Friday, March 14, 2014

The Vulnerability of God

I find that there are some themes that I keep coming back to in my understanding of the Christian faith. This is one of them.

To be honest, it's also a theme that I really need to hear this week in particular.  This week has been marked by news of incredible pain and by watching people I care about both personally and as their pastor deal with that pain.  Illness, disease, loss, struggle with addictions.  These have been the warp and woof of this week's tapestry.

I need to be reminded that God cares enough about all of this to become directly and intimately involved in it. We are moving toward the cross. To that place where God's vulnerability will make its most dramatic and risky stand.  This is where God is going to take on God's own Self the task of making things right.  Of taking on Sin and Death....not just as incidents in our lives, but as Powers that seek to run the show.  Powers that Jesus, and we, encounter in the form of cancer, of tumors and seizures in children, of addictions that take over the lives of entire families.

I need to be reminded that while I am part of the story....am privileged to be part of the story....it is God's Story....the story of God rescuing a good creation from all that has gone wrong.  A story that begins with that Good Creation and will end with the New Creation when heaven and earth are joined, finally, in God's triumph.

At the 'hinge,' the fulcrum of that story is the Cross/Resurrection Event.  They cannot be separated.  A cross without a real resurrection is just another sad revolution crushed by Empire.  A resurrection without a cross is leaves us out of the story as failures dumped by the side of the road-unable to do what we were created to do and be.  The two of them together offer us incredible Hope.

It is that Hope; Hope rooted in a Vulnerable God that lets me go forward.  Often staggering, sometimes falling.  But moving forward in hopeful trust that whenever I stand by a sick bed, sit with an addict, comfort a child....God is there way before me: vulnerable, intimate, sharing it all.

Thanks Be To God

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lent and Where It Leads Us

I am beginning to feel like "Seldom Seen Smith" from the Milagro Beanfield War when it comes to my writing on this blog.  Some days I feel guilty about that; I have friends who pastor and blog every day.  But I'm not 'that guy.'  I'm just not able to do it.  And some days I'm so busy that putting my mind to writing is beyond me.

Never the less, I am glad to be writing and glad that you come to read.

Lent.  Some view it as a time to feel really guilty, or give up stuff, or wallow in a sense of sinfulness.  Others see it as a chance to make a focused effort at being drawn into a deeper spirituality-at least for a short period of time.

I grew up Southern Baptist, so I have a healthy (okay, unhealthy) level of guilt most of the time anyway.  But the drawing deeper part, and the focused realization of my own mortality, "remember that you are dust; from dust you came and to dust you shall return," makes sense to me.  Lent is a time for me to remember that it's not about me.  The Gospel, to be brutal about it, isn't about us-though it is (nice paradox)-it's about God.  It's about God's action in the hideous situation of Sin and Death (both of those with capital letters because that situation is much bigger than my own puny-or not so puny-sins).  Sin and Death are real, and here, and they are the powers that we wrestle with and that God has overcome in Christ Jesus.  They are the things we agree to do battle with when we pray "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

So part of what I am inviting folks to do here at First Baptist Church Gaithersburg is to spend some time meditation on the Lord's Prayer.  Let it get beyond the 'quick read' we give it on Sundays when we pray as a congregation, or the 'lick and a promise' way it is often prayed during the week.  Pause, savor each line and thought of the prayer.  What does it mean?  What does it mean for me?  What does it mean for me as a member of the Body of Christ with brothers and sisters in Christ who are not western, privileged and white?

I have written a brief 'guide' to meditating on this prayer and I share it below.  May it help draw us closer to the One who made us, saved us, and walks with us on this journey toward the final coming of the Kingdom.

A Guide to Lenten Meditation Using the Lord’s Prayer


The meditation and thoughts below are offered as a spiritual discipline or guide for meditation and prayer during the season of Lent 2014 at First Baptist Church of Gaithersburg. But in a larger sense they are an invitation to build a lifetime of spiritual discipline around the prayer that Jesus taught His disciples; and through them taught  to us.

Every time I pray this prayer, I am praying it in a particular place and set of personal circumstances. It is important that I make this prayer specific and personal; bringing this prayer to this day and these specific issues.   I have found that using this prayer  as my guide for coming to God in those circumstances often takes me into new places in my relationship with, and understanding of, God that I could never have imagined. If you were to ask me what my primary spiritual discipline is, this would be it: to pray and meditate on the Lord's Prayer as explained below; and then to try and listen to what God is saying to mein response. The Hebrew word for this special kind of listening is Shuma. I wish I was better at it; but that is why we call it a "discipline," because it's something we work at that changes us over time.

I'm happy to be able to share this with you this Lenten season. There are 14 small sections. You can focus on one each day for two weeks, or break it into larger sections.
You can read through the whole thing and then go back to what speaks to you. How you use it is completely up to you. I hope that you find this way of praying the Lord’s Prayer helpful to you.  May your Lenten journey be a blessed one.
Shalom,
Stephen


The Lord's Prayer

Our God does not belong to me. I, and the rest of creation belong to God. How does this call me to look at others differently?

Father  Just meditating on this relationship can open new doors for us. What does it mean to each of us personally to call God "Father"? What does this say to me about intimacy with God? About obedience to God? What old wounds caused by the failure of human fathers need to be healed in my life so that I can claim this word as a gift?
[Some people have been so wounded by their earthly fathers that they can't even use this word for God. Scripture is full of 'Mother' images for God as well. How do I feel about these images? Do they help me see God too? How do I respond when someone else uses them?]

Our Father What happens when I expand my thoughts and meditation on the word "our" above to see myself as part of God's family?  Imagine a huge dinner table; who am I glad to see there?  Whose presence makes me uncomfortable?

Who art in heaven In a world that is so imperfect, so violent and abusive and torn up; do I really believe that there is a place where God is in control? What does my answer say about my hope for this world? For the future of this world? For my own future? What does it say about what I believe about the nature of God?

Hallowed be Thy Name It really isn't about you and me. We're geared to think that we're the most important thing. We're not, God is. Focusing, settling, sitting with this phrase can do interesting things in our meditation and prayer. Try using it as a mantra, a phrase you say over and over as you think about it. As you do this, try changing which word you put the emphasis on: "Hallowed be Thy Name" "Hallowed be Thy Name" etc.  What impact does this have on your prayer?

Thy Kingdom, Thy Will So often we forget that the main character in the Biblical story, and in our story, is not us. It is God. This is God's world. God created it. God created us. The story in scripture is of God's saving, loving action. In a world so focused on "me, me, me" how does it change you way of looking at life to take this viewpoint and hold it close-just for a day-as you go about you ordinary activities?

Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done here on earth as it is in heaven This may be one of the most overlooked lines in this prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray that God's will is done and God's Kingdom becomes real now and here. Even while we admit that we can't make this happen by ourselves, doesn't this call us to live in ways that reflect God's will and kingdom? What would change about our daily life if this was in the forefront of our decision making?

Give us this day our daily bread There are two things that always come to mind for me at this point in the prayer: 1) I am reminded of how many people in this world, this country, this county, this city go without food. I am challenged by this fact and the request I just made that "Thy Kingdom come and Thy Will be done here in earth as it is in heaven." I'm pretty sure that hungry people are not part of God's will or Kingdom. Which leaves me asking, "what am I called to do about that? What are we called to do about that?"
2) What is the "daily bread" that I need right now? Is it forgiveness for a particular sin? Is it to be reconciled with someone? Is it healing from an old wound in my life? Or healing from a current medical illness? What is it? Do I trust that I can bring whatever my need is to God today in it's specific, concrete form and turn that need over to God to take care of?

Forgive us our sins I prefer the translation “forgive us our sins” over “debts” or “trespasses” because it brings home bluntly and brutally what it is I am doing.  The other phrases are too easy for me to water down and minimize.  I sin.  I sin against God; and I sin against others.  I make decisions that look good on the outside and that I rationalize to myself while knowing that my internal motivations are anything but pure.  Our sins, as the Psalmist said, ‘are ever before us.’  Our sense of guilt can some days be overwhelming.  We need forgiveness.  We need for God to remove the guilt for our sins “as far as the east is from the west.”  Asking for forgiveness with as much specificity as we can is important.  Naming the places where we have fallen short; where we have intentionally acted against what is right is the first step in acknowledging our need and our condition as people unable to free ourselves.  In our daily use of this prayer, it is important to confess to God the exact nature of our wrongs.  Generalized requests for forgiveness aren’t enough.  Our healing comes with brutal honesty with God and with ourselves.  What do I need to ask God’s forgiveness for today?

As we forgive those who sin against us Jesus makes it clear that receiving forgiveness when our hearts and lives are being run by resentments towards others is impossible.  The resentments we carry eat a hole in our heart; blocking our ability to love others and to receive love ourselves.  To the extent that I am aware of my own sinfulness, my own shortcomings, my own ability to chose the wrong way over the right (often spending a great amount of time rationalizing that choice, minimizing its impact, and justifying it all) to the extent that I see this in myself, I am able to respond to others with the mercy and grace that I have received.  What resentments am I holding on to?  What is the “beam in my own eye” that I am blinded to, even as I judge a brother or sister for their sins-particularly their sins toward me.

Lead us not into temptation Growing up I tended to think of temptation in terms of sexual
 temptation (I was a teen age boy, what do you expect).  But there are other temptations out
 there.  There are temptations to worship the gods of money and power and prestige.  To take
 things that are gifts from God (sex, food, all kinds of pleasures)  and/or means to serve God
 (money, position, prestige) and make them preeminent.  To place them in the place of primary
 importance.  There are temptations to give in to anger, or give up trying, or to quit trusting that
 God is actively involved and caring in what is going on with us.  Falling into those temptations
 is pretty easy sometimes.  What is often helpful is to discover what puts us ‘at risk’ for falling
 into those temptations.  Does lack of sleep and not eating right make me more prone to go from
 mild irritation into a rage?  These things, these ‘high risk situations,’ are individual in nature.
 Coming to know them for myself personally allows me to join with God in not getting into the
 temptations in the first place.  What are my ‘high risks’?  How can I avoid them?  How can I
 bring God into my struggle around these issues?

But deliver us from evil There is evil in the world.  It is beyond just sins.  Evil occurs, for example, in situations where group violence takes place.  Ethnic cleansing is a recent example of evil at work.  In our culture evil often comes to us in our culture in a feeling that says, “this is bad, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”  Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote in the hymn God of Grace and God of Glory, “Save us from weak resignation, to the evil we deplore.”  When we stand by while evil is done, we passively participate in that evil.  What evil do we need to be delivered from turning a blind eye toward?  Personally?  As a church? As a culture?

For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Many scholars believe that this was not in the original prayer. I agree with them.  Then why pray it?  I pray it as a reminder to myself of everything I've said above about God being the focus, God being in charge, God being the main character. There is a commercial on TV now that says that live is a poem and tells us we may get to write one verse of that poem. It asks what our verse will be. In this prayer, we're affirming that the poem is God's poem. We're committing ourselves to that poem and asking for help in writing our verse. What's more, We're saying that, finally, God's poem is the only poem there is. It's much bigger than we can imagine; and when, in eternity, we see it all laid out, or sung as an anthem, we will be amazed and awed by all that is part of it. But it's God's, not ours. Like the Psalmist said, "we are His people and the sheep of His pasture."


Amen One translation of this word is "so be it," "let it be," "let it be done this way." This is a final word of commitment and prayer; a shorthand repetition of everything we've said above.