to slip away faster with each day. 

When church members do those things, they expect to have something back, and rightly so.  Sometimes the expectations get mixed up, as in, “I gave a lot of money and you won’t put my name on a window,” or “I worked hard to pick out pretty carpet for the sanctuary and the pastor’s baby crawled on it!”  But on average, those who commit their lives to Christ and his church expect that the leaders will make serious commitments too.

When our sermons turn into rants, or when we fail to provide quality Christian Education programs, or when we brush people off when they express fears and doubts, or when we treat our own bodies as throwaway commodities, we, the leaders of the church, are in deep trouble.  It’s not just that these failures could result in poor church attendance or low giving.  If we ask people to make commitments on a certain level, and we fail to keep our commitments at that same level, we have turned into snake oil salesmen:  exchanging people’s trust for slick and meaningless promises.

Again, I have no idea what 10-A will bring in terms of the preparation for ministry process, examination of elders-elect, and so on.  But I do hope that those of us who are currently called to office (or seeking office) will take this opportunity to re-commit to high standards and best practices.  The world is desperate for leaders who walk the walk.

Amendment 10-A: I predict … ?

So we’ve had the Big Vote in the Presbyterian Church (USA) on Amendment 10-A.  I’ll spare you an explanation, since I think most of my readers are Presbyterians!  But please let me know if you need more information.

In the days and weeks and months leading up to this vote, scores of people have predicted how its passage would either liberate or obliterate the Church.  I think a lot of people view this moment as a prophetic one, as it will reveal the moment we did something awfully heretical, or awfully faithful.

You might have an occasion to think about prophecy this Sunday morning.  One of the Scripture readings for this Sunday, May 15, is Acts 2:42-47.*  This is one of “those” passages that can raise uncomfortable questions about one’s lifestyle.  In a weird way, it is exactly what I needed to hear at this moment.

The early Christians depicted in this passage participated in a shared act of prophecy.  Theirs was prophecy in the true Biblical sense:  a statement of God’s intentions for the world, not necessarily a prediction of the future.

When a believer “does” prophecy, the Spirit speaks a word against human self-absorption and self-indulgence through her.   The believer conveys a godly word of challenge, guidance, and a reminder of who is in charge (and if you need a hint, prophecy reminds us that we are not the ones in charge!)

The early church, filled with elation over the saving act of Jesus Christ,  decided on a prophetic act of self-reliance. They emerged from a socioeconomic system based on legalized inequality and decided to take care of all their members’ needs.  Slavery, usury, and debt — the things that gave the ancient nobles power and  kept the rest of the population from fully prospering — were banished from the early community of believers, as a way of stating that God wishes to banish those things from creation.

The debate continues over the various forms of human bondage and oppression experienced today. In fact, just this evening, the Presbyterian Church (USA) website featured an article on how we can act to eliminate modern-day slavery.  Many American Christians feel that they are theologically oppressed, but there are widely divergent views of what the theological oppression is.  Some will see tonight’s passage of 10-A as a release from the bondage of homophobia in the church, and others will see this event as a descent into the bondage of theological relativism.

The problem for me is, that in the midst of all this, I still feel bound.  From time to time students have asked me about 10-A, and I have almost felt unable to speak.  I’m silent not because I can’t think, but because of what I have witnessed as a campus minister.  Among today’s emerging adults there is a gnawing need to perform, to be accepted, and to be excited — and it’s all combined with true confusion over where they fit in the world.  In the ministry I direct, students have been all over the map in regard to sexuality and intimacy.  Some have come out, others have retracted their coming-out, some have gone too far with a date, and others have been totally unable to find a date.   And no matter what the circumstance, they are incredibly anxious, confused, and desperate for guidance.  Some days I feel like Job’s friends, who, before they smothered him with long speeches, simply sat with him in silence because his suffering was so great.

I’m oddly comforted by the prophetic witness of the early Christians with their shared resources.  There is a way out of bondage!  There is a way to challenge the things that we happily accept because we’re unaware of the chains tightening around us.

And even though prophecy doesn’t always equal telling the future, my big prediction (drum roll) is that we aren’t done yet with larger issues of sexuality.  Until we who call ourselves followers of Christ can free ourselves from the bondage of:

  • the “me-first” approach to relationships;
  • our fear of discussing sex within our homes;
  • our aversion to commitment;
  • our belief that momentary pleasure equals deep spiritual meaning; and
  • a sex-saturated media environment,

we will not be done with this conversation.

I’m ready for a prophetic word on how God wants us to live out the matters of the heart.  If God can challenge the entrenched financial realities of the Roman Empire, surely God can help us learn to be together in a way that God could call good.

I love the church that raised me and I pray for her every day.  May the Holy Spirit continue to speak the needed word to my dear church and to the surrounding world.

* at First Presbyterian we’re actually doing a sermon series, so this week’s Scripture will be from John.