That We May Pray Aright

Words matter.

Words form sentences, which give shape to ideas, which constitute philosophies, ideologies and world-views, which ultimately inspire and shape ways of living, priorities, understandings, values, and faith.

But we can be rather cavalier with how we use words, which can result in shoddy thinking and poorly formed lives.  That can be particularly true with theological language and thought, and the consequent understanding of who God is, our relationship with God, and our practices of discipleship.

This is a problem I often ponder, as a theologian and member of Christ’s Body, the church (specifically that portion of the Body which exists in the USA), and as someone committed to language well used.  Here in the US we are often motivated by what works, and not necessarily by what is faithful, true, or consistent with the teachings of scripture, or the rich tradition of the church through the ages.   That utilitarian spirit is also sometimes reflected in our God language and church practices.

For many years, The Interpreter was published as a resource for clergy and lay leadership of The United Methodist Church.  Each issue included a section called, “It Worked for Us,” in which subscribers would report on activities and programs that “had worked” in attracting people, capturing the interest of children, involving youth, etc.  Certainly some of the stories were inspiring and helpful in sharing news of imaginative or creative ways to deepen faith and form disciples.  Others were, quite honestly, inane or frivolous.  The most memorable of these for me was the story of a church that put goldfish in the baptismal font, not because there was any expressed symbolic meaning or theological significance to having fish there, but because “the children loved it.”

When German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) spent a year studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, his initial impressions of the curriculum and the student body left him rather unimpressed.  Charles Marsh writes in Strange Glory: A Biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (New York: Vintage Books, 2014), “He was decidedly underwhelmed by a religious culture in which people fashioned their beliefs the same way a man ordered a car from the factory – according to taste and preference,” and surmised that “pragmatism explained much about Protestantism in the New World” (Marsh, 103).  Bonhoeffer studied the writings of William James extensively while a student at Union, which to his mind “was the intellectual source of the local compulsion ‘to hasten past difficult problems and to linger inordinately on things that are either self-evident or that without additional preparation cannot possibly be adequately addressed.'” He also described his classmates initially as completely “clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about.  They are not familiar with even the most basic questions…. [T]hey talk a ‘blue streak,’ but often without the ‘slightest substantive foundation,’ blithely indifferent to the two thousand years of Christian thought” (Marsh, 104).

Which, finally, brings me to the topic of prayer: how we pray, the focus of our prayers, and what I humbly consider to be right and faithful prayer.  I begin by confessing that I have not always prayed aright, or in conformity with the thoughts that follow, and gratefully claim the grace that covers a multitude of sins, including talking out of my head, or praying with ignorant foolishness.

Today, as is often my practice, I went to Bruton Parish Episcopal Church to participate in the mid-week service of Eucharist.  While waiting for the time of worship to arrive, I paged through The Book of Common Prayer, looking to find a prayer appropriate for preparing myself for worship, when I encountered this Call to Confession in the liturgy for Morning Prayer:

Dearly beloved, we have come together in the presence of Almighty God our heavenly Father, to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at his hands, to set forth his most worthy praise, to hear his holy Word, and to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.  And so that we may prepare ourselves in heart and mind to worship him, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.

What a wonderful template for forming prayers and disciples, reminiscent of the ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) prayer form I learned as a child.  What particularly caught my eye and heart was this statement: to ask, for ourselves and on behalf of others, those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation.

To ask: when we address and petition the Sovereign of the universe, it is unseemly to make demands, to assume that the Holy One is our servant required to be at our beck and call and to provide for our every want.  It is an act of hubristic arrogance to presume that our personal needs are most important in the universe, or that we know what is best for its maintenance and operation, or that we are so important that nature’s laws should fall before us simply because that is our wish and desire.  We humans are treasured and cherished by God, along with the whole creation, and God is always at work for our good; so says Paul in his letter to the Romans in the New Testament.  But sometimes what is best for us is not what we want; sometimes our personal desires cannot be met without harming others; there are some things that must happen simply because we are creatures, and not God.  We will all die; we age and suffer injuries of all stripes; we experience failure and disappointment; we are nowhere guaranteed that in all times and all places we can have our way or whatever we want; sometimes the wisest and best answer to our prayers is not yes, but no or not yet.  Prayer rooted in trust and humility knows the wisdom of asking in prayer, and not making demands, or threatening to walk away from God if God doesn’t deliver in the way we want.

For ourselves and on behalf of others: We thrive best in the world and most faithfully, when we acknowledge that we live in community, not in isolation.  It is certainly appropriate to pray for ourselves, and to make known our needs and desires, to the God and Parent of all.  Most attentive and loving human parents know what is happening in their children’s lives; they may not know exactly or fully what is transpiring, but they likely have the sense that something delightful or dreadful is occupying their children’s lives, hearts and minds.  To paraphrase some words of Jesus, if we who are evil know such things, certainly we can trust our Creator Parent to know us more fully and deeply.  But there is something powerful and transformative about speaking our desires, failures, regrets, sorrows and shortcomings, our need for guidance and help.  Sometimes it is in praying and speaking that truth is revealed to us that otherwise would not have come.  And all of aspects of our prayer life are richer and more full when offered in light of the needs of others with fresh awareness of the possible repercussions my prayer requests may have on the lives of others.  If what I ask will diminish the life of another, or is not rooted in mercy and love, it seems I should not offer that prayer.  If my quest for abundance of resources and riches causes harm to others, it seems I should pray differently.  If what I want damages and puts at risk others or the creation today or in the future, that is not a prayer I should offer, and I trust it will not be favorably heard by the God who loves and cherishes all.

Those things that are necessary for our life and our salvation: In my life I have prayed for many thing not necessary for life and my salvation, and have heard countless others do the same: for my team to win, for a good grade, not to be caught in my sin or to escape punishment for lesser deeds, to be chosen for some select group, to be popular or wealthy or successful by the world’s standards, to win the lottery.  These are things we may want, but they are not essential; they are not necessary for true life and salvation.  Indeed, we may sometimes be so bold as to pray for things that are not good for us, or for an abundance beyond our need.

For people of faith there are few things necessary for life and salvation: faith, hope, love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, compassion, commitment to justice and right living, insight and discernment leading to true wisdom, peace, deep awareness of divine presence, daily sustenance, shelter, warmth, security, a  sense of belonging and communion, meaning and purpose, goodness (for the Christian, Christlikeness).   When we pray for what we need rather than what we want, our prayers become more lean, more focused, simpler, more humble and expressive of our acknowledged dependence on God.  Life is less focused on my will or the things of this world that pass away, and on what is eternally significant and valuable.  Indeed, our words paradoxically may become fewer because we pray for fewer things, and more expansive as they probe more deeply and extend to the needs of others I may previously have failed to notice because I was so preoccupied with my own wants.  And through God’s grace, the words I offer in prayer become a way for the Word made flesh to transform me to know what truly matters; for words do matter.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

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Rejoice!? Always!? Seriously!? Sermon Based on Philippians 4:1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. -Philippians 4:1-9 (NRSV)
          Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice! Rejoice! Rejoice! And again I say, rejoice!
          That Vacation Bible School song sung as a round came to mind when I read this week’s scripture. Especially when sung the customary four times by four groups you’re surrounded with the demand: rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice, rejoice!
          That first came to mind, but then came, really? Rejoice always? How’s that even possible? Isn’t that more than we can bear? Maybe such sweetness and light’s possible in a make believe place where purple dinosaurs named Barney live singing, If all the raindrops were lemon drops and gumdrops? Oh what a rain that would be. Standing outside with my mouth open wide. Ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh-ahh.
          But we don’t live there. Telling someone to rejoice always can be cruel. Who’d say rejoice always to families of Las Vegas’ dead and wounded? Or our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico after two hurricanes, or Houston folks destroyed by three 500-year floods in three years?
          I couldn’t say rejoice always several years ago when my to friend’s son committed suicide; I can’t say that you now you after unexpected deaths of two church pillars in a week. Our land’s divided over race or politics in deeply unsettling ways; we seem closer to nuclear war than we’ve been in 55 years. Rejoice always? Seriously? That call seems, well, nuts, and unhinged from reality.
          Except, we’re those people who stand under the cross. There, instead of seeing weakness, failure, foolishness and death there, we experience God’s power, victory, wisdom and life. We’re those odd people who hear an odd scripture word and trust it’s still true for us.
          And today’s word comes oddly from prison, not from some keys to happiness book written in a cozy study with a warm hearth-side fire. Paul’s life hangs in the balance; he expects he’ll be executed and isn’t sure he’ll ever see the light of day again or his friends’ faces. On top of that, some so-called friends and co-workers are making his life as wretched as possible. This Paul says rejoice always; maybe we should pay attention. He knows something good for us.
          When I think about Paul in prison, two other prisons come to mind. One is in 1945 Germany. A young pastor and theologian named Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. A prison cell’s been his home for three years because of his part in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Soon the Third Reich will collapse in blood and fire. But on this April morning, direct orders have come from Hitler. This 39 year-old pacifist Christian is ordered from his cell one final time; Bonhoeffer’s stripped of his dignity and clothes, and he’s hanged in a prison courtyard. His final words are simple. “This is the end – for me, the beginning of life.” And I imagine him going to the gallows singing quietly, Rejoice in the Lord, always, and again I say, rejoice!
          The other prison’s closer to home; Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Virginia, a medium-security prison that’s home to 3,000 souls. For nearly 15 years I’ve had the honor and privilege occasionally to worship there; each time I’ve been stunned and humbled on a Sunday evening by the sheer joy in the Lord expressed by 150 or so brothers in Christ, especially when a song like this is sung: I’m trading my sorrows; I’m trading my shame; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. I’m trading my sickness, I’m trading my pain; I’m laying them down for the joy of the Lord. When they sing in surrender with delight, Yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord; yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord; yes, Lord, yes, Lord, yes, yes, Lord, Amen!; when they bow in prayer or receive the Lord’s Supper; it’s a holy time and place. Those so-called prisoners are more free in Christ than many of us. We’re locked up by custom or tradition or being proper, afraid to let our guard down or let someone see our weakness or wounds, our fears or failures.
          How can they rejoice? How can we? Paul can help. The first thing he says today is, “Therefore.” Our lesson begins as another part of the conversation is ending. A few verses earlier Paul’s written wonderful words of life: our true home is with God; for the baptized our real and full allegiance is not to the Commonwealth of Virginia, but the commonwealth of heaven. That’s how young Pastor Bonhoeffer can go to the scaffold rejoicing; he trusts he’s entering in a new way that commonwealth that death cannot defeat. That commonwealth’s governor is not Terry McAullife; the one who presides and rules that realm is not Adolph Hitler or Donald Trump; our Governor and Lord is Jesus; no one else. Our first and final loyalty is to him; our true home isn’t a prison, but in Christ alone. On the way Paul promises that Christ will transform our lives so they look like Christ’s and mirror his ways, and in the end, all will be well; all creation will be healed and made new; and Christ will be all in all.
          We have God’s word on it so now Paul says, “Therefore, stand firm in the Lord in this way.” You know where the world’s going and God’s grand vision for you, so stand firm; build your life on Christ’s life so he is seen in you, in ways both great and small. For example, here Paul urges two women to stop feuding for Christ’s sake; instead of seeking their own way they’re to seek Christ’s way and to make up their minds to be of the same mind in the Lord, to have his attitude and go his way. And all those receiving this letter have a part to play. They’re not to stand idly by or enjoy the fight; they’re to help heal. When we are in Christ, we live in him together; if we live in Christ, we submit to him as head of the household and stay close to one another to stay close to him, even when it’s hard. But with Christ, nothing is impossible.
          That’s how we rejoice: we rejoice in the Lord. We don’t rejoice in all that life brings, but in the Lord’s goodness and mercy and grace and love and kindness and forgiveness and life-giving healing power and a thousand other wonders; we rejoice in God’s nearness and promise never to leave us or forsake us, not even behind prison walls. There’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God we’ve seen in Christ Jesus, nothing. Even when terribly awful things happen, God is still at work for our good. So worry and anxiety don’t have to be the final word for us; they don’t have to rule our lives. We can be gentle and generous toward others because God has given us those same good gifts. We trust this same God loves us so fiercely that we can share anything and everything with God and pray for help and guidance and for others with grateful hearts. That’s how we can rejoice, in the Lord, always, always.
          Then Paul takes it a step further. We’re promised peace that surpasses understanding as we stand firm in the Lord on a foundation that endures. Paul urges us, “Whatever is true or honorable, whatever is just or pure, whatever is pleasing or commendable, if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise, fill your mind with those things: not with bitterness or fear or always being right or getting into someone’s business; not with what’s hurtful or mean or glittery or passing away. Focus and frame life on what honors God to draw closer to God’s ways in Christ, and the God of peace will be with you. That’s the promise and the good news.
          Bill was so focused; a college student with cancer, he took classes to the end. When he died one of those courses was on Death. He wrote in a textbook, “I don’t know why I’m suffering, or what good can come of my death. But I know God is not my enemy; God loves me and wants only good for me.” And as he died I imagine him singing, Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice. In our living and dying may we learn to sing that song, too.
-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

How I Went to Church and Was Convicted of Being Disingenuous (and That Was a Good Thing)

     Yesterday I went to church and was blessed with an awareness of how I had been disingenuous with my children over the years; how easy it is to be seduced by the Siren songs of our culture; and how daunting it is to be the disciple you long to be. I suspect I am not alone in that.
     Now rest assured, this insightful moment of conviction did not lead me to feel an overbearing load of guilt, or beat me down with a sense of being an utter screw-up. It was a grace-filled experience in which I could accept the truth of what I heard, acknowledge my failure to live into that truth, and experience the mystery of divine acceptance, nevertheless, providing hope that I can move on and be more honest and truthful in days to come.
     Moments like these again confirm for me why I need to be engaged in worship, prayer, scripture study, and Christian community on an ongoing basis, as I hear truth through the community and its means of grace I will not hear otherwise. There is a generous acceptance, and offer of ongoing transformation and sanctification that I would not necessarily believe, if I did not continue to hear of such things in such practices and among others who also are on this journey with me.
     When our children were little and restless in worship, I would often lean over and whisper to them, “Trust me; you get a better dad at the end of this time than the one you brought with you.” I don’t think that at their young age they had any idea what I was talking about, but it was true. At its best, Christian worship is an occasion for truth-telling, conviction, conversion, gratitude and joy for the offer of such gifts.  
     Yesterday was a day for such gifts to be offered. As is often the case, yesterday brought me to Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, which provides a service of Eucharist each Wednesday. Typically the focus of the Word proclaimed is on a saint of the church whose feast day falls on or near a particular Wednesday. Yesterday’s gospel text was one of the tellings of Jesus’ teaching that if we want to gain our life, we must lose it by taking up our cross and following in the Jesus Way; it included the compelling question, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their soul? And what can they give to buy it back?” Or as the New English Bible puts it, “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose their true self? And what can they give to buy back their true self?”
     The priest told us that this particular text is often used for the feast days of martyrs throughout the liturgical year, and said that the saints are those who show in their lives what it is to live self-sacrificially. And then he spoke the truth that convicted me in a profoundly deep and compelling way.
     I cannot quote him exactly; preaching is such an in the moment, aural experience. But this is what I remember: the saints give the lie to what culture tells us about how to live well. We are told life’s goal is happiness, and we tell our children that all we want is for them to be happy.
     But in reality, he said,what we want for them is to be good and to enter into the life of God. And I thought, “Yes, that is true.”
     That is what I have ever wanted for myself when I have been my best self and most honest. And to be good, to participate in the true and beautiful, is to enter into the life of God who alone is true, good, beautiful, all-together right, just and merciful. At my best and and most honest, that is who I want to be. It is not something I can achieve on my own. It is not always an easy route and is not always a source of happiness. But to participate in that reality is to experience joy and fullness of life.
     Happiness is so ephemeral, fleeting, and transitory. What promises to give happiness today will be passé tomorrow, and a new source of happiness will be offered that also will soon fade away. I am persuaded that I can always be joyful, even in the most horrible of circumstances; but perpetual happiness is an illusion, and the quest for it as a permanent feature of life even is perhaps something unhealthy and foolish.        On more than one occasion I have told my children that all I wanted for them was for them to be happy. But as the preacher said yesterday, what I really wanted for them was that they would be good, and participate in the life of God.
     And what I mean by “being good” is not a bourgeoisie goodness that entails being nice, obedient, compliant with authority, and adhering to the rules of society. By goodness I mean a life characterized by the goodness of God, which includes mercy, grace, hospitality, humility, forgiveness, compassion for the poor and weak, advocacy for those demeaned or mocked or marginalized, a life of integrity and commitment to the well-being of all, even if that requires self-sacrifice. Such goodness produces a sense of wholeness and harmony of life that is seen in the wholeness and harmony of the Triune God known in the Christian tradition, and embodied in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Christ.
     And participating in the life of God is grander and broader than simply participating in the life of the church, as useful (and as maddening) as that may be. It is a good thing, a means to the greater end, but in and of itself ultimately it is not enough. Life in God is so much more. Our culture whispers that true happiness is found through self-actualization. Be the best you you can be, do whatever brings you contentment, whatever works for you. The problem is that such promises put me at the center of my life, and prioritizes my happiness above all other things, including what is good and life-giving for you and others who also inhabit this village we inhabit.
     What culture offers is an inversion or perversion of the truth told by the faith community. That truth is that I find myself by losing my self in the life of God so that, as St. Paul puts it, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ living in me.” I may be able to reflect such life and goodness in my own life; that is what grace enables. But apart from a deep, intimate, and ongoing connection with God, in which God’s life continues to flow through me and nourish the goodness within, it will soon wither and fade, like a cut flower. As Jesus put it, “I am vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
     That’s really what I want for myself and my children: life abundant, i.e., living in God and being shaped and formed in that divine image and likeness. Happiness through self-actualization, as offered by the world, is a poor substitute for such glory. I believe true happiness and deep and abiding joy are possible in the Way lived by Jesus. I was convicted yesterday that I simply have been disingenuous and have not always told this entire truth to those dearest to me (ironically because I did not want to turn them away from this hidden joy); I pretended that I knew less than I really did.
     By God’s grace, I strive to be better; such blessing is priceless and too valuable not to speak with all truthfully, humbly and with grace, including those who are especially most precious. 

In All Things, Charity: A Sermon Based on Romans 14:1-12

One of my colleagues in campus ministry knows his faith is weak.  He’s not ashamed to confess that he doesn’t watch R-rated movies without checking with some of his soul friends or accountability partners.  Watching some such movies takes him to a place that’s not good for him as a disciple, and so he counts on friends giving him good advice.  They don’t judge him; they don’t think they’re better Christians than he because they don’t have such problems.  Every Christian needs to have such folks in our lives, who we can trust to watch over us in love and not judge or mock the ways we believe are best and faithful for us and to keep us company on Christ’s Way.

Paul knew about Christians with weak faith as well as strong, and he writes about them in today’s reading from his letter to the Christians in Rome. The weak eat only vegetables while the strong are meat and potatoes kind of folk; the weak put a priority on one day of the week as more sacred while the strong treat every day the same.  It might not sound like a big deal to us, but my friend who wonders about R-rated movies gets it.  What may not be a big deal for one can challenge another.

Being true to Christ in 1st century Rome’s more complicated than you think.  You don’t get your meat at the local grocer but from the local pagan temple, where it’s been sacrificed to a pagan god or to honor the emperor who’s honored like a god.  So the weak in faith don’t eat meat to show their utter loyalty to Christ; the strong eat whatever’s put in front of them because they know the gods aren’t real and Caesar only thinks he’s in charge.  In the same way the weak especially setting aside one day for God are perhaps honoring the Sabbath; or they know that pagans pay special attention to the moon’s cycle and particular days as having magical power or mystical importance. Again, they want to show their complete loyalty to Christ. And those with strong faith don’t fret it; they know all power comes from God, not the moon or the stars.

We don’t fuss and fume over those things, but we have real conflicts in the church over what does matter to us: drop down screens; contemporary vs. traditional worship; baptism by sprinkling, pouring or immersion; monthly or weekly Communion; meeting local needs or over there; how we interpret scripture; how we think and act on social issues as disciples; whether the flag should be allowed in an embassy of heaven and a sanctuary devoted to the Lord of all nations.

So how do we live together when faith leads us different ways?  Paul gives some very helpful advice.  First, don’t judge each other.  It’s not our place, or our job.  As Pope Francis responded when asked about homosexuality, “Who am I to judge another?” Paul reminds us that God has already accepted the person with whom we differ; they’re part of God’s posse, so who are we to question God’s commitment to them?  If you live your faith and life in Christ differently from me, what’s that to me?  You’re not my slave, but Christ’s.  I’m not your master; Christ is.  Whatever happens with your faith and life is Christ’s business, not mine, and Christ has the power to raise both of us to life.

Paul’s not saying anything goes.  How we live and trust in Christ matters.  My friend with weak faith clearly knows that. But we’re to think deeply and carefully and prayerfully about it means to be true to God’s will and purpose, and to act on our own convictions, in line with what we discern to be Christ’s Way.  I’m not at the center of your life; I’m not even at the center of my own life, to decide on my own all by myself how to live for Christ.  We both live to the Lord, for the Lord; we both belong to the Lord; our actions and attitudes are to please and honor Christ alone, not ourselves nor anyone else.  How I experience God’s work and will in my life may not be yours; my life doesn’t have to be the mirror image of yours.  But both our lives are to reflect the love and mercy and grace and healing power and light of Christ.  We’re not to judge one another but to love and honor each other in Christ.  In one translation of these verses, Paul seems to call out folks individually: “You then, why do you pass judgment on your fellow-Christian?  And you, why do you look down on your fellow-Christian?  We shall all stand before God’s tribunal; each of us will be answerable to God.”

I have enough trouble living faithfully myself without judging your discipleship.  Later in this chapter Paul advises, “Let’s make up our minds never to put a stumbling block or obstacle in a fellow-Christian’s way.  All I know is that the Lord Jesus convinces me that nothing is impure in itself.  The kingdom of God is justice, peace and joy, inspired by the Holy Spirit.  All who show themselves servants of Christ in this way are acceptable to God and receive human approval.”

Why does this matter?  We’re the only Bible some people will read; we’re the face of Christ some will most remember.  We convince the world the gospel’s true, or they decide it’s a lie, based on the evidence seen in our us. At the funeral of a dead relative, one of my cousins said, “She was the meanest Christian woman I know.”  Sadly there was some truth there.  Our relative was quite ready to be judge and jury to let you know where you’d gone wrong.  But that wasn’t her job, and her scowl was the face of Jesus some turned from.  Truth is, many folks won’t go near a church because we’re so judgmental. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “I like your Christ, but not your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Why does this matter?  When we judge others and build barriers there’s little room for love.  John Wesley knew that Christians sometimes were unable or unwilling to live in communion with one another and he said, “The pretenses and excuses for separation may be innumerable, but the lack of love is always the real cause.”

Why does this matter? When we lose our focus and misplace our priorities as disciples in Christ’s community, we fall into following the world’s familiar ways.  Can’t get along? Move to another neighborhood, go your separate ways, unfriend her, stop talking to him, get a divorce; demonize your opponent to win at all costs.  But that’s not Christ’s Way: he welcomed all, made room for a tax collector and a terrorist among his disciples, he was the friend of sinners, which includes me, and you.  Christian community reflects the life of the Triune God who is one in three and three in one, united but not identical. Such life together is an act of subversive resistance to the world and to those who conquer us by dividing us into parties and factions.  Wouldn’t it be great if our words of welcome in worship were to saints and sinners, regular pew sitters, those here for the first time or after a long time; married, single, divorced, young, old, straight, gay, Democrats, Libertarians, Republicans, members of the Tea Party, the Green Party, the Green Tea Party – more mellow, less irked: all welcomed by the Christ who died and rose for all; all welcomed because above all else we honor and serve the Christ who holds us together and meets us at his Table.  That’s Gospel truth, for sure.

Why does this matter?  Today we United Methodists are more at risk of giving up on each other than at any time since the Civil War when we could not find a way forward over slavery.  Those were not our best or more faithful days, but eventually the Spirit in love made us one once more.  Today we risk doing something similar with regard to sexuality.  In my entire ministry life, matters related to homosexuality have been debated, even fought over. Last year, our General Conference stepped back from the edge of division to establish the Commission on the Way Forward to discern if and how we might live together in mission and ministry, even in our differences.  The truth is, good and faithful friends of Jesus can deeply disagree and be deeply convicted that their understanding of faith and life is still valid.  Can we live together in Christ in that tension and diversity?  Can we trust and respect each other’s deepest convictions and commitments in Christ, even if yours is different from mine?  Can I admit I might be wrong or honor the truth you profess; can I see that there’s more to God than I know; that God’s ways are beyond my small ways; and we’re both accepted by God and Christ can make us both stand?

My friend Kara is a University Chaplain in the British Methodist Church.  This summer she visited an artist’s glassworks studio in a small English town and struck up a conversation with the owner, Jill.  Jill asked Kara what she does for a living.  Preachers can often be pegged, so Kara chose to say she works at a university in student welfare.  Jill asked about issues students face, and Kara said that in addition to typical ones like homesickness or relationships, students wrestle with some very complex issues around sexuality and gender identity.  That’s when Kara remembered she wasn’t in a particularly progressive part of England; Jill’s body language seemed to shift to a more aggressive position as she asked “And what do you think about that?”  Kara took a deep breath, looked at Jill and said, “Shakespeare said, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ So I think that just because I don’t understand it doesn’t mean it’s not real and true and painful for someone else.”  Jill stared at Kara for a very long time and then her demeanor softened as she said, ‘You must be very good at your job.’”  There was open grace and truth there, and humility and love, too.

John Wesley said, “If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand;” he also gave us this wisdom for life together in Christ’s church, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things charity.  Paul could live with that.  May we do the same, thanks be to God.

  • David M, Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.

For a Week Like This: Sermon Based on Matthew 14:22-33; Romans 10:5-15

For the scripture texts, go here: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Romans+10%3A5-15&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
and here: http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Matthew+14%3A22-33&vnum=yes&version=nrsv
          For decades the best news many heard each week was from Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking and all the children are above average.” I bet many would’ve been thrilled this past week if our biggest news was that there were too many tomatoes in people’s gardens. Instead we’ve had a steady diet of bellicose bombast from US and North Korean leaders and updates from Charlottesville about the most recent protest by KKK members, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists, and news of subsequent deaths and injuries. If we ever needed to hear different news, especially the odd and radically different good news of the Gospel, this would be it.
          But at such a time, today’s assigned texts seem irrelevant, even ludicrous. Our reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans is part of a larger, three chapter long soul-searching struggle: if Jesus really is God’s main man for setting things right between God and us and showing us how to live truly with one another, why haven’t Christ’s own people and Paul’s faith family bought in? If Jesus really is true, why don’t God’s chosen and favored people, the Jews, see the light?
          This isn’t a little mind game for Paul; it causes him anguish, grief. The Jews are God’s uniquely chosen and adopted; they experience God’s glory and presence in a matchless relationship of worship and commitment; he says, “to them belong the promises, the favored faith ancestors; from them has come the chosen Messiah who is over all, God blessed forever.”
          How did things go wrong? A few verses before our reading Paul affirms that his fellow Jews have real love and devotion for God. The problem is that they don’t truly get who God is or how to be in a right relationship with God. The truth is that often we don’t get it, either.
          Paul says there are two ways to be right with God and each other. One is to keep the rules, cross all the t’s, dot all the i’s. In other words, prove we’re worthy of God’s love and deserve special favor and treatment. Paul writes, “Moses writes about the righteousness that comes from the law, that the person who does these things will live by them;’” or as another translation puts it, “a person can become acceptable to God by obeying God’s Law in scripture; if you want to live you must do all that the Law commands.”
          At my age I go to lots of funerals; I often hear about how great and good a person was, so there’s no question: they’ve earned their heavenly reward. On the other hand, many young folks believe in so-called moralistic therapeutic deism: there is a God who created everything and watches over us but isn’t too involved in life, except when we need help with a problem; this God wants us to be good, nice, play fair, be happy and feel good about ourselves; and if we do that we’ll go to heaven when we die. Truth be told, many learned that in Sunday School and in countless children’s sermons. And in between youth and age, it’s tempting to believe we’re God’s favorites because we work hard, or get the best grades or the most Instagram likes, or live in the right area or are the right color or gender or live in the best nation or chose the right religion; we even believe that people are poor because they deserve it, which means I deserve being well off. I’ve earned it, by God. We create a world of winners and losers, them and us, insiders and outsiders, chosen and rejected. But it’s life on a very shaky foundation. If we’re not always and everywhere the absolute best bringing our A Game, then confidence and entitlement evaporate. What if we’re not good enough, smart enough, hard working enough? There’s no rest or real joy; we only have disquiet, stress, fear as we anxiously look over the shoulder at who’s catching up. There’s no real community of care because you’ re a competing threat; we can live glibly together, but in a crunch you can soon become my enemy. It’s a helluva way to live.
          But God intends another truer way, a more blessed way. In Romans Paul describes another righteousness that comes from faith, trust, and confidence in God, not in ourselves. The God met in Christ loves us, is for us, cherishes us simply because we are, is always at work for the good of all of us, and simply will not leave us or forsake us or abandon us to fend for ourselves. Your pastor got it right in his Easter sermon this spring: there’s absolutely nothing you can do to keep God from loving you. This is the faith of Jesus; he lived his life all the way to the cross and beyond, trusting in God and God’s loving care above all else. And God said “Yes!” to that kind of trusting faith and blessed it as the right way to live by raising Christ from the dead. The Risen Christ is alive in our midst and not far off. And the great good news is that I am most alive when I learn by heart to live trusting in that God, too. Best of all, Paul says that blessed better way is for all: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; everyone: Jew and Gentile, American and North Korean; white and person of color; anyone will be saved who trusts and believes that God loves and forgives and accepts and shows mercy toward all and wants abundant life for every last one of us.
          Now that’s not me just saying the right thing or having the right feeling in my heart. To say Jesus is Lord means no one or nothing else has first place in my life: not my race or nation or a political leader or ideology or tax bracket or anything else. And believing that in my heart is not cozy warm fuzzy feeling. If I confess from the heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, that means I stake everything on trusting that is the way to live and commit body and soul to doing so. I will not be ashamed to live like that. No matter what, I will give myself to living that way, come what may. That is the Jesus Way. The world’s dying to see us live like that’s true and real. What a blessing to lay down the burden of proving our worth; to experience joy and live lighter. It is God’s gift to us.
          I’ll spend my whole life learning to receive and trust the gift fully. I’m like Peter in today’s gospel story. I want to trust that Christ is near and step out in faith even in the dark; sometimes I actually do so. But when life’s storms threaten or fears batter I quickly can sink in doubt. Thank God, Christ still reaches out today to save me and help me walk in faith and trust again.
          Today while the governments of North Korea and the US play a cosmic size game of chicken, Christians in both North and South Korea are united in praying, as they do every August, for the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. Those prayers from the hearts of countless Koreans north and south, on both sides of he Demilitarized Zone, are being joined by many other Christians connected globally through the World Council of Churches, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance. Jesus people trust it is more holy to live from mercy and grace than fire and fury; we know the Lord of all is generous to all who call to him.
          This week a friend asked prayers for her nephew Jason Kessler, the young man at the heart of yesterday’s Unite the Right event in Charlottesville. She’s pained that Jason’s alienated from his whole family, angry and hate-filled. They were all worried, disheartened and concerned for his safety. Jason’s aunt reported something remarkable: First United Methodist Church was Ground Zero for people of faith to gather to bear witness against hate, and one of the pastors at the church reached out to Jason to offer sanctuary if he felt threatened in any way. It is that odd way of Jesus, to trust that God wants life for all.
          In yesterday’s chaos and anger there I saw Christ as clergy and other people of faith stood between protesters and counter-protesters. In a photo they were linked arm in arm in an alternating pattern so they faced both sides as if, through them, God was calling all to turn and live and be saved. Tragically someone spurned his invitation; a life was lost and others maimed, by a hate-driven guided missile of a car. All the more reason for us to continue to bear witness to the truth we know in Christ.
          Mother Teresa said, “If we have no peace it’s because we’ve forgotten that we belong to each other.” Our wounded woebegone world aches to hear our good news. How beautiful our feet when we bring it, our mouths when we tell it, our lives when we live it. Amen.
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.

FOR THE LIFE OF ME: DEALING WITH DEATH IN A CHANGING LANDSCAPE: PART 3 – Is It Our Denial of Death’s Reality?

Two years ago, as I began my adventures as a Blogger, I promised (and intended) to write a series of three postings about death in a changing cultural context in which 1) fewer of us are actively engaged in the life of a faith community; 2) more death notices do not include any notice of a funeral, or any kind of ritualized recognition of the person’s death; and 3) when such occasions are identified, they are often identified as a “Celebration of Life.”  At that time, I managed to write two out of three, which is not bad for someone who tends to  think big but go small, or begins with great intentions but does not always follows through successfully.

Nevertheless, that third and final blog has often been on my mind, simmering on a back burner.  Now, two years later, I am ready to put this puppy to rest and complete the trilogy of thought about such matters.

To put this blog into context, and to read the two original posts, go here:

https://belovedbastard.wordpress.com/2015/08/25/for-the-life-of-me-dealing-with-in-the-changing-american-landscape-part-1/

and here:

https://belovedbastard.wordpress.com/2015/08/27/for-the-life-of-me-dealing-with-death-in-a-changing-landscape-part-2-is-it-our-fear-of-death/

What finally precipitated this blog was the opportunity to teach, at the local church I attend, a study titled Living Fully, Dying Well.  It is published by Abingdon Press (2006) and has drawn a group of 25 mostly older adults into conversation about what it means to live fully and richly, and what needs to be done to prepare well for death.  A recurring comment is that while they may be willing to talk about such matters and the necessary details, oftentimes their children or other loved ones are quite resistant.

Of course that is a hard conversation to have; I understand and appreciate reticence and the desire to avoid the topic.  To think about the death of someone we love is extremely painful; we have to imagine a world in which they are absent and we no longer have the gift and blessing of sharing experiences, hopes, memories, joys, and challenges with them.

Our culture doesn’t make it easy, either.  For a variety of reasons and in a multitude of ways, we enable such denial to take place.  Sometimes we participate personally by being dismissive of our own death.  As more people have instructed loved ones not have a funeral or any other kind of observance for them, I wonder if the one who has died doesn’t believe their life was that worthwhile, noteworthy, or significant.  Does the decision not to mark a death suggest that the one who has died believes their life had no meaning or purpose, or that their life was so inconsequential that it is not worth noting and mourning?  One of the great blessings of participation in a faith community is the affirmation that a life matters and has purpose and value; a person in such a community has heard that they  have a place in the community and in the larger cosmic reality.  But if we do not participate in that kind of sacred community and hear such a narrative, is it plausible to conclude that life and death are both inconsequential?  Are we so small in a great world and universe that we perceive our life and death to be no more important and meaningful than that of a flea?  What a disquieting and tragic contrast to the treasure of a faith community that, for example, trusts that God knows us better than we know ourselves (Psalm 139), or that even the death of a bird is noticed by God, so surely our life and death are even more precious and significant.  So perhaps one reason we deny death is because we deny life.  Our culture focuses on, and elevates the importance of the beautiful, the famous, the talented and skilled, the wealthy and exceptional, which can lead us to see our lives as diminished and unimportant if those attributes are not ours.  Ordinary people with ordinary lives can be tempted to believe that being ordinary means we are unimportant and beneath notice or appreciation.

Or perhaps we deny death and minimize its importance because our life seems fatally flawed, and beyond redemption or repair.  There is that hard reality that many of us are profoundly and deeply flawed (OK, all of us are, if we will be honest).  There are those habits, attitudes, actions – past and present – that are our shadow side; our personal aspects that we regret or that leave a residue of shame, guilt, or sorrow. Perhaps it is easier to deny or excuse such aspects of ourselves when we are younger, but as a friend inelegantly but truthfully put it, “My life is covered in shit, and I don’t know how to get it off.”  Again, if you live in a culture that is loathe to admit failure or error, to ask for forgiveness or make an apology, to hide shortcomings because they are signs of failure and weakness, some of us may conclude that there is little or nothing to celebrate.  If that is the only way to mark a life and a death, it is better to err on the side of caution and not try to fake it, or have those who remember us only remember the good and go dark on the more complete picture of who we truly were in all our terrible beauty.  Again, our culture is impoverished, as well as those who die in it, when we both live and die falsely, and when our lives and self-understanding are devoid of the promise and hope of the mysterious wonder of mercy and grace that comes from beyond ourselves, which a faith community can provide.

In her recent book Hallelujah Anyway, Anne Lamott calls to mind, with a caveat, “the five Buddhist remembrances: I am sure to become old; I cannot avoid aging.  I am sure to become ill; I cannot avoid illness.  I am sure to die; I cannot avoid death.  I must be separated and parted from all that is dear and beloved to me.  I am the owner of my actions; I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.  Except, I might add as a nice Christian girl, through mercy” (Hallelujah Anyway, Riverhead Books, 2017, p. 70). Receiving mercy and grace, free and undeserved, and knowing how utterly essential they are to us, enable us to live and die in peace fully and honestly, embracing both whatever light we have been able to reflect while also, with Prospero in The Tempest, “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine” (Act V, Scene 1).

What is most disappointing to me is how the church itself contributes to the denial of death, even among its own.  Euphemisms abound to shunt aside death’s reality; when speaking of the dead, in addition to such familiar phrases as “passed away” or “entered into rest” or “slipped away,” church folks and pastors conveniently skip over the reality of death and jump immediately into “claimed the promise of resurrection” or “entered into glory.”  In my United Methodist tradition, the official title for a funeral or memorial service in The United Methodist Book of Worship is “A Service of Death and Resurrection;” but these days that name has often been supplanted by “A Celebration of Life.”

But a death has occurred.  Scripture calls death the last enemy, and even when death comes as a mercy to the suffering, it still robs us of one we love and robs them of life. We may want to gloss over that truth, but it is true nevertheless, and faith is as much about speaking truth as it is anything.  This is not something new in our contemporary context, but we have taken denial of death to a new level, and the church has become even more complicit.

My father died in 1987.  On the morning of the funeral, my two sisters and I were at the funeral home when one turned to the other and said, “There must be something wrong with us; for the last two days people have been saying we look just like him (i.e., our father), but he’s dead and wearing a lot of make-up.”  It was humorous, but it was also a recognition of a fundamental difference and reality: we were still living, and he was not; we were living and he was dead.

Nearly 45 years ago, Robert E. Neale laid at least some of the onus of death denial at the feet of the clergy when he wrote, “During a funeral the minister will be circumspect about death according to the standards of ‘good taste.’  Once when I was younger and a little more foolish than now, I spoke of death during a funeral, saying, ‘The man lying in this casket is dead.’  As you may guess, the statement caused no end of consternation.  It…is striking that although the scripture read at funerals speaks clearly and boldly of death, it is not considered proper for the minister to do so in modern English.  At the one time when death is most obvious to a Christian community, the Church flees into dogmas of eternal life.  That little item in between life and eternity gets lost” (The Art of Dying, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 13).

As a seminary student, I remember a professor saying he could do a funeral for Adolph Hitler or any other person, because Christian funerals do not focus unduly on the goodness of a person but on the goodness, grace, and mercy of the God to whom all life ultimately belongs and who is able, even in the worst of us, to be at work for good.  Our worship focus, as always and forever, should be not on us, but on the Triune God, and to acknowledge, confess, and speak truly of life, death, sin, forgiveness, mercy, grace, and even judgment, which ultimately does not belong to us, but to the all-wise One who knows us best and loves us most fully.  Trusting in that God, we need neither deny nor fear death, and that is a treasured gift the faith community has to offer especially to this culture, still.

Sow Crazy: Sermon Based on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Note: Whatever flaws are contained in this sermon, they are mine. Some of the thought was informed by Brian Stoffregen’s Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks, and Elisabeth Johnson’s commentary on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 found at WorkingPreacher.org.
     Today’s scripture’s a hard sell. We’ve heard it so much we don’t hear. “A sower went out to sow…” Boring. It won’t be easy to sow the seed of God’s Word to bring unexpected blessing before you stop listening and start thinking about lunch or the coming week?
     Remember first that Jesus’ stories are trickier than you think. Jesus says he tells parables to confound people to make them think more about things they think they already understand. He says, “This is why I tell parables: ‘seeing, folks don’t see, and hearing they don’t get it.’ The prophet Isaiah got it right: ‘The people are blockheads! They stick their fingers in their ears so they won’t have to listen; they shut their eyes so they won’t have to look so they won’t have to deal with me face-to-face so I can heal them.’”* If we think we’ve figured out a Jesus story think again: maybe not.
     And remember that Jesus’ stories caused trouble. If we listen to a Jesus story and don’t think, “This guy needs killing,” then we probably don’t really get it. His stories always have an edge; they take an unexpected turn to challenge our everyday day world and what we think. Jesus wasn’t put on a cross because he nice, but because he and his stories threatened people.
     Matthew arranges his story of Jesus to show him as a new Moses, a new lawgiver and teacher of God’s way. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches with authority like Moses on Mt. Sinai; five blocks of teaching crafted by Matthew remind us of the Law in the first five books of the Old Testament. Today’s scripture is one of five parables Jesus tells in the third block of teaching, but they’re wedged between conflicts Jesus has with faith leaders, hometown neighbors, and his own family. Jesus’ stories go together with misunderstanding, challenge, threat. Today’s story is also full of puzzle and promise, if we have ears to hear.
     It answers a crucial question: if Jesus is so wonderful and truly God’s chosen, why don’t more people believe? Shouldn’t more people believe, and trust him, and live like him? The story’s told so we won’t fret overmuch that most folks simply won’t.
     Some hearts are just hard and unreceptive. For whatever reason some think faith is foolishness for losers and this Jesus stuff is just wishful thinking.
     Others start out well, but their roots in Christ aren’t deep so when trouble comes faith withers. Disappointment happens and they turn from God because they think God didn’t come through, so what’s the point?
     And some folks have the seed of Christ planted in them, but other things become more important. and discipleship dies. I knew someone on fire for God and the radically different life she believed Christ was calling her to live. But then she met and married a man with a very lucrative career and this world’s cares and wealth choked her life of faith.
     But there’s that fourth blessed group: the seed of God’s Word and life takes root to bear a rich harvest. But it’s only one out of four; an F- in school. A 25% success rate’s not that great; shouldn’t God do better?
     Maybe failure and lack of success are just part of the deal. Maybe God delights in throwing seed everywhere to see what happens and delights whenever and however new life comes. Fruitfulness matters; but so does faithfully doing God’s work, trusting that growth will happen, sometimes in surprising places. Maybe faithful failure and fruitfulness are both OK.
     We’re tempted to think we’re the good seed, the good soil, the ¼ bearing fruit. In God’s multiple choice test, we’re #4, the good soil, right? But maybe the more honest answer is #5, all the above. Our hearts can be hard and dismiss parts of the gospel as absurd: love our enemies? forgive those who harm us? trust God completely instead of military strength or retirement savings, or youth or beauty? There’ve been times when doubt got the best of me; I felt betrayed by God or God’s silence terrified me. We know what it’s like to be distracted by wealth or money worries or family demands. Maybe we should thank God that God’s seed somehow survived and we produced any fruit. Maybe it’s a miracle that God didn’t give up on us, but kept planting year after year. Even when met by failure and disappointment God kept hoping for something good, even in us.
     As a teenager I spent hours talking after school with Ben Nelson, my home church’s associate pastor. We talked about everything: relationships, issues of the day like race and war, faith. At times he could’ve thought I was a waste of time; I was such a blockhead, sticking my fingers in my ears not wanting to hear what Christ might expect of me, shutting my eyes to what following Jesus required of me if I took him seriously. But he didn’t give up, and I tell you that whatever fruit came out of my ministry came because God kept planting seeds through him week after week, month after month, year after year. Before giving up on others, thank God that God doesn’t give up on us. It’s a miracle of God’s amazing grace.
     Maybe this story is about a God willing to take risks even when results aren’t guaranteed. Maybe it’s about a reckless and extravagant God who sows seed without fretting over efficiency or effectiveness, but simply throws out seeds of life and blessing to see what happens. We disciples are to be like God, doing God’s work today. What if we become God’s faithful reckless risk takers who don’t fret over efficiency or effectiveness or what kind of return we get on our efforts? God seems to be OK with being faithful failures and things not always working out; Jesus’ God Jesus is extravagantly and wastefully generous, tossing the seed of life and rejoicing with what happens. Could we?
     Maybe God’s seeding and harvest of life through us is marked both by grand failures and successes; what’s surprising is where fruit is produced. In Jesus’ life it was the odd balls and misfits and rejects who got it, not the religious or proper folk – often their hearts were hard or faith was shallow. In his story maybe Jesus is challenging us to take risks that may fail, to try things that might not work, to see what God might do anyway. Do something for Christ’s sake even if it goes badly.
     Here’s some advice from successful business folks: be sure to create a sufficient number of excellent mistakes. If you want to succeed, double your failure rate; if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything worthwhile. Indeed, some things are so important they’re worth doing badly.
     In Jesus’ story, if the sower didn’t throw the seed and fail alot, there would be no fruit. Making mistakes, wasting time and energy are part of the creative process. Google headquarters has nap rooms and game areas and outdoor spaces for walking for a reason. Sometimes what looks like doing nothing is tilling the ground for unexpected breakthroughs to new life. Jesus advises us, “You received without payment; give without payment; you received as a gift, give as a gift.”
     What if this church decided to be God’s reckless risk-takers and committed 10% of the budget to sow God’s seed in wild and crazy ways, to experiment with reaching out and planting seeds of faith and living the gospel where you’re planted? What if you didn’t fret about being effective or efficient, but prayed fiercely simply to be faithful see what God might do?
     When a Chicago church received an unexpected $1.6 million windfall last year, most of the money went to ordinary things, like meeting a budget shortfall or needed building upkeep. But they also did something reckless and risky: one Sunday each of 300+ worshipers got a $500 check to do whatever they thought God wanted them to do with it. $160,000 to sow crazy for Christ. Some miracles happened, but certainly not always. But without sowing crazy, no fruit.
     In campus ministry I often saw the fruit of risky, reckless faith. Students tossed out ideas and tried crazy things, trusting all to God. Spectacular failures happened along with wonderful experiences of unexpected fruitful blessings. In late night movie discussions students suddenly got it and faith was born in new ways. Seemingly endless encounters eventually led to students becoming a pastor, a nurse, a special ed. teacher. Paying students to take Religious Studies classes led to deeper faith, not less. A casual walk across campus with a teacher from Russia led to years of connection and mission between students here and there.
     In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller tells of some young adults setting up a confessional booth at a mall. They invite passersby to enter the booth where they unexpectedly hear a Christian ask their forgiveness for the church’s sins: racism, homophobia, judgmental intolerance, love of power, focus on buildings instead of building relationships. Sow crazy! Sometimes nothing happened, but some gave grace and forgiveness to the broken Body of Christ and room was opened for new faith.
     Others sow crazy: a college town church hosts therapy dogs and food for 300 students during exams; a downtown church’s Bible School draws hundreds of children, most not from that congregation; another offers Sunday School for special needs friends and midweek worship for folks who work on Sundays; a church gives yearly blessings to new drivers, teachers, first responders, health care workers; another hosts a free community-wide block party with food, games and music; a congregation invests thousands of dollars helping working poor neighbors develop a two year plan to escape poverty; some Christians goes to Denny’s at 4 a.m. to share breakfast and blessing with Muslims from a local mosque as they prepare for their daily Ramadan fast. Sow crazy; you never know what fruit might be produced.
     Jesus says, “You will know my disciples by their fruits.” Seeing becomes believing as our good soil fruits help others “put together” faith, words and actions. A young woman went to church but finally became a Christian as she saw an older woman showing that following Jesus was fruitful, if not easy. The woman had a rough relationship with another in the church; as she worked to love and forgive frequently, she saw her nemesis as a fruitful gift and blessing as she confessed, “That woman will make me a Christian yet.” God’s seed in our lives might be the only Bible someone will ever read. Sow crazy, for Christ’s sake. Amen.
-David M. Hindman, 2017, soli Deo gloria.
  • This is my wording, based on a loose rendition of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, Matthew 13:10-17

So What? Why Bother? What’s the Big Deal? A Trinity Sunday Sermon

This Trinity Sunday sermon, preached at St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Williamsburg, VA, is deeply informed by Fr. Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation (New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2017) and Ken Wilber’s A Brief History of Everything (Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1996). The appointed readings for the day are Genesis 1:1-2a; Psalm 8; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; and Matthew 28:16-20.     

 Ira was one of mentors, an ordained United Methodist clergyperson who was a religion professor and Dean of Students at Randolph-Macon College when I was a student, and active in the life of the congregation on that campus historically related to The United Methodist Church. I was privileged to be Ira’s pastor the last two years of his life, when I left the William and Mary Wesley Foundation and moved to Ashland. Every Friday morning we met at the campus rec. center to power walk and discuss matters great and small, including Bible and theology. It was meat and drink for my soul even if someone’s nerd alarm just went off.

One of our liveliest ongoing conversations was about the Trinity. There goes that nerd alarm again. But for us it was no holds barred wrestling match that true friends can have who deeply trust each other. Ira would get so exasperated; he didn’t see the point of an idea that was just too complicated and obtuse and impossible to understand fully or well.

I get that. A Lutheran campus ministry friend said that she loved Trinity Sunday because it was a yearly chance to hear another preacher get it wrong. But my comeback to Ira was to say that of course it’s complicated and impossible to understand well. We humans can’t fully grasp the reality of God or God’s inner life. It’s not for us to whittle God down to human size, or to squeeze God into boxes that fit our brains. That’s why it’s called a mystery.

That’s what I love about the doctrine of the Trinity. It is mystery, beyond our total grasp or comprehension. We confess that we believe in a God who somehow is Three in One and One in Three; I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more but in the home of metaphor, images, poetry. It’s also a call to humility. Another friend thinks thinking about the Trinity is a waste of time because it doesn’t make any sense to him. I get that; but I asked playfully and seriously, “Do you think the flea on my dog knows there is a dog?   Or that my dog has an owner? Or that my dog and I are part of something even larger and greater called Therapy Dogs International? Maybe before the great mystery of God’s inner life and being, we’re the flea; just because our flea brains can’t take it all in doesn’t mean those greater realities aren’t true.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes in his book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, “Mystery isn’t something you cannot understand – it is something that you can endlessly understand!” That divine mystery is interwoven into creation’s very fabric.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Over the years on more than one occasion when I acted ridiculously in my daughter’s eyes, she’d ask my wife with exasperation, “Did you talk to him before you married him!?” I think it mostly in good humor, but there’s also bemused confession that sometimes I am a puzzle to her. But that points to the reality that marriage is itself mystery. For us Christians something of God’s love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, and long-suffering patience comes to us through the mystery of a couple’s life together. There’s wonder and delight as a couple begins their life together, but at the heart of every dynamic relationship there is an endless unfolding understanding, revealing, flowing together, deepening and intimate knowing in the mystery of two made one. And if two can be made one, cannot three also be one?

But seriously you still may be saying on this Trinity Sunday, “So what? Why bother? What’s the big deal?” Right now you that nerd alarm may be primed to go off again, but humor me. At the worst you can tell Pastors Andy and Cheryl that after having a United Methodist preach you’re really glad you’re Lutheran.

But on this Trinity Sunday, I want to invite us into some “what if” questions.

What if the relationship that exists within the Triune God means we also are most fully and truly ourselves in relationship? What if that’s what Genesis means when it says we are made in the image and likeness of God? Isn’t interesting that God says there, “Let us make humans…” Can we be open to that as a poetic expression of God’s rich, deep, multi-faceted reality of God as one and yet mysteriously divine community? What if the Triune God is known most fully as community and in community? And if that’s true for God, what if we are most fully like God and reflect God’s image more richly in community with one another? A widowed friend on the verge of new marriage said, “God has it right; it is not good for us to be alone.” Our life is not ours alone but shared with others, in love and intimacy, like God’s love and life is a sharing among and between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And what if this mystery known as the Triune God points us to a reality that permeates creation itself? What if, from top to bottom, dynamic interplay and relationship are the warp and woof of reality itself. Fifty years ago, in his book The Ghost in the Machine (New York: Macmillan, 1967), Arthur Koestler coined the term “holon.” As defined by him, a holon is “a whole and a part at the same time.” An atom is entire and complete of itself; at the same time it can be part of molecule, which is entire of itself and can be at the same time part of a cell; keep going and you can say the same of a planet as a whole and at the same time part of a solar system which can be whole yet part of a galaxy; you get the idea. The mystery of the Triune God is a holon. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – each a whole and a part at the same time. Each is a revelation of God and each is also a vital part of the whole holiness of God. What if from top to bottom the intricacy and wonder of creation bears witness to this God who is part of it all and is in all? In the words of the psalmist, the heavens are telling the glory of God; and another asks “Where can I flee from your Spirit?” Nowhere. From atom to universe, God’s mystery is made known.

And what if that mystery also points to the wonderful reality that there’s unity in diversity? A variety of atoms make a molecule, a variety of cells make a living being, a variety of living beings make a community; unity without uniformity; diversity as a blessing from God to be honored and celebrated, not a nuisance or a curse. The divine is expressed and experienced in diverse ways as Father, Son and Spirit, beyond, beside and within us. What a gift and blessing that there’s room for us to encounter and experience that God in many diverse ways. As Jesus said, “In my Father’s house there are many rooms.

And what if the Triune God is a witness that some realities and truths that don’t fit into neat little boxes. 1500 years ago, St. Augustine described the Trinity in human terms he hoped we’d understand. One human can think, will and act. Where’s one end and another begin? In a car I think about today’s Greek Festival, I will to go, and I drive there. One person, three related but distinct aspects. Augustine also described the Triune God’s inner life as the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love among and between. Here’s a question: if two people are about to kiss, when does the kiss become a kiss? In the thought, the desire, the act? Or is the kiss something that exists between and because of the kissers? We can’t really check just one box for where God may be found or known; God is too great and wondrous and not that small.

And finally, what if the Trinity is best described as a dynamic dancing circle of three moving in responsive relationship and interplay, moving to and fro, in vibrant communication and intimate communion; God as both dancers and the dance itself. What if this lively dance at the heart of God fills creation with divine energy, creativity, openness, as love’s invitation to join the dance – not just to look on, but to be touched and be part of God’s holy movement. In the 15th century icon, The Holy Trinity, three angels are gathered around a table. The icon is huge – five feet high and four feet wide – and is inspired by the Bible story of Abraham providing hospitality for three angels, who Abraham realizes are God present with him. They lean into each other, clearly in intimate communion. If you’re looking at the massive icon that almost dwarfs the viewer, you’re also near the table; there’s a open place for you at the table, as if the holy One in Three welcomes you not to be an onlooker, but to enter into their communion, to become one with them, even as they are one with each other.   Here, now at this table today, we’re met and welcomed by the Three in One and One in Three. We’re invited to say yes and join the dance and be drawn into holiness, wonder, mystery; into the very life of God.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.   Amen.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

The Perfect Church: A Sermon Based on Acts 2:42-47, on the Occasion of the Baptism of James Eno Clayton

Your pastor Meghan told me that during this Easter season she’s preaching on the early church as described in the book of Acts and what that might mean for us today. One of her guiding questions is this: Was the early church perfect and have it all right?

The quick and easy answer is of course it wasn’t perfect and didn’t have it all right. After all, if the early church was perfect, we wouldn’t have most of the New Testament; much of Paul’s letters deal with problems in his less than perfect churches. Even in the book of Acts and its pretty picture of the church, there are problems to be faced and addressed.

You may be surprised that not only is there a perfect church, I know where it is; I saw it a few years ago during a William & Mary Wesley Foundation Spring Break mission trip to Atlanta. The Perfect Church had a large sign above the main door reading, “The Perfect Church,” so it must be perfect, right? You wouldn’t lie about that, right? What was interesting was that the carved sign “The Perfect Church” had a crack in it, so The Perfect Church sign was, well, imperfect.

It’s true that we have ideas of the perfect church, whether in Atlanta or here or elsewhere. And people do look for it. On YouTube, search for “Church Hunters” and you’ll find a comical spoof of HGTV’s House Hunters; a couple looks for the perfect church with just the right blend of hipness, convenience, music, branding and star preaching. For others the perfect church has every seat taken on Sunday, the budget’s easily met, there are enough volunteers so I don’t have to do much, young families, children and teens are everywhere but old people are still mostly in charge, the preacher is young with 40 years experience, serious and totally funny, always available anytime to me but dedicated to her family, preaches from the Bible in a way that’s always relevant and tells it like it is but is never offensive or controversial. Perfect, right?

Today’s reading in Acts follows the Pentecost Day birth of the church when 3000 become believers after a powerful, Spirit-filled sermon by Peter. We now see the Jesus community evoking awe and marked by signs and wonders. It sounds picture perfect; I’d like to be part of such a church, wouldn’t you? More importantly, could Salem be such a church?

But before we hear about that “perfect” church in Acts, we might honestly think that “perfect” is too strong a word, too impossible, too flawless for Salem. But here’s some good news: in the Bible perfection doesn’t mean utterly pure or unrivaled or faultless or beyond compare. The Greek word teleios simply means doing what you’re created to do, being what you were made to be. For example, my lawnmore is teleios; it’s perfect, not because it dropped straight out of heaven, or there’s none like in the world, or it’s better than yours. It’s much simpler. My mower’s perfect because it does what it’s supposed to do, what it’s made for. I put in gas, crank it, put it in gear and voilà, it runs smoothly on all cylinders and grass gets cut. It was made for grass cutting and that what it does. It’s awesome, perfect.

So what are the marks of the perfect church in Acts? Listen to today’s report from the book of Acts:

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

They seem to be joyfully caught up in a new kind of life rooted in the Holy Spirit and constantly devoted to worship; there’s continual learning about God’s great works in Christ and what that means for faith and life; they eat weekly in homes and around the Lord’s Table; there’s habitual and fervent prayer, and sharing a common life deeply. Not just the good and easy things are shared, but shared struggles and failures, needs and fears, along with gratitude and victories. In that community there is caring honesty, healing, hope, joy, active love, and sacrificial compassion so no one is in need, and all have enough. What strikes me about this picture especially is that it doesn’t sound like it is legally enforced, but Holy Spirit-enabled. There’s s mutual agreement and a shared commitment to live in such a way; they didn’t take a vote with majority rule winners and losers; they were drawn to this way because they couldn’t imagine another way to share life in love with God and each other. Such a life together brought them such unaffected joy that they had to praise God with glad and generous hearts, and others were drawn to it because it had such magnetic power and evoked their goodwill and awe.

Can Salem be such a perfect church? Yes, not because you’re great but because God is; and because God is good and desires it for you. Here’s an extraordinary promise: the same Spirit that empowered the church in Acts can still act here. Constantly hold up that mirror of church, reflect it here, and by grace you will become what you see. The God who raised Christ from the dead can raise you to such a life. Church, that’s the Easter life good news, even here.

Here’s why it matters. Today Meghan and Josh give baby James up for adoption. They’re bringing him to the baptismal font to give him up to God, his rightful owner, and giving him over to you as his faith family, because they know they can’t do this faith thing all on their own. They need your help, just like you need theirs to keep close to Christ and to help James take on a Christ-shaped life. They’ll make promises to do their best by grace to show Christ to James in their lives, and they ask you to do the same so James can grow up with a greater knowledge of what it means to hunger for Christ and to love God and others. In the language of the old Methodist baptism service for children, they hope that together you’ll “live a life that becomes the gospel” and makes it real and true and attractive, so in time James will also choose Jesus because he won’t be able to imagine any other way to live. That would be perfect, thanks be to God.

-2017, David M. Hindman, soli Deo gloria.

Trans God? Queer God?

“God is Spirit, and those who worship God worship in spirit and in truth.” – John 4:24

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”                 –1 John 4:7-8

There are many things I love about being a WOMP (Worn-Out Methodist Preacher), but the nerdiest thing I am delighted to do is to read theological texts of many descriptions, some of which have been on my shelves for decades. These days I am more than half-way through Raymond Brown’s two volume (!) The Death of the Messiah, two-thirds into Eberhard Bethge’s biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and in preparation for preaching on Trinity Sunday I’m plowing through Jurgen Moltmann’s The Trinity and the Kingdom. Which leads to how this particular blog was birthed.

Moltmann’s reflection on the mystery of the Trinity, published in 1979, is not some new, avant-garde, radical, contemporary rant.  Indeed, what stopped me dead in my tracks was inspired by his reference to a 1300 year old statement of faith affirmed in the Council of Toledo in 675.  Moltmann is pondering the interrelationships between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the tri-unity of God, when he writes:

“[I]f the Son proceeded from the Father alone, then this has to be conceived of both as a begetting and as a birth.  And this means a radical transformation of the Father image; a father who both begets and bears his son is not merely a father in the male sense.  He is a motherly father too.  He is no longer defined in unisexual, patriarchal terms but – if we allow for the metaphor of language – bisexually or transexually.  He has to be understood as the motherly Father of the only Son he has brought forth, and at the same time as the fatherly Mother of his only begotten Son….According to the Council of Toledo in 675, ‘it must be held that the Son was created, neither out of nothingness nor yet out of any substance, but that He was begotten or born out of the Father’s womb (de utero Patris), that is, out of his very essence.'” The Trinity and the Kingdom, p. 164 f. (my italics)

Be still, my heart.  Doesn’t that simply inspire with its thrilling, easy to follow verbiage?Yes, I am that nerd who thinks it’s awesome – difficult, dense, seemingly arcane and irrelevant to 21st century folks, not ready for prime time preaching, but an enriching blessing to me to be afforded the time to ponder.  But what I saw did seem to have deep relevance for us, at least worthy of a thought experiment.

Scripture clearly affirms that the Triune God is encountered as spirit and as love.  As Spirit, God is not exclusively male or female; indeed God is neither; whatever language we use for God is symbolic, metaphorical and poetic, not literalistic.  And because God is love, the Triune God has to be essentially relational and in relationship, because at the very least love requires lover and beloved.

Clearly Moltmann is both struggling, and playing with language as he delves into the interplay and relationship of Father and Son within the Trinity, when he puts forth the metaphorical language of God’s bisexuality or transsexuality.  At the very least, it seems to me that he is arguing that gender specific language is woefully inadequate to the Godhead, metaphors and images drawn from both traditionally male and female characteristics are appropriate (and necessary?), and that the mystery of God transcends all such images.

If that is so, then perhaps the following are true – or definitely worth pondering:

  1.  Both males and females are made in the image of God as we reflect something, but not all, of who God is.
  2. We each bear within ourselves both maleness and femaleness, since attributes or characteristics of both are exhibited within the Godhead.
  3. While maleness and femaleness are important and valued dimensions of being human and individual identities, if characteristics, images, roles, and metaphors assigned to each are transcended within the mystery of God, they do not have to have undue significance for us as humans who, regardless of gender identity, are all made in the image of God.
  4. Transgender and/or queer persons are valued, vital reminders to us of the utter mystery and wonder of God, who is at the heart of the universe and is not limited to, or bounded by our understandings, categorizations or endeavors to manipulate, control, legislate and reduce reality to our narrow expectations and comprehension.  The God we meet in scripture truly embodies a Reality that transcends gender and is queer (e.g., “My ways are not your ways; my thoughts not your thoughts;” “God’s wisdom is foolishness in the eyes of the world; God’s power is weakness”); crosses boundaries; will not be limited, nailed down, or confined to specific spaces (tombs or toilets?); and is encountered in the demeaned, mocked, ridiculed, condemned, outcast, marginalized, rejected and scorned.  How odd it would be of God, to be seen particularly clearly  these days in these, the least of our sisters and brothers (Matthew 25:31 ff.).
  5. Galatians 3:26-28 is even more radically revolutionary and relevant than Paul (or we) might have imagined: “[I]n Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

This WOMP was reading Moltmann at the same time as the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church was ruling on a case involving Rev. Karen Oliveto, a married and openly lesbian who was elected a bishop last year and currently serves the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences.  This is the most recent significant action in the denomination’s long wrestle with sexuality, done in the context of the ongoing endeavor of the church’s Commission on a Way Forward discerning whether we can find a better way to live together with our diverse understandings of sexuality.  Following the Judicial Council’s ruling, the WCA (Wesleyan Covenant Association, a newly formed unofficial United Methodist group that holds church prohibitions against the practice of homosexuality to be part of Christian orthodoxy) responded, “We…call upon those who feel they cannot, in good conscience, abide by the doctrines and discipline of our church, to seek an honorable exit from our denomination.”

I confess I didn’t know the Church belonged to the WCA – or to the General Conference of The UMC, for that matter; my understanding from scripture is that none of us owns the Church but all submit to the Lordship of Christ who is the Head of the Church, which is his body.  Once again, I am thinking that we continue to make sexuality a false idol to which we give undue priority and turn our stance of homosexuality into a heresy by overstating and overemphasizing something, and thereby creating a false imbalance.  If God is surprisingly queer and/or transgender, perhaps we ought to lighten up, calm down and carry on, and revel in the mystery of God who continues to surprise us, lead us down unexpected paths, and reveal Godself in ways we could never have imagined.