Thursday, June 27, 2019

Perspectives: Hammers

If I  had a hammer...


Wednesday, June 26, 2019


I'm reading Faith Unraveled by Rachel Held Evans.  Near the very beginning of the book, she writes:
I was a fundamentalist not because of the beliefs I held but because of how I held them: with a death grip.  I would take God himself to finally pry some of them out of my hands.  The problem with fundamentalism is that it can't adapt to change.  When you count each one of your beliefs as absolutely essential, change is never an option.  When change is never an option, you have to hope that the world stays exactly as it is so as not to mess with your view of it.
I can see that viewpoint.  I was listening to the radio on the way into work one day. The story was about a person who believed in a literal interpretation of the Creation story.  He defended it against any assault and believed that if this interpretation was wrong, then his whole faith would be threatened.

I was shocked by that.  How can that be? How can the loss of a seven day creation belief threaten an entire faith system?

And why do we hold so tight to a belief? Do we think that belief is God? 

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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Experience under a tree and in a cave

One of the lectionary readings last Sunday was from 1 Kings.  It's a passage I've always liked.  Elijah is running away, worn out, dejected, and exhausted.  Angels come and minister to him, and then God appears to him in silence. 

One pastor I know posted this one Facebook:
In 1 Kgs. 19:1-15 Elijah falls into a crippling depression and loses all will to live. Depression and suicidal thoughts are rarely discussed openly in church, especially from the pulpit; tomorrow is different.  No matter where you are spiritually and emotionally, I pray this sermon provides both insight and hope.  (Rev. Darick Biondi)
I realized as I read his post and as I listened to the scripture as it was read in worship, that I always focus on the care given to Elijah.  I focus on God's visit, and not on Elijah.

But focus on Elijah for a moment.  Verse 4b says, "He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my  ancestors.”

Darick is right.  Now focus on the response.  The angels don't tell him to "buck up" and stop feeling sad.  The angels minister to him where he is, and provide what he needs.  Not platitudes.  Just acceptance and caring.

And then he goes to the cave.  God doesn't judge Elijah, or tell him that "everything happens for a reason." God doesn't diminish what he is feeling or experiencing.  What God does do is bring Elijah into God's presence in silence, and then sends Elijah out in ministry again.  Elijah is still worthy.

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Monday, June 24, 2019

What Does Forgiveness Look Like?

In Sunday school a couple of weeks ago, an article about a Mennonite family was discussed.  You can read about it here..  

A Mennonite man has sexually abused his children.  When his wife did not welcome him back into their home following his probation, she was excommunicated from the church for failing to forgive him.   The article is much longer, and provides more details.  The discussion in Sunday school sparks some thoughts in me about forgiveness.

The Mennonites in this story demanded that she forgive and forget.  Once the person has confessed, and has been forgiven by the church, then the sin is to be forgotten - never spoken of again.  

I think it is reasonable that this man, who may be forgiven, should not have access to his children.  Forgetting the sin would put them in danger.  

What does forgiveness look like?  I have many discussions in Bible Study that explored the idea of forgiveness requiring that the sin be forgotten.  The Mennonites in this article, I think, would say that forgiveness is radical, and that it much include forgetting the sin.

I think that forgiveness looks different for every circumstance.  In some, maybe it does require forgetting the sin, and recreating the person being forgiven - so that we don't see the sin when we see the person.  In other circumstances, forgiveness is given, but accountability is required.  In other circumstances, it may mean that forgiveness is offered, but that the relationship cannot be restored. In others, a person who has hurt someone may be forgiven without the knowledge of the person who has sinned - the forgiveness is offered so that the person hurt can heal.  All of these, and others, can be within the will of God.

Forgiveness, like grace, is offered and created in many forms.  All of them, though, with the help of God.

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Friday, June 21, 2019

The New Covenant's Sacrifice - Sunday school, 4

Annual Conference Sunday School Lesson, Cont.


In what way does the new covenant initiated by Christ’s sacrifice create a new life in you?

Christ’s sacrifice gains us forgiveness of our past sins – and it opens new life for the future.

Quote from Elizabeth Forney:  this changes everything.  No longer does the community need to keep track of offenses against neighbor and God, nor report to the local priest for intercession or atonement.  Instead Christ becomes both the mediating presence and sacrifice.  Sin is still a reality, but so now is forgiveness.  We no longer belong to a fear-based community.”

Peter Wallace has a three fold statement that I like:
  1. First – we are part of the redeemed body of Christ today, and that changes how we worship God.  We now have a deep, spiritual vitality – meaning prayer and meditation, and energetically serving others.  We are in the Holy of Holies – in the presence of God.
  2. Christ’s sacrifice was eternally effective.  We are set free from worry that it is impossible for us to relate to God by not measuring up, not being acceptable, not being good enough.  Our relationship with god is no longer an issue – it is an eternal reality.
  3. Christ will come again, and we will be engaged in expectant waiting that “is throbbing with Christ-like service” instead of fearful waiting.  We have already been made right with God.

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Thursday, June 20, 2019

The New Covenant's Sacrifice - Sunday school, 3

Annual Conference Sunday School Lesson, Cont.


How is Christ as a high priest differ from other high priests?  How does the sacrifice differ from the animal sacrifices described in the Hebrew Bible?

  • Christ offered himself willingly – the animals life was taken from it; Christ gave his life
  • Jesus was the flawless sacrifice – he was human in every way we are, and yet he was without sin
  • Jesus was both the high priest and the sacrifice
  • This sacrifice is once and for all – it does not need to be repeated
  • This sacrifice was one of love.
  • William Barclay says Christ’s sacrifice changes a person’s consciences – releases a person from the burden of sin – it frees us and brings us into communion with God.

Take a look at the idea of blood as life.
What is blood?  It is life.  For the Israelites, blood was a precious gift that symbolized the essence of life.  God prohibited the Israelites from consuming blood.  Blood is life – and when our life is over, the blood of Christ continues to bring us life.

Think about Holy places
We’ve talked today about the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies.  Christ’s sacrifice brings us into the presence of God and expands the Holy of Holies.

Can you tell about a holy place for you? Where are the thin places where you meet God?
What does all of this mean when we look at it in connection with the building we call Church?

Talk about our need for the rituals

  1. Why do you think there was a system of sacrifices for the Israelites in the first place?  Did God need them? Or did the Israelites? How hard is it to accept the idea that we are forgiven?  
  2. We read in John “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  I believe that.  I believe God sent his son.  But I also believe – although I do not understand it – in the trinity. In sending his son, God came, and became human, and died for us on a cross.  
  3. And in a faith that is full of contradictions (human and divine, now and not yet), could it be that the sacrifice of Jesus was not a requirement of God’s to cleanse us, but a requirement we placed on God in order for us to be convinced.  Heb 9:14a (CEB) says, “how much more will the blood of Jesus wash our consciences clean from dead works in order to serve the living God.”
  4. What more effective demonstration of love could there be that God suffering and dying for us – does that not convince us that we are loved and forgiven?  Could it be that the crucifixion was necessary in order to convince us of God’s love for us?

Talk about the cost of forgiveness
How easy is it to forgive someone else? I’m not talking about when someone does something that can be explained away.  For example, your friend misses your birthday party because she got stuck in traffic.  Or there is a misunderstanding between two people due to miscommunication – those don’t need forgiveness.

How easy is it to forgive the young boy who bullies your son?  How easy is it to forgive the person who breaks into your car and steals your radio?  How easy is it for a woman to forgive her rapist? How easy it is to forgive someone?

Forgiveness is costly.  It brings tears, anguish, and a broken heart. William Barclay says, “Forgiveness is never a case of saying, ‘It’s all right; it doesn’t matter.’  It is the most costly thing in the world.  Without shedding the heart’s blood, there can be not forgiveness….Where there is forgiveness, someone must be crucified.”  And there are times when we must do it in order to be free – and yet we cannot do it alone.  The fact that we are forgiven opens up for us the relationship with God so that God can give us the power and strength to make the sacrifice ourselves to forgive someone else.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2019

The New Covenant's Sacrifice - Sunday School Lesson, 2

Sunday School Lesson, Cont.

Examination of Scripture

11 But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), 12 he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

A new day has come.  Christ is now the high priest, and the human constructed temple has been replaced by a heavenly sanctuary – “the greater and more perfect meeting tent.”  Christ’s sacrifice was only once and was for all time – unlike that of the former high priests, who had to repeat their visit to the Holy of Holies every year on the Day of Atonement.  It is his own blood that is used in the sacrifice.  The word redemption is lytrosis – it comes from the root word lytron, which means ransom.  It means to set free – to redeem.  I like this quote from the material: “Because of his sacrifice in the more perfect temple, Christ took us from the tent’s Holy place to the Holy of Holies.”   Think back to the Gospel description of the crucifixion of Christ.  In Mark, when Jesus died, what happened in the temple?  In Mark 15:38:  “And the curtain of temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”  Access to God.

15 For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, because a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions under the first covenant. 16 Where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. 17 For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. 

I work at the Foundation, where we help people with bequest gifts in the will for ministry. This part of the passage is actually a pun – its hard to tell, because we don’t read or understand Greek, but the Greek word for covenant is diatheke – and the same word can be translated as “will.”  When does your “will” become realized?  “With ones’ death, his or her will comes into effect…. Therefore, the new covenant (will) mediated by
Christ could only come into effect at Christ’s death.”

18 Hence not even the first covenant was inaugurated without blood. 19 For when every commandment had been told to all the people by Moses in accordance with the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the scroll itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God has ordained for you.” 21 And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. 22 Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

Just like my box story at the beginning of this lesson, we cannot solve the problem of sin without Christ.  In Christ’s actions, there is forgiveness.  It was Christ’s one-time action –and it brings us into the presence of God.  We couldn’t do it by ourselves – the rituals of the Hebrew bible were not enough. 

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Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The New Covenant's Sacrifice - Sunday School Lesson 1

Last weekend, I taught Sunday school at Annual Conference.  Today's post and the ones that follow are my notes for the lesson, based on Hebrews 9:11-28.

Foundation for Reading the Scripture

The scriptural basis of today’s lesson is Hebrews 9:11-18.  So let’s start with a look at the book of Hebrews.

Format:  I think I always thought that it was an epistle – much like other letters in the New Testament.  My reading in preparation for this lesson contradicts that – Hebrews is sermon or a treatise that was sent as a letter.  It does not begin like a letter with a normal greeting, but it does end like a letter would.  Structurally, it alternates between discourse and application.

Authorship:  There is a tradition that it was written by Paul, but it very much more that likely was not written by Paul.  One of the sources I read said that when the New Testament was compiled, one of the criteria to be included was that the “book” had to have been written by an apostle or at least by someone who had been in direct contact with the apostles.  But the book was well loved, and it was felt that it had to be included.  So they said Paul wrote it.

The text itself doesn’t claim to have been written by Paul – in fact the text is not very Pauline, and Origen said, “Who wrote the Letter to Hebrews only God knows for certain.”

There are a few theories.  Martin Luther thought that Apollos write it. He was a Jew who had been born in Alexandrea.  Another theory said that Barnabas wrote it.  A third theory is from a German scholar.  He thought that maybe Aquila and Priscila wrote it, and that the authorship information vanished later because the main author of Hebrews was a woman.  All interesting theories, but Origen is right – only God knows.

Time it was written:  Most evidence points to the idea that Hebrews was written in the later half of the first century. It is likely that since the destruction of the temple (which happened in 70 CE) that it was before that date. A likely date is 65 CE.

To whom was it written: It was probably written to a church in Rome, perhaps to Jewish Christians who were facing persecution, who were tempted to abandon their faith.  The author is trying to demonstrate to them the superiority of the Christian faith to persuade them not to return to Judaism.

Overarching theme:  The author wants to demonstrate that Christ has offered us access to God.  Through Christ, we are drawn into the presence of God

Background information for the lesson – context

Let’s place today’s passage in context in the book.  The first part of the chapter (verses 1-10) contain a description of the sacrificial rituals of the Hebrew faith.  I think it is important to have a grasp on this in order to understand the part of the scripture on which we’ll focus.  Imagine the tabernacle.  Two tents were part of the larger tent.  The outer tent was the Holy place.  Behind the second curtain was the inner tent – called the Holy of Holies. The priests carried out their sacrificial duties in the outer tent – but once a year, the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies with sacrifices for himself and for the unintentional sins of the people.  This is where God was – only the high priest could enter into God’s presence, and only once a year.

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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Perspectives: Cross


Wednesday, June 12, 2019


Rachel Held Evans, in Faith Unraveled, says:
I was a fundamentalist not because of the beliefs I held but because of how I held them: with a death grip.  It would take God himself to finally pry some of them out of my hands.

I think we have all experienced stubbornness - our own unwillingness to let go of an idea or belief, even to the point of ridiculousness. I remember arguing with a fellow high school student over the pronunciation of a French phrase.  He was right; I was wrong, but I couldn't let go of my opinion because to do so would mean that he was right - again.  I so valued the idea of his wrongness that I prioritized it above truth.

When we apply the same thoughts to our faith, our stubbornness extends beyond our desire to be right.  Our faith, I think, defines how we see God, and when we are wrong, our whole belief system can be shifted.  How we imagine God, or what we imagine God wants for our lives, might have to change.  And sometimes allowing that change feels like betraying God.

Look at the second sentence in that quote: "It would take God himself to finally pry some of them [her beliefs] out of my hands."

So often I hear people protest that God does not change.  I think there is biblical support to counter that arguement, but even if it is completely true - God does not change - then why do we equate our understanding of God with God himself?

Shouldn't we be humble enough to know that our understanding of God must change in order to be perfected? Do we really believe that our own personal undersatnding is unflawed? And are we so convinced we are completely right that open ourselves up to change would mean that God does not exist?

I think God would argue that point.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I  became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we  will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.  (Corinthians 13:11-12)

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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Two Things about Mary

I couple of Sundays ago, I was at Suncrest UMC in Morgantown to speak about the Foundation.  Rev. Matt Johnson preached using the Luke 1:26-38, 46-56 scripture.  This is the story of Mary - the angel speaking to her, and the Magnificat.  Two things about Mary that I wrote in my bulletin to share with you.
  1. Mary says yes to God, but this couldn't have been an easy yes.  What the angel proposed would have been scandal.  To follow through would mean that she could or would lose the respect of her family and friends, her fiance and the life they would have together, any ability to have the life she would have expected.  And yet she says yes.  Yes to the loss and yes to the scandal.  This was a high-priced decision.
  2. Mary, through-out her life, was a disciple.  We don't often think of her like that, but she was a follower of Christ.  A loyal one who never abandoned him, who followed him to death and beyond.  She was a witness to who he was and what he was to do.  Don't believe it? Read the Magnificat. Sounds like she "got it" more than the 12 did.

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Thursday, June 06, 2019

Perspectives: Loneliness or Solitutde?

When I took this picture, what caught my eye was the chair in the middle of the image, sitting alone.

This week, watch for the person who is sitting alone.  Is that person enjoying solitude? Or is that person lonely?  I pray this week that we will know the difference.


Wednesday, June 05, 2019

What does it mean to magnify?

What does it mean to magnify?

According to the handy Google, it has two definitions:
  1. To make larger, especially with a lens or microscope
  2. To glory or extol, as in praise of God.

I was visiting a church a few weeks ago.  The scripture was from Luke 1:26-38 and 46-56.  Part of that passage is the Song of Mary, also known as the Magnificat.  "My soul magnifies the Lord."

It is a song of praise and thanksgiving of God.  As I was listening to it, I wondered about the phrase, "My soul magnifies the Lord."  What did that mean for Mary? What does that mean for us?

When I worked in science, I often used a microscope.  As the definition suggests, it would make something on a slide appear larger, so that I could see it.  

That may be what we do when our soul magnifies the Lord.  First of all, in praise, we are recognizing the work of God in our lives. We are glorifying God - so that WE can see God.  It is a kind of recognition. 

Secondly, in praise, we are magnifying God so that others can see the presence and action of God at work in the world.  Magnifying God through praise so that OTHERS can see God.  

Where in our lives, and for whom, do we need to magnify God?

One practice I have that I think helps me to magnify God for myself is that each day I fill two lines in my journal with statements of gratitude.  "Grateful for......  Thankful for..."  Listing the gratitude for the day helps me to recognize it.

How do we magnify God in our lives so that others can see God at work? Serving others. Speaking of the work of God in our lives (sharing the story). Loving others. 

My church has a devotional ministry (see link in left-hand sidebar).  Members of the church write devotionals that are then emailed to a mailing list.  This ministry magnifies the Lord for others.  

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Tuesday, June 04, 2019

No Distinction

The lectionary reading from Acts a couple of Sunday ago was from chapter 11:1-18.  Reading it, this part of a verse caught my eye:  "The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us."

That verse caught my eye because I feel as if all we do today is "make a distinction between them and us."  Distinctions based on color, gender, political viewpoints, religious beliefs, neighborhoods, income, fashion, education, sexual orientation - them and us.

Don't you think it dehumanizes us? When we make those distinctions, it steals something from us.  Both of us.

How do we stop?

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Monday, June 03, 2019

The Art of Translation

One of the podcast I like to listen to is called "the Bible for Normal People."  The episode this week was an interview with Robert Alter called "The Art of Translating the Bible."

Have you ever thought of translation as art?  Well-crafted writing is art, so I can imagine that translating the written word from one language to another could be considered an art. 

Do you remember in the story of Samson (in Judges), Samson tells 30 men at a party that if they solve his riddle, he will buy them each a set of clothes? They finally coax the answer out of Samson's wife, so he loose the bet.  He goes to Ashkelon, a Philistine city, and kills 30 men, takes their clothes, and gives them to the 30 men at the party.

Or at least that's what most translations say.

But Alter talks about this in the podcast.  He says that the word for clothes used when the bet is made is slightly different than the word for clothes when Samson kills the 30 men.  Alter says if you translate it a little bit differently, then the meaning changes.  The second word that is translated a clothes is only used one other time in the Bible - in the telling of the war between the supporters of King Saul and of the (to be) King David.  It has to do with a warrior - and modern translators say that the word here is a piece of clothing.  But that isn't what warriors take when they slay a foe - they don't take clothes, they take armor.

Alter says that Samson doesn't kill 30 ordinary men - he kills 30 warriors.  And he brings back their armor.  

Think about the difference that makes in how we read the story.  The first way - killing 30 men and taking their clothes - makes Samson look like man who doesn't want to pay for 30 sets of clothes, so he kills men and takes their clothes instead.  If you think of it as 30 warriors with 30 sets of armor, imagine the different message that it sends to the 30 men at the party.  "I am Samson.  I can kill 30 WARRIORS just on my own."


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