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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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 .


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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Friday, June 20, 2014

Who you talkin' to?

Were you surprised yesterday when I quoted Adam Hamilton:  "The question Revelation raises is, will you worship God or will you give primary allegiance to the state?"

I wonder sometimes if we get so caught up in the "puzzle" that is Revelation and in the futuristic interpretation that some people are prone to adopt in our media that we fail to really read the book for what it says and means.  We forget how important it is to know to whom the letter is being written and in what circumstances the original reader found himself. Why would we ever try to understand a letter without knowing to whom it was written?

Once you know that - once you know why Paul was brusque when he wrote the Galatians or why his letter to the church at Philippi was so full of joy or even why John wrote what he did to the seven churches mentioned in Revelation - then the content of the letter makes much more sense.

God certainly speaks to us through these letters, but the author was not writing to us.  To ignore that fact short changes the interpretation of what was written and leads to dangerous and harmful mistakes.

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

God and Country

As you read this post, don't misunderstand me.  I love our country; I am beyond grateful for the freedom and rights that are assured by the United States.  And yet I wonder sometimes....

In his book, Making Sense of the Bible, Adam Hamilton discusses how we might interpret the Book of Revelation.  This fascinating, beautiful and perplexing scripture was written during a time when the Roman Caesar was worshiped as a god. Hamilton says:
In every age, there is a temptation for the state to deify itself.  And every nation has values and practices that are contrary to those of the kingdom of God.  The state at times seeks to be worshipped and served (it seldom uses these words, but it demands the allegiance of the heart).  And God's people may be tempted to give in and compromise and to accept the state's values.  The question Revelation raises is, will you worship God or will you give your primary allegiance to the state?
I get a little uncomfortable when we sing patriotic songs in worship or when we assume that God blesses the United States more than any other country, as if God has chosen sides.  I have heard of churches torn apart by the question of having a US flag in the church's sanctuary.  Some people's words about God and country make me think that Country is the god they worship.

I think we need to be careful that we worship only God.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Time for a little happy break.  Go watch this.

Come along if you feel like a room without a roof.
Clap along if you feel that happiness is the truth.

Thanks to Bishop Tom Bickerton for pointing all of us to this song at our recent Annual Conference.  He played it as part of a sermon, and everyone in the chapel was dancing and clapping.

I had a teacher in high school - Mr. Hundley.  Mr. Hundley was always smiling.  He greeted every student with a smile.  One day he asked me if I knew why he was always so happy - he was happy because he had had cancer, but was still alive.

We are still alive.  In Christ, we are more alive than we ever could be without Christ.  Shouldn't we be happy?

I don't mean that we can always feel the pleasure of life going our way.   I mean deep down joy.  I mean lightness of spirit that fills us.  There will be down, desperate times, but in the midst of them, we are living in the joy of God.

BIshop Bickerton quoted someone that Christian worship is boring.  Why are we boring?  We are boring because we don't let the joy of God shine through in our worship.

We are ALIVE.  We should act like it.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Spiritual Gifts Inventories

I attended a Spiritual Gifts Class a month or so ago.  It was a great class - great teacher - much discussion.

As part of the class, we took a spiritual gifts inventory test.  That's not the first time I've taken an inventory; I completed one as part of my training to be a Certified Lay Minister.  The results of the two test were basically the same, although there were some differences.  I attribute the differences to the fact that the tests were different. Some of the gifts measured by one test were not included in the other one, etc.  Anyway, my results didn't surprise me.

What did surprise me was looking at the test results other people shared with me.  As part of the post-test process, we came together in small groups and discussed our scores and gifts.  The highest score that was possible was 20.  One of the women in my group had 8 gifts for which she scored 20 and 6 for which she scored 19.  That means out of 25 gifts, the test says she is highly gifted in 14 of them.  She considered a "really low" score to be 14.  Another person in my group, who I consider to be gifted, scored low in some areas and is discouraged by that.

It just makes me wonder if one of the influences on a gift assessment survey is your own opinion on your giftedness. One of my motivations were taking a test like that is to remove the bias I have about my gifts, but I wonder now how effective it is in doing that.  I think it goes to show that the spiritual gift assessment is just one tool for determining your gifts, and that it must be coupled with other assessment tools.

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Monday, June 16, 2014


Read Matthew 4:1-11.  This is the Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness.

Dr. Elaine Heath was the guest teacher for our Annual Conference this past week.  (And by the way, sorry for being blog-quiet last week.  It was Annual Conference week, and I was moving fast.) She based her first session on the scripture above. I thought her "take" on it was interesting.

She says that as a Church, we are facing the same temptations that Jesus did:

  1. Stones into bread - This was a temptation intended to convince Jesus to use God's power to feed himself instead of others.  As a Church (and as individuals) we are tempted to do that.  How often do we place ourselves first?  How often do we appropriate God's power for selfish motivations?  How often do we try to "attract members" so that our church will survive rather than convincing people to become disciples of Jesus?
  2. Leaping from the Temple - Dr. Heath spoke about the temple as the pinnacle of Jesus' religious tradition as a Jew.  He stood on the top of the most important tradition - the Temple - and was tempted to make it his Foundation by leaping from it.  We as a Church are tempted to do the same thing.  We stand on our traditions as if they are our Foundation, when God should be our Foundation.  We rationalize by saying that by protecting our traditions, we are protecting our faith, but that isn't true.  Our faith comes from God.
  3. Worship the tempter - We will treat others like the God we worship.  If our God is angry and vengeful, then we will treat others that way.  If our God is judgmental and hateful, then we will be the same.  We will attempt to use God's power to manipulate others.  When we come to realize the true nature of God - loving and grace-filled, then we will treat others like that.
We get to choose.  Will we be tempted?  Or will we stand with God?  When the Church stands with God, angels will tend to us, and God's work will be done.

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Thursday, June 05, 2014


I was in class the other day.  A couple asked us to pray.  They had made an important decision, and they asked us to pray that it had been the right one.  They were agonizing over it; the wife of the couple had spent a night in tears about it - worrying about it.

The person leading the class said that of course we would pray, and that he hoped they had prayed before they made the decision.

I believe that the worry and tears and anguish are a form of prayer.  I believe they were praying before the decision.  And I certainly believe that God was listening.

I guess my question is two-fold.

Unless we intentionally ask God for guidance are we intentionally listening to God's guidance? I'm certain we are in communication with God - that God is listening and hearing - but are we, unless we make an effort to do so?

And I wonder if God guides us even if we are not listening.  Is the spirit in us gently leading us in the way to go even if we are not in "formal" prayer?

Pray without ceasing.


Wednesday, June 04, 2014


Our Bible study class is working its way through Adam Hamilton's book, Making Sense of the Bible.  He tells of a second century man named Tatian who created a document called Diatessaron ("made of four") "in which he combined the four Gospels, removing redundant material, fitting the conflicting material together and creating one continuous story from Jesus' birth to his ascension."

Isn't that interesting?  It is a terrible thing to do to the Gospels, but I wonder if we don't do it too.  Think of our nativity scenes, with the wise men standing next to the shepherds.  Think of what we've done to the gospel stories of the women who anoint Jesus with tears or oil - we combine them and make her Mary.  Think of the resurrection portrayal, and how we mix up what each Gospel tells us into one story - or at least we forget that they tell different stories.

The Gospel didn't need Tatian's help to be a coherent, truthful story.  There is much to be learned by what one author included or emphasized.  We learn more from four different account than we would from one mooshed up one.  The differences in the accounts are important, and they tell us important truths and make important points.

Christianity isn't easy, but it is rich and deep and wonderful.


Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Know, Share, Retire - Part 6

Aldersgate UMC 
Aldersgate United Methodist Church is just down the road in Sissonville.  Like many churches, they have a food pantry and clothing closet for their community.  Brad Bennett, one of the pastors there, told me that they serve around 80 families a month through this ministry - and he considers this part of their evangelism ministry.  Of those families who are served, about two families a year come into worship, and everyone celebrates that.  Too often, I think, churches believe that evangelism is a membership campaign.  How many people can we reach so that they will become members of our church?  If that were the definition of evangelism, then Aldersgate's ministry would be a failure - 2 out of 80?  That's a terrible return for a membership campaign.  But that's not what evangelism is.  Evangelism is reaching people with the Good News of Christ, and I imagine that all 80 families, every month, have a better idea of the love of God through the Body of Christ that is assembled at Aldersgate.

Evangelism is not the program of the church that seeks to sustain the church's existence; it is the one of the very reasons we exist as a church at all.  Evangelism is not a task of the church that we can delegate to those who we feel are best equipped to do it, or even worse, a task that we set aside all together.  It is the mission God has given to us.  Ephesians says that we are given gifts by God "to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God."  (Eph 4:12a)

We live in a world much like the city of Athens, with idols all around us.  We live among a people who are searching for the "unknown God" to fill the spiritual emptiness that surrounds their lives.  As a gift of grace, we have come to know God and to understand the difference that God can make in our lives.   In the words of Randle Mixon:
 "What does it mean to be so fully rooted and grounded in God, so centered in our own experience of the Christian story, that we cannot keep from sharing it?  In the words of the old hymn, when we feel our faith in our very bones, "how can we keep from singing?"
Go from this place and let your words, your very life, be your song, so that everyone can come to know the Good News of Christ.

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Monday, June 02, 2014

Know, Share, Retire - Part 5

And then, do the hardest part.  It's what Dr. Jones called "retire."  Back away, and let God do what God will do.  As I shared at the beginning of this sermon, my faith is a gift from God.  There were people involved in preparing me for what God would do in my life on my Walk to Emmaus, there were people who invited me to attend the Walk, and there have been those who have walked with me since that time, but none of them have gotten between what God was doing in my life and me.  They retired, and trusted God's grace.  It would have been hard for me to hear God if someone had been sitting there with me the entire time insisting on telling me how great God is!

We must allow God to do for someone else what he is still doing for us - change us, transform us, recreate us.  This is the good news - that God exists, that he loves each of us, and that he is already at work in our lives.

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