Sunday, December 30, 2012

Praying Christmastide

God of love, on this bright and beaming morning, your glory fills the skies and lifts our spirits! You are the One and Only God, we honor and bless your holy name, we praise and marvel in your presence, we delight and rejoice with joy unspeakable for who you are and all you have done for us! Thank you for loving us so much that you entered the pain of our world, took on our humanity, and came in the face of Jesus our Christ, the Word made flesh for us.

God, we pray over our lives, our world. Do not, we pray, waste our pain or the suffering of this world, but bring good out of evil. We often do not choose the way of life. Forgive us our sins and help us to forgive those who have hurt or wronged us. Redeem the broken places of our lives, and renew the face of the earth in peace and harmony, trust and obedience. Teach us to stand up and walk after we have failed, to always be willing to try again with the gifts of insight and learning and wisdom.

Lord, we pray for others in our lives- friends, family, children and parents, co-workers, neighbors, and also strangers, and all of those that you will bring into our lives this week.  We also pray for those that always seem to make our life difficult and stressful- our adversaries. We give them to you Lord, praying your grace on each one as we see them in these moments, and praying that you would allow us to minister to them with a kindness and patience.

Keep us on the look-out for our spiritual adversaries:  entitlement, ingratitude,  any root of bitterness or resentment which hinders or harms our walking in love and joy. We pray for all those who do not know your love and do not know the love or acceptance of others. Give us a compassionate heart for all those who are recovering from bad church experiences. Keep us from ever using your name to hurt or wound others.

Hear our prayers for your people across this earth and crown your church with a power and grace that heals divisions, reconciles opponents, forgives and lets go of old hurts, and witnesses to your redeeming love. Pour your Spirit on us all, so that when we have left this place, we go as Ones sent out to make a difference in Jesus name. Amen.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Sacrament is Strangely Absent for Many

No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
No all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare-
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
 -G.K. Chesterton
Quoted from New Reflections on Advent,
 Donald Neary, p. 81

I've come to admire and appreciate the weekly Mass that many Roman Catholic churches provide for their parishioners who simply can't get to church. No matter where I visit church members in health care facilities, it seems mid-week Mass is offered.

That the Eucharist is a celebration of the real presence of Jesus is the reason for its importance in the Anglo- Catholic tradition, and thus, why the Catholic observance seems more available for long term care residents and hospital patients than are the Protestant offerings of Holy Communion and the Lord's Supper.  

Even though United Methodists teach that Christ is present in the bread and cup in a "spiritual manner," most of us follow the pattern of Protestant practice. That is, we give the Eucharist lesser importance generally, and this is reflected in fewer opportunities for off-site Communion- with people we could be reaching. 

Wouldn't you appreciate any and all attempts to celebrate the Sacrament? Recognizing the presence of Jesus (Luke 24:30, 35) is a one of the great gifts of our faith. Moreover, United Methodism's Open Table tradition is at once sacramental and evangelical: one and all are invited, whomever desires it, no if and-s or but-s.

A renewed practice of the Holy Meal means ministry in the forgotten places with those who have been pushed to the margins of power and privilege. It's emergent Christianity in a pure form. The Apostle James cites visiting widows and orphans in their affliction and keeping unstained from the world as the defining practices of authentic religion. James 1:26-27  It's also about being unhindered by the voices of apathy and neglect within and around us.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Simple Prayer for the World

Christmastide/Epiphany is about God's love for the world, manifested in the Word becoming flesh.  A few years back, I discovered a prayer at the Cenacle Retreat House in Houston, Texas. Part of it is below.

Father, hear our prayers for the salvation of the world. Gather your children from the east and west, from the north and south. Grant mercy to all souls that turn away from you. Open our hearts and minds with your light. 
We bless and praise you O Lord, for you are our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and the distant seas. We put the world in your hands; fill us with your love. Grant us peace through Christ, our Lord. Amen.  

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

God's Wondrous Love Always Surprises: Advent Midweek Missal (3)

Luke 7:18-23

John’s disciples informed him about all these things. John called two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord. They were to ask him, “ Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?” When they reached Jesus, they said, “ John the Baptist sent us to you. He asks, ‘Are you the one who is coming, or should we look for someone else?’ ” Right then, Jesus healed many of their diseases, illnesses, and evil spirits, and he gave sight to a number of blind people. Then he replied to John’s disciples, “ Go, report to John what you have seen and heard. Those who were blind are able to see. Those who were crippled now walk. People with skin diseases are cleansed. Those who were deaf now hear. Those who were dead are raised up. And good news is preached to the poor. Happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me. ” 

"The kingdom of God dawns in that moment when, from the ditch, you look down the Jericho Road, having lost your last, best hope of rescue by a nice savior, only to see coming toward you, the lousy Samaritan you despise."  Will Willimon, Why Jesus? p. 30

This reading tells of how false expectations lead to desolation. Some have to do with success. All of these constructs are based on the lie of that by controlling life, events, others, and God, we can have it our way. The religious version goes like this: If I do the right things, God will reward me with whatever is "in store for me." The gifts of faith become bargaining chips. Prayer becomes magic so that with little or no effort on our part to create a more peaceful, nonviolent future, public prayer in schools will zap them into becoming safer. Easier to do that than to buck the NRA.  
But the problem's in us, and what's in us is the desire to rule over others, for God to conform to our wishes, and to get what we want. It's amazing to think that John's own best hopes for messianic change are shattered!  Both liberation from oppression and the freeing of prisoners are omitted in the Luke 7 report of Jesus' ministry to ahem, the imprisoned John the Baptist. They are clearly included by Jesus himself in Luke 4!
It happens to all of us. Especially clergy. We can easily experience disillusionment when hopes for our kind of church or ministry are lost. The better part of spiritual maturity is to keep taking the next step in faith. Especially when we don't get our way or when we're drained of all reserves.  

It is not about manipulating God or others. It is about asking for and receiving what God gives to all who ask: life and love here, now, and always.  The absolute "wonder of his love" is the miracle of God's continuing "pure, unbounded love" despite the barriers we erect and the violence we do to each other. 

And, "Happy is anyone who doesn’t stumble along the way because of me.” 


Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Peace, God are already here: Advent Midweek Missal (2)

Matthew 11:28-30 
Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light. ” 

 Jesus is a giver not a taker  
Something written by Julian Norwich many centuries ago in a book called Revelations of Divine Love: stays with me: "Peace is always with us; but we don't always live in peace." There are few statements that better describe the reality of our spiritual work than this little proverb. In this second week of Advent, we may well have already experienced all too well the reality the 14th Century parish anchoress and spiritual friend was talking about. 

Without letting this verse from Matthew soak over into every part of us, the promise of rest just stays in our head swirling around. Nothing is accomplished by just wishing things were different. One time when I was on an individual retreat, my spiritual director suggested to begin the time away by resting instead of praying, studying, or reading, or anything else. If we are sapped of physical reserves and energy, then deep rest is where we need to begin. It is one way to say 'yes' to Jesus' invitation, "come to me."

The week's reading from the Roman Missal causes us to stop and to note the quality of the inner life we bring to any and all situations. The New Testament's insistence that the Lord is already here and "at hand" (Phil. 4) makes Advent an exercise in orienting and forming our lives around that reality. We do that by accepting Jesus' generous offer of life.

Here in Matthew 11, Jesus' invitation is in stark contrast to John the Baptizer's preaching in Advent. Some of John's audience is comprised of showy religious big wigs from Jerusalem, and others who abused the office and power of the Roman Empire. Jesus addresses the "little ones" here and wants nothing from them except that they come. This is good news, because many on the outside of our churches see Christians not as givers but as takers- with all the manipulation that implies.

The Lord has already come; the Lord is already here, and has never left! It's for us to simply come to Jesus, the Shepherd and Guardian of our souls. Jesus the Christ wants nothing more or less than for us to be present, to be aware, and to be mindful of the Holy One's abiding, with us, in us, for us.  


Wednesday, December 5, 2012

God is enough: Advent Midweek Missal (1)

Matthew 15: 29-37 (CEB)

In what ways does God want to transform your desert?

Jesus moved on from there along the shore of the Galilee Sea. He went up a mountain and sat down.  Large crowds came to him, including those who were paralyzed, blind, injured, and unable to speak, and many others. They laid them at his feet, and he healed them. So the crowd was amazed when they saw those who had been unable to speak talking, and the paralyzed cured, and the injured walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel. 

Now Jesus called his disciples and said, “ I feel sorry for the crowd because they have been with me for three days and have nothing to eat. I don’t want to send them away hungry for fear they won’t have enough strength to travel. ” His disciples replied, “ Where are we going to get enough food in this wilderness to satisfy such a big crowd? ”  Jesus said, “ How much bread do you have? ”  They responded, “ Seven loaves and a few fish. ” 

He told the crowd to sit on the ground. He took the seven loaves of bread and the fish. After he gave thanks, he broke them into pieces and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. Everyone ate until they were full. The disciples collected seven baskets full of leftovers.

Similar to the Feeding of the Five Thousand, this story provides a wonderful statement of Jesus as the Good Shepherd of Psalm 23. The two movements in this feeding "encore" are 1) being healed and 2) being filled. Both are described with overwhelming abundance in Psalm 23, in the CEB: "You bathe my head in oil; my cup is so full it spills over!" Jesus' "feeling sorry" for the crowd without food provisions is translated as "compassion" in other versions. Compassion means to "feel with," and can be likened to "tender mercy," or even mother (womb) love. 

This is a reading we need to hear the first week of Advent. Because the voices in and around us crying "not enough" only become louder, and more incessant if we listen to them. And so we need to start not with our own insufficiency,  but with God's all-sufficient love and grace. We are bathed in God's healing love and our cup spills over!

The miracle of God's grace is that even after everyone has eaten their fill of what Jesus has to offer, there is still as much left over as at the very beginning! How does that happen? 

There are additives in pet and even human food that make us feel full for awhile. But the trick doesn't last long. Soon we realize that we may not be as full as we thought an hour or two after eating food with "fillers." With Jesus, however, the everything that God has is ours, now and forever!  God's mercy is all new, every morning, and God doesn't run out of mercy.

The important footnote to this story is that it all takes place in the desert, the wilderness, an experience notorious for scarcity, not abundance. There are no provisions for daily bread. So whatever the desert may be for you, to me it often looks or feels like "not enough."

Transforming our deserts into places where we can discover God is enough is a gift God has to give, and it's there for the taking. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Do a Fly Over Stinkin' Thinkin'

Honk! Honk!
In the days when folks were free to smoke everywhere, the most difficult person to be with was not necessarily a smoker but the former one. Did you ever hear one complain about those irritating smokers clogging everyone's lungs?

It's similar to a new religious convert who believes he was wrong about everything before he saw the light. Now, he's suddenly right about everything.      

The "dry drunk" as known in AA, is the one who thinks and can even behave like the worst addict, but is abstinent. The pain brought on by  all-or-nothing thinking can be so tortuous that another cycle of abuse- or the creation of substitute addictions- easily begins. Too, the ceaseless judgmental and condemnatory attitudes and behaviors can drive others to drink, or just run away.  

Some compare the "first stepper" dry alcoholic to a Christian who never goes beyond conformity to the expectations of others. Well- explained by Richard Rohr in Breathing Under Water,  The result is a sacrificial, elder brother religion, driven by resentment and unhappiness- with God, others, and self. The deeper experiences in the classic stages of prayer and faith, such as purgation, illumination, and union, have to be set aside to keep appearances.

Not being able to serve two masters, professional clergy can easily sacrifice genuine spirituality for something that looks good instead. And while looking the part has its rewards, one of them is not progress in loving God and others God has given you to love. Matthew 6:1-18  The Apostle Paul knew that growth in love was the best fruit of our spiritual life, and even if we sacrifice our lives in martyrdom, if not rooted in love, there is no spiritual benefit for anyone, including ourselves. I Cor. 13:3
Brown Barr, who wrote his reflections on ministry in High Flying Geese, maintained that it would be a new day for all of us if we could stop asking what was right or wrong, good or bad. He suggested we try to make moral decisions by what is beautiful or ugly. Using aesthetics to inform our ethics provides a vision for the beautiful as God intends our life and all creation to be.        

The truest and best gifts are also beautiful: faith, hope, love, gratitude, joy, peace, gentleness, compassion. And these gifts- virtues- come about as we continue on the journey toward freedom, wherever we are on that road. And "focus your thoughts" on all that is holy, just, pure, lovely. God's peace will be yours. (Philippians 4:8-9, CEB)      


Monday, November 26, 2012

Jesus Smiles

Have I said anything with a stern look or manner, especially on religion? 
   - Evening Self Examination, 30 Days with Wesley 

That self-examination is normally a serious subject is why this question about a stern countenance catches me totally off-guard. In the most traditional liturgy for Holy Communion, we pray that we "bewail our manifold sins and wickdeness." 

If that isn't a prescription for a self-condemnatory scowl I don't know what is. But just because self- inventory is important doesn't mean we have to start aping the judgement scene from Michelangelo's The Last Judgement.

If you believe that the power that transforms us resides in God's love in Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit that is poured into us, then any and all self- examination is a means to greater self knowledge, healing, holiness, and sanctification.

But that movement is blocked when we think we can somehow improve on God's creating us in God's own image and likeness. No amount of moral effort or super seriousness can outdo God's prior gift of conscience placed in us when we were, in love, called out of nothingness into life.  

Thomas Merton wrote of "the spiritual man," who "contrives to bully those he thinks inferior to himself, thus gratifying his own ego." The true saints of the desert renounced this approach, he argued. They put both punishment and revenge aside.  Both of these can come in the form of sternness in our appearance and speech.

Self-examination begins and ends in God's love, and when we are not gentle and merciful with ourselves, the practice is side-tracked and becomes an exercise in accusation and self justification. A tool intended to bring us shalom thus ends up becoming an excuse for more self-hate-  or another way to project our sicknesses onto others.     

John Wesley's wrestling with self-condemnation and harshness with others like his brother Charles,  whom he felt wronged him, was the shadow side of his zeal for attaining holiness of heart and life in Christ. It was softened, not obliterated, after his heart was "strangely warmed" by God's love and forgiveness.


Friday, November 2, 2012

God's Generosity Doesn't Run Out

Why are there so many acorns this year?

"The farmer, without preparation, just went out and began to sling the seed. This is farming Jesus style...The Master seems to find more joy in careless sowing, miraculous growing, and reckless harvesting than in taxonomy of the good from the bad, the worthwhile from the worthless, the saved from the damned." Will Willimon, Why Jesus?, p.78.

It's a rare autumn in Houston. Everywhere we walk, there's the crunch of a live oak acorn. They remind me of the larger ones seen every fall in my native Ohio. They're  so plentiful there that my buddies and I could fill trash cans and buckets, then spend the rest of the day chucking them at each other.

The wonder is how in the world do any of these odd little nuts turn out to become anything at all! But they do!

Richard Lischer, who well chronicles his first pastorate in Open Secrets, sheds light on this parable of Jesus from Matthew 13. Lischer served a rural parish where the calendar was set by the corn harvest. The earliest planting came from seeds first dedicated and blessed in church, and with pomp, processed by church members out to the field, then planted in the ground. 

Like acorns scattered all over the place and landing where they will not grow, farming Jesus style starts with abundance and generosity- not efficiency. Church usually knows better, deciding that the farmer could really do a better job of projecting favorable results, controlling risks, and being fruitful.  If the sower only knew that so much of this seed will not make it to maturity. After all, there's only so much there.  

But when Jesus got around to talking about actual seed growth, he referred to the marvel of life sustaining more and more life! (Mark 4: 26 ff.) Unlike the one-talent servant who is dead wrong about the master reaping where he did not sow (25:14 ff.), God is always sowing everywhere, and God gives life to all creatures. (Psalm 104) And God pours life and love- Holy Spirit- into anyone, anyone who simply asks! (Luke 11: 13) 

The real miracle- and our purest joy- can be that God, in the love of the Trinity, never ever runs out of giving life- to all, here, now and forever.            

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Young Goat Theology Is for Old Goats (Luke 15)

The problem is NOT belief in God but rather, what God do we really trust and cling to? Because we will become like the God we worship. J.B. Phillips brilliantly named some of our self-made tin gods in his classic Your God Is Too Small.

No matter how many gods you have, they are never enough, and if they are false, we will end up being formed by what is most false and fragmented in and around us. 

In the parable of the Two Sons (Luke 15), the older son's attitude over the feast thrown in honor of the younger son's homecoming bursts forth like sore boil: "You never even gave me a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends." (15: 29)

OK, except that young goats are not even comparable to fatted calves. Well, maybe in the mind of bitter older brothers. Like the "Young Spring Chicken" from an old family favorite in my childhood (with apologies to the Dudley Motor Inn in Western New York),  the meat of young goats is lean but neither tasty nor tender nor plentiful.

Rob Bell suggests that the elder sibling has probably been saving this line up for years, and although I appreciate that possibility,  the outburst may have just come to him in the heat of the moment even as it exposes a deep seated resentment of the younger brother.  (Love Wins, p.166)

The younger "prodigal" brother is badly mistaken about his relationship with dad. At the outset, he asks for his share of the family fortune- and only later stumbles into the same thinking shared by his older brother: that the slave/servant relationship is the only hope for his father's acceptance.  

The father's words are of course, Jesus'. They come out of the relationship he himself experiences with his abba, his daddy. They're the corrective to our meager, self concerned, old goat theology: "Everything I have is yours." (v.31) There's no thought if there will be enough for everyone, or if celebrating with fatted calves instead of young goats is a waste of precious resources.

The words of the song Magic Penny, was written from a mother for her daughter's dance: "Love is something if you give it end up having more." With God, there is always more because this is the everything that Jesus' Father gives us: abounding grace, filled to overflowing.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Calming Storms with the Oil of Christ

Cross at Lindesfarne
This story from the mission of St. Aiden of the Celts and can be found in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England (St. Bede, 673-735). In 563, St. Columba, ‘dove of the church’ (521-597) founded the monastery on the island of Iona. The monastery of Lindisfarne was the major missional influence in Northumbria, and was founded by Aidan of Iona in 635.
Utta, one of Aidan’s priests, was sent to Kent to bring back Eanfled to marry King Oswry and further his kingdom. Riding through enemy territory, he would have to return with Eanfled by treacherous sea. 

Aidan knew Utta was terrified of the ocean and its storms. So Aidan, blessing some oil, marked Utta on the brow with the sign of the cross: “The cross of Christ defend you from all evil.” Then he gave to Utta the phial of oil, saying, “Keep this close to you and let it be a sign of peace and calm. If a great storm arises, then pour the oil on the troubled waters. Remember that Christ is in your ship, and call on him. Speak to him who stilled the waves and calmed the wind. God be with you in your going out and in your returning. I can see that you will bring the princess and her retinue safely back to Bamburgh. Do not be afraid, my brother; trust in God.”

Utta traveled with great speed to the palace of the Kentish king. A ship was prepared and all boarded safely. Utta clutched the phial of oil that hung around his belt and it seemed all was going to plan, that his prayers were answered. Suddenly, it all changed. A great storm broke upon them; their sails had to be lowered. Planks were creaking and straining. Waves crashed over the ship. As the day darkened, there was no sign of the storm weakening. There was no harbor- they would have to ride out the storm in the open sea. As the boat rose high and plunged to the depths, all wondered how long they could survive the horrendous waves.

Utta decided this must be the moment to use the oil. He asked one crewman to tie a rope to his waist and to tie the other end to the mast. Then, with great struggle, he moved to side of the ship. A great wave nearly swept him overboard. As the ship dipped, Utta poured the oil on the sea and immediately the wind stopped and the waves eased; it all became calm. After the journey, Utta told Aidan. “You have to believe me father! The moment I poured oil on the troubled waters there was a calm, a peace. It was a miracle. No one on board knew what to say, except to thank God for their deliverance.”

We are often caught in stormy waters. Jesus is the One who stilled the wind and the calmed the waters. How could we learn to cast the oil of Christ over our lives? What is the oil that God gives us to pour calm and peace over our troubled spirits, tense relationships and whatever troubles us?

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Talking helps

If a brother or sister in Christ has the courage to name racism as a continuing wound in our life together, that should be enough of an opening for more, not less, conversation.   

While it may hurt to have these accusations pointed in our direction, and some may get "sick and tired" hearing charges of bigotry, just think of those who have to live with it every day of their lives.

In the long run, it's so much more helpful to talk with each other than to throw names at each other. It would also allow us to see each other better, without the kind of hindrances Jesus mentioned in Matthew 7: 5. 


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Time to Quit Tossing the Labels Around

You would think that among Christians, it would be enough to be called by the name of Christ. The name assumes a spirit of generosity that too many of us Christians reject in favor of other names like orthodox, progressive, contemplative, confessing, liberal, reform, conservative, Bible believing, fundamentalist, emergent, evangelical, etc., etc, etc.!

I know, the genius of our growth is how we can divide and multiply. Jesus is incarnated in any and all cultures. So we've also come up with lots of proper pronouns to delineate our historic differences, like Independents, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Catholics, Protestants, Nondenominational, and so on.

There's no use pretending a unity that isn't there, but isn't it enough challenge just to be known as a follower of Jesus, enough blessing to be one of Christ's own, enough grace to be made in God's image and in God' love? Why isn't this better than any confining label?

The great preacher and United Methodist Bishop, Emerson Colaw correctly stated that continued use of labels among Christians is inaccurate, because there's little agreement on what any label actually means. Many of these labels are theological flavors of the moment, about belonging, or about power over others. Labels rarely tell us anything about someone's integrity or lack of it. What can a label possibly say about a person's spiritual health or disease? Whether I've been living in light or darkness?

We find an infinite number of ways to make it all about ourselves. Dropping labels would mean that we no longer have them to hide behind. It would also mean doing the hard work of study, prayer, and self examination, being open to uncovering wisdom in new and different places, and being more faithful as a result of our searching and finding. This isn't about picking and choosing. It is about surrendering our fascination with labels to Christ. "Christian" makes it more about Jesus Christ, not ourselves.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Reviewing We Were Least of These

Elaine Heath's We Were the Least of These: Reading the Bible with Survivors of Sexual Abuse is her recent book, published in 2011. The McCreeless Associate Professor of Evangelism and director of the Center for Missional Wisdom at Perkins, Heath explains how the church and its Story can be heard and explored in a healing way by survivors of sexual violence and abuse. Her telling of the Christian Story is authentic mainly because it is done by a survivor, in the presence of the estimated 1 in 3 woman and 1 in 6 men who are also survivors of sexual abuse.

Naming survivors as the least of these is key to the entire study, the hermeneutic Heath applies to the many Bible stories she re-presents and retells in the rest of the book. The words themselves are of course from Jesus' parable in Matthew 25: "We were the least of these, all of us who suffered abuse, neglect, violence of every kind. Jesus was with us; Jesus was in us; Jesus is for us." p.9

Heath's choice of texts, from both the Old and New Testaments, the familiar to the rarely read, is helpful. Included is the Fall narrative in Genesis 1-3 , Esther, the story of Jabez in I Chronicles 4, Psalms of lament, Mary and Judas (John 12:1-11), and the restoration of the "unclean" woman and man of Luke 8.

Heath explores the story of Israel in the wilderness. Why was their journey so frustratingly long? Its length was meant to give former slaves a safe distance from both their former life in Egypt as well as protection from the armies of the Philistines. So, too, survivors, need to relearn healthy boundaries, both safe and protected, that abuse destroys. Moreover, recovery requires healing, and healing isn't instantaneous. Survivors into their 60's and beyond may wonder when they will ever be healed. The good news is that, according to Heath, healing continues. Moving like spirals, we experience deeper levels throughout our lifetimes.

Judges 19 (the Levite's Concubine), tells of the complete rupture of systems and people who are supposed to provide safety and sanctuary. It's what happens when systems like churches and universities live without a conscience, or rather, adopt the sick conscience of the surrounding culture. The story is about the complete failure of keeping covenant at many levels and in many people, including a man of the priestly tribe, a family of origin, and the community at large.

Instead of perpetuating this violence, the people of God will learn to rewrite the story in our life together. In that story, we will no longer excuse or cover up or allow sexual violence: "..the survivor who leaves the abusive relationship will be offered refuge and healing love by her family of origin...They will not hand the survivor over to further abuse... Clergy leaders "will discern the evil of giving primacy to institutions when those institutions become agents of death that violate the sanctity of human life." pp. 46-47

Much of Heath's book would come under the rule, "First, do no harm." That is, "rightly divide the word" so you don't end up using the texts of Scripture to contribute to the pain of others. For example, clinging only to a punitive atonement theory with its angry God, is one example of doing harm. It can "contribute to a damaging interpretation of salvation that drives survivors...away from God and the church." p. 131 Atonement is real. Atonement comes in the form of Emmanuel, God with us, not God against us. Atonement is the healing of wounds, and the making of all things new.

The book includes an outline for a weekend retreat in Appendix 1, and a definition of sexual abuse in Appendix 2. Every chapter ends with a helpful reflection for survivors, for those who companion them, plus suggested exercises, activities, even movies.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

There but the Grace of God...Really?

The actual phrase is something like, "There but the grace of God go I." K, the grammar can change it around. Like another popular refrain, this little phrase is to be found nowhere in the Bible. Its source is a matter of widespread conjecture, but it has been a popular phrase for decades, and probably since the late 1800's. The words may sound poetic (they are not in Shakespeare either), but it's what this phrase says about God's grace that's ugly.

Because it teaches that God's grace is with those who avert a disaster, but not for those who suffer tragedy, I have no use for it. Further, I have to conclude that those who use it do so in ignorance, since I have no idea of their intentions. A clergywoman, from a wheelchair, taught me this: that when we use this and phrases like it, we show ourselves to be clueless about the amazing grace of God in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit or the recipients of God's grace. Too, we declare those who suffer various calamities, from terminal illness to death row to accidental death, to be outside the grace of God.

Jesus tried to answer this question in different ways. About the man born blind in John 9, Jesus' disciples asked, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus' retort was "Neither this man nor his parents sinned." Do you hear that? God's grace is not about who is in or who is out. It IS about God, the creator of the universe, being available to all living things! (Psalm 104) Elsewhere, Jesus is clear about it: tragedies do not happen to anyone because the people involved are worse sinners (Luke 13)

So while we are comfortable putting parameters on life, having bad things happen to bad people, having good things happen to good people, we cannot have life- or God's grace- on our terms. Wealth doesn't protect us, for example (Prov. 18:11) We live in the terrible freedom of our own choosing and sometimes the consequences simply cannot be known. We may find it difficult to handle happenstance, but it does no good to make up goofy stuff about God's grace that just isn't true. All this may make us feel better for the moment, but it leads to a denial of the God who doesn't play by our rules anyway.

No, God's grace is with all of us, all of the time, even those of us who don't know it. God is there when we reach out to him no matter the circumstance. There is nothing (not even our own small mindedness) that will be able to separate us from God's love in Jesus. (Romans 8). This is the faith worth living for- and dying for.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Power of Quiet

In most books I read, there's at least a short paragraph or two that is so useful and helpful that it was worth reading the entire book just to receive that new insight. Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, was enjoyable and interesting because the author not only shares her breadth of wisdom about introversion, but also, she does while sharing her own journey from Wall Street lawyer to best selling author and prophet of quiet reflection

Cain explains where the American cult of extroversion and our misunderstanding of introversion originates. No field of study is left out of the discussion: from religion to pop psychology, from Harvard Business to Dale Carnegie, from Asian American High School students to FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt and from biology to personality theory, Cain coalesces her impressive knowledge, much of it from first person interviews and observations.

Introverts, which, according to the book, comprise up to 50% of the American population, exist today not because of an anomaly of evolution. Where extroverts are driven by the belief that the early bird catches the worm or that opportunity only knocks once, the survival credo of the introvert is about betting on a sure thing and looking before you leap. Typically extroverts live by action and introverts by reflection. See the brilliant chapter 7 on why Warren Buffett has prospered.

But the best of this book is when Cain takes on the myth that being or acting like an extrovert is synonymous with creativity. Cain maintains that, although the New Groupthink elevates teamwork above everything else, solitude is the key to creativity. The best ideas often do not come from brainstorming in a group, which often stifles individuality and honesty. The best work spaces are not necessarily open for all to see and hear. And the the best way to get work done is not necessarily in a team.

Many skills, from chess to music to designing computers, are perfected in hours of what the book calls "deliberate practice." You don't get to be a soloist through more and more group rehearsals: you do it on your own because you can only work on what is challenging you when you're alone, for as long as it takes. One, intense concentration requires it, but other people can be a major distraction. Two, you practice on your own because you are self- motivated anyway. Finally, when you're alone, you can go directly to work on what's challenging you the most. That cannot happen in a group or class setting.

Most of Cain's book is really excellent, and I found her descriptions of her experiences at various extrovert shrines very entertaining and even humorous. Her observations of Saddleback Church and a Tony Robbins seminar are not only funny, but also provide an excellent critique of how so many churches and self - help gurus become part of the same cultural matrix elevating the outer persona at the expense of the interior life. Churches have to find a way to affirm witness as authenticity and action instead of the right words.

Much is said these days for the corporate spiritual practices, things we can do together. But not all things are best done with others! For Christians, prayer would be that core practice that requires deliberate, intentional alone time. Quiet. Centering. That is where we encounter and choose to overcome the blocks to greater freedom and movement. Even our own demons, whatever they may be. "Throwing this kind of spirit out requires prayer," Jesus taught his disciples. (Mark 9:29 CEB) Was Jesus speaking about those forty days alone in the desert wilderness with his own temptations? (Luke 4) It would seem so.

Oldies but Goodies