Thursday, July 24, 2014

Tzedaka

I was reading a giving article in a magazine this morning.  The author, David Kottler, spoke about "the Hebrew concept of tzedaka.  The word is commonly used to refer to charity, but it's much more.  It also carries a sense of obligation to recognize what we have comes from God and we're merely a conduit for redistributing it."

My understanding of stewardship is much the same as this.  Stewardship isn't fund raising, as so many churches have defined it.  Stewardship is putting what we have learned as a disciple into action.  As a disciple, we learn about how to live our lives - as stewards, we live them.  As a disciple, we learn that the gifts we have come from God; as s steward, we use those gifts.  As a disciple, we learn the calling God has placed on our lives; as a steward, we act on that call, putting all we have been given to work in the mission God has given us.

As a church leader, it is important to remember, I think, that moving people to stewardship isn't about funding a budget.  It's about shepherding people from discipleship to action.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Now and not yet

Therefore you must be ready, for the son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect.  Matthew 24:44

I remember, years ago, a pastor said in a class I was taking, "The kingdom of God is now."  It was a revelation to me to consider that the Kingdom of God is not (or not only) something in the future, but it is a present reality, right this minute.  The  now and the not yet.

The verse above is part of an apocalyptic passage in Matthew.  I don't like those kind of passages, because I feel helpless in the light of the them.  God is coming; something will happen.  We don't know when or where or what, but we need to be prepared.  And I always feel woefully unprepared, and it makes me anxious.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book The Seeds of Heaven, says:
The truth is that Christ comes again and again and again - that God has placed no limit on coming to the world, but is always on the way to us here and now. The only thing we are required to do is to notice - to watch, to keep our eyes peeled.
God is here now.  He is coming, but he is also here now.  Right now.  In my office.  What difference does that make in the way I live my life?

Taylor says that the passage in Matthew (24:29-44) speaks of three virtues - enduring love, discernment, and alertness.  We are called to keep watch - God is here now and God is coming.  Be aware and notice.  And while you are doing that, remember enduring love.  Remember the mission we have been given, which is to reach out to the lost, the hungry, the homeless and to act with enduring love.  We don't know when God may come, but we do know that God is here. (I love that idea.)  And if God is here, then we had better be about God's work.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Workers in the Vineyard

Matthew 20:1-16.  

The day had been a long one.
The sun had pounded heat into his skin,
burning with its impact.
Sweat had tracked into his eyes
and down his back.
He could feel the stab of blisters
on his hands and feet
as his heart forced blood
to his aching muscles.
The exhaustion of working
from sun up to sun down
was melting his bones.
He stood worn down
waiting in the field
for the pay that had been promised him.

He watched as the vineyard owner
paid the man who had worked only for an hour.
Jealousy and hatred
hotter than the sun at midday,
filled him.
How dare the vineyard owner pay this worthless impostor
the same pay
that he had earned?

The other man stood
holding the coin in his hand,
feeling its surface through the grime
straining his skin.
The long day had begun
with the worry that he would earn nothing.
He had stood in the sun
praying for some kind of salvation
for the family he was unable to feed.
When the vineyard owner had hired him
at the very end of the day,
he had been grateful.

With the coin in his hand
he knew what real gratitude was
he knew what grace really meant.
He stood with what he had not earned.
He stared at what he hadn't ever imagined
would be his.
Tears mixed with the sweat on his face.

Who are we?
Are we the man who stands in the stink
of hatred and jealousy,
claiming that the reward is not fair?
Or are we the man who knows salvation
is not earned,
it is given.
A gift of grace that brings us life.
When will we come to see our own unworthiness
for the amazing gift we have been given?
When will we allow the beauty of that gift
to change us?
When will we realize that we are the one
who come late to the field,
and who has not earned what we have been given?

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Voice and Image

Sorry for my absence.  We were on vacation and for some reason, the internet and the cellular signal were not very good.

I'll be posting beachy pictures soon, though.

For today:
In the beginning God spoke all things into being -- and for the rest of time all things are speaking of God. This is a sacramental vision of the world: God comes to us in and through the very stuff of the earth.
 
-- On Our Way: Christian Practices for Living a Whole Life, edited by Dorothy C. Bass and Susan R. Briehl
We make Christ real for people.  If you focus on being transformed by God - to being confirmed into God's likeness, then you will become a transforming power (thoughts from Joe Hill's sermon in April, 2014).

Think about those two thoughts for a moment.

  • God spoke us into being, and we are created in the image of God.  
  • As we are transformed into the image of God (through God's sanctifying grace), we become the way in which God speaks into the world.

If you find that Christ is not visible in the world around you, then what change can you allow God to make in you so that Christ is seen?

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Tapestry

I have heard more than one person - especially those in ordained ministry - speak about their calls to ministry.  Often they regret that they waited so long to act on the call.  This always disturbs me.

There is a scene in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation in which Picard explains that life is a tapestry.  Pull at one thread and the entire picture is changed.

It could be that I am wrong, but I want to say the following to these who voice regrets concerning the timing of answering God's call.  Nothing is wasted.  God has been involved in your life from the beginning.  A call is not like a telephone ringing that you have refused to answer.  A call is a transformative action in your life.  God has been at work, preparing you for when you were ready to say yes.  Don't be so arrogant as to assume that if you had said yes when you first started hearing the call that you would have ready.  How has God used your life to equip you for where you are now?  Could it be that part of that was the work of your call?  Could it be that your "no" was indicative of the state of your readiness to answer?  Be grateful that God has brought you to where you are, and don't regret the time of preparation.

Don't pull at the threads with regret.  The picture in the tapestry will change, and probably not how you would predict.

And most importantly, you cannot change the past.  It's done.  So be in the now and be grateful.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Not right now

I was reading the blog An Unfinished Symphony, and was stopped by this post.    It's about Jason Gray's song called Not Right Now.  The first link it to the blog post, and there you can read the lyrics.  The second link is to a YouTube video of the Jason singing the song, if you would like to listen to it (go listen to it).

Sometimes, I think, when a friend is hurting, we don't know what to say.  Sometimes, I think, when  friend is hurting, we just want to FIX it.  This song reminds us that there are times - perhaps more often than we know - that the best thing to do is to be present and just listen.  Offer no judgement or answers or reasons - just listen.

Think about Job and the visit of his friends.  At first, before they started talking, they just listened.  They were quiet.  They were present.  It can be a reminder to us of the necessity and possibilities of just listening.

From Jason's song:
While I wait for the smoke to clear
 You don’t even have to speak
 Just sit with me in the ashes here
 And together we can pray for peace
 To the one acquainted with our grief

I know someday
 I know somehow
 I’ll be okay
 But not right now

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Monday, July 07, 2014

What do you believe?

A question inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor's book The Seeds of Heaven:

Imagine for a moment that it is Sunday morning, and you have just walked outside through the doorway of your church.  A stranger is standing there, looking at your church.  He stops you, and you take the time to have a short conversation with him.

He asks, "What is it that you believe in there?"

How do you answer?

Don't answer me right away.  Give this question some thought.  Be prepared.  The time may come when God sends someone to you to be a witness.  You may not anticipate it ahead of time.

And don't you think that all of us should know the answer to that question, if only for ourselves?

What do you believe?

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Thursday, July 03, 2014

Fear and Faith

Think about the story in Matthew of Peter walking on water.  He steps out of the boat, willing to follow Jesus, even to do this thing which is impossible because Jesus calls him to do it.  In his fear and doubt, he sinks.  Jesus rescues him and then rebukes him.  I identify so much with Peter that sometimes I feel the sting of that rebuke and count it as failure.

We are so much like Peter.  We are not without faith, but with our faith lives our fear.  Barbara Brown Taylor talks about this in a sermon in the book The Seeds of Heaven.  Read this:
Why do we doubt?  Because we are afraid, because the sea is so vast and we are so small, because the storm is so powerful and we are so easily sunk, because life is so beyond our control and we are so helpless in its grip.  Why do we doubt? Because we are afraid, even when we do have faith." 
It isn't a lack of faith that causes Peter to sink; it's the presence of fear.

Paul, in the second letter to the Corinthians, spoke of his desire for a "thorn in his flesh" to be removed.  He writes that God said to him, "'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me." (2 Corinthians 9)

It's a hard verse to understand for me, but it came  to mind as I read the Taylor sermon.  If Peter had walked across the water in confidence, with no fear, then Christ would not have had to pull him out of the water.  In his fear, he needed Christ.  In our fear, we come to realize the necessity of salvation.  In our strength, we do not always see it.  God is always powerful, but in our weakness, we rely on his power instead of our own.

That doesn't mean that Christ caused Peter to sink so that Peter would come to realize the necessity of Christ, and it doesn't mean that God causes fearful things to happen to us so that our faith will be strengthened.  Really, we have enough fear on our own with God needing in any way to add to it.  It does mean that when we sink, God is there, and we come to understand that.  God offers grace - the hand that lifts Peter out of the water.  God offers accountability - the rebuke Christ spoke to him.  And God offers salvation - Christ returns Peter to the boat.  In none of that does God offer rejection.

And what do the disciples do?  They worship Christ in the boat.  As should we.

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Wednesday, July 02, 2014

An Abundance of God

...but what Jesus knew beyond a shadow of a doubt was that wherever there was plenty of God there would be plenty of everything else. (Barbara Brown Taylor)
This quote is from the book The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew.  Taylor is exploring the feeding of the 5000 in Matthew 14. Jesus looks at the crowd -- this is just after John the Baptist has been beheaded -- and he seemed "to know that what the crowd needed more than a hot meal was to stay together, seeming to know that there was more nourishment for them in each other's company than in some neighboring farmer's goat cheese or boiled rice."

So, Jesus, knowing this, looks out at the crowd and tells the disciples to feed them.  He doesn't see five loaves and two fish, and how little that is compared to 5000 people.  Jesus sees the need and knows the abundance of God.  "There is plenty of God, there will be plenty of everything else."

Do we see with eyes that see the abundance of God?  Do we believe what Jesus knew?  If we did, what difference would it make in our ministry, in our churches, in our lives?

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Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Claiming who we are

By claiming whet we already are, we best prepare ourselves for what shall be.  (Henri Nouwen)
Who are we?  John in 1 John 3:1 says, "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are."

We are children of God, blessed and beloved. What does that mean in our lives?  It means we are forgiven.  No matter what.  It means we have been given grace, and that grace (the love of God) transforms us.  It means that we have been given spiritual gifts to discover and utilize.

Claiming all of that prepares us for what God wants us to do, where God wants us to go, and how God is calling us to serve.

Today, how can you claim who you already are?

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: Here and Now

Information about the book
Here and Now: Living in the Spirit by Henri J.M. Nouwen, published by The Crossroads Publishing Company, 1994.  Amazon link to the book.

Summary
In his Preface to this book, Nouwen says that "One day I simply sat down behind my desk and began to write down thoughts and feelings that emerged from my mind and heart.  Except for the Bible, I had no other books to quote from....  It became a long examination of conscience, an extended personal statement of faith, and a series of glimpses into the Kingdom of God."

What resulted is a book of eleven chapters, each with a theme such as "The Spiritual Life," "Prayer," "Conversion" (to list three of them).  Each themed chapter has between six and ten short meditations, suitable to be read during a devotional time or to use to lead a small group discussion.  At the end of the book is a Guide for Reflection.

Impressions
I used this book as a daily devotional guide, and it was an excellent resource.  I love to read what Nouwen writes; in his books I always find a multitude of "ah-ha" moments - moments when I am brought closer to God or to an understanding of God's nature. The passages are short, but long enough to matter.

Recommendation
My "normal" source for devotional time is the Upper Room's Disciplines, which I recommend to you. However, for a time, I have not found them to inspire me, and I was searching for something else.  This is one of the books that has filled that temporary void.  I highly recommend it as a devotional resource, or as a book to just read.  I haven't used it as a group study book, but I imagine it would work for that as well.  I highly recommend it.

Posts
Link to my posts that mention the book


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Friday, June 27, 2014

Waiting for a Sign?

Many months ago, I snapped this image from my car.  It was on a pole at a restaurant between the speaker where I placed my order and the window where I paid for and picked up my order.  I thought it was a blog post, waiting to be written.

Often I hear people who are trying to discern a direction say, "I am waiting for a sign from God telling me what to do."  It makes me wonder:  are people really waiting for a sign (and I'm sure some of them are) or are they waiting for a shove?

I wonder if we wait for a sign because we'll only listen to something so obvious that there are no questions.  As long as we can question the leadership God is providing to us, we can say we are waiting, instead of acting, when really, we already know the direction we are supposed to go.

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Bible isn't Easy

As I have mentioned earlier, our Bible Study class spent some time reading Adam Hamilton's book, Making Sense of the Bible. I recommend it to you, and when I have the time, I'll write a review of it for the Blog.

Christianity isn't easy, and reading and living the Bible isn't simple. A statement like, "The Bible says it, and that's all there is to it," is difficult to agree with, right from the moment it is said.  Those who make that statement don't live it.

I don't mean that we fall short of what God, through the Bible, tells us to do.  Of course we do.  We don't feed the hungry or care for the homeless or love our enemies.  We try, and we have some success (thanks be to God), but we still fall short, but that's not what I mean.

Hamilton makes the point that even the apostles recognized that parts of the Bible applied only to those to whom it was written, or needed to be reinterpreted, or didn't express God's will for humanity.  Remember the debate in the book of Acts and throughout Paul's letters about circumcision and the necessity of new Christians following the laws laid out in the Hebrew Bible.

My sons weren't circumcised as a sign of the covenant with God, as the Hebrew Bible commands.  My sons were circumcised because it was the accepted and traditional practice.  We must be careful in our Bible interpretation to separate "what we have always believed" from "what is God's will for how we live our lives." I pray that our interpretation of Scripture involves more than a blind acceptance of previous beliefs and is grounded in the hard work of discernment of God's will.

The Bible isn't easy; don't pretend that it is .

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Monday, June 23, 2014

Forth Telling

Adam Hamilton, in his book Making Sense of the Bible (chapter 7), says:
When Matthew quotes an Old Testament passage and concludes, "This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet," it is helpful to know that the Greek word translated as "fulfill" can also mean "complete."
One of the potential pitfalls of reading books like Isaiah is that we forget that the words were written to a particular audience in a particular circumstance.  We will read them - especially if we are reading just a couple of verses lifted out of context - and we hear only a prophecy predicting the coming of Christ.

I think prophecy is most correctly seen as forth-telling.  The prophets are so close to God and so able to discern God's word, that their prophecies tell forth the truth of God.  For instance, think about the older brother in a family, who has so much experience with the parenting style of the Mom and Dad, as well as experience in life, that he can tell his younger siblings the most likely outcomes of their actions and how their parents will react.  Add to that the image of the family's mom standing close by, whispering to the older brother.  Forth-telling of truth.

Much of what Isaiah spoke was fulfilled nearer the time in which he lived.  These weren't prophesies waiting for Jesus.  But add to that idea that fulfill can also mean complete.  Hamilton says, "Jesus offered a completion, or a climactic redefinition, of what these ancient words meant because Jesus is the climax of God's saving work in the world."

That isn't to say that a beautiful passage like Is 53:5 doesn't speak to us about the coming of Christ:
"But he was pierced for our trasngressions, he was crushed for our iniquities: the punishment that brought us peace wwas on him, and by his wounds we are heaed." doesn't speak of Jesus.  I just mean that it doesn't only speak of Jesus.  
When the big brother speaks of what Mom and Dad will do in a particular situation, doesn't that wisdom have some application in not only the present but also the future?  Could it be that the prophets were so close to God, and had such a communion with God, that their words had present meaning but also future meaning?  Couldn't their words tell truth in the time in which they were speaking but also in the time to come? And wouldn't our understanding of what they were saying be enhanced if we understood all of that?

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