Thursday, March 27, 2014

Worship - A Life or Death Matter

As part of our Lenten program, I have the good fortune to host a Bible study series using the Morehouse “Embracing series”. This program features renowned Scripture scholar and preacher, Walter Bruggemann and focuses on the prophets and contemporary culture.

In the first segment, Bruggemann states that for the prophets, worship is a life or death matter. He observes that through the centuries, we have “narcoticized” our liturgies removing any sense of provocation.

“Life or death matter.” What would happen in our congregations if we actually treated our worship in that way. Not in the sense that every rubric must be followed precisely (although that’s not a bad idea) but that we begin to worship like there is something genuinely at stake. The way most Chrsitan churches worship today, observers may experience our worship and quickly conclude, “There’s nothing important going on here. We’ll just go through the motions one more time.”

To worship in this manner requires us to realize that we are as much enslaved to the culture in which we live as the Israelites were enslave to Pharaoh. What is at stake in our worship is the liberation of a people. God calls us to a continuing critique of our lives, the culture in which we live them, and our response to the transformative love of Christ.

“What difference does it make?” Is our worship like being on narcotics or, as Annie Dillard says, a true understanding of Christian worship would urge us to wear crash helmets!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Sometimes Life Just Sucks

. . . and we have to deal with it.  That may have been something the prophet Jeremiah said. Jeremiah truly had a hard time of it. 

Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah the priest, most likely had a fairly happy childhood. As part of a respected family, he probably experienced deference and a comfortable living. However, as he grew and came to experience a prophetic call, this life would become a fond memory, worth of nostalgic longing.  Perhaps, it was because he had this positive experience and lost it in the course of his faithful ministry, his lamentations over the decline and defeat of Israel became even more profound. His diatribes against the infidelity of Judah as they turned once again to the worship of idols are strong and clearly stinging indictments. In fact, they may seem at times to be downright vitriolic. This brought many of the naysayers among his listeners to plot against him and even to bring physical harm and maybe even death. Even his priestly kin were drawn in. And when God assures Jeremiah that he will be protected, God tells him in essence, "If you think it's bad now, just wait!"

When you’re feeling like Jeremiah, you might have the urge to lash out at someone, even if they had nothing to do with your feelings. Here are some ideas that might stop you from blowing up and help you get to a happier place.
  • Get informed. Once you figure out what might be causing you to feel badly, you can do something about it. Many resources exist to help you find information on tons of different issues, including depression, family and relationships. Look for suggestions on how to manage your feelings and where you can get help.
  • Talk to someone. Talking to someone you feel comfortable with, like a friend, teacher, parent or counselor, can be a great way of expressing your feelings. These people might also be able to help you identify why you are feeling bad and work out strategies for dealing with it.
  • Chill out. Sometimes getting some space away from what is making you feel this way or a change of scenery can be helpful. This might include going for a walk or listening to your favorite music, reading a book, going to the movies, or whatever works for you.
  • Express your feelings. Writing down your feelings or keeping a journal can be a great way of understanding your current emotions in a particular situation. It can also help you come up with alternative solutions to problems. Express your feelings in a way that won’t cause bodily damage to yourself or another person.  Try yelling or crying into a pillow, dancing around the room to loud music or punching a pillow. I often turn on some dramatic classical music and conduct the orchestra with all the might I can muster.
  • Get creative. Find things to do to distract yourself from feeling bad and that get you thinking creatively. This can include drawing a picture, writing a poem, or playing a game. Even though you might not feel like it at first, even a little creativity might be enough to shift your mood.
  • Take care of yourself. Feeling bad may be your body telling you it needs to take time out, and pushing yourself physically might just make things worse. Take time out to spoil yourself by doing something that you usually enjoy. Even though you might not feel like it, exercising and eating well can help. Getting plenty of sleep is important, too.
  • Reconnect with God. More often than not, we find that these bad feelings can get overwhelming when we drift away from our relationship with God. As bad as things got for Jeremiah, his connection to God was the means by which he saw his way clear. 
I can't say with any confidence that any of these things would have made Jeremiah feel better about his plight. I can say that they have worked for me and have helped me overcome some very dark days.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The By-stander Effect

Faith Rowold recently reflected on a phenomenon that social psychologists describe as the "by-stander effect": the more people around a situation that requires action, the less likely anyone is to actually respond. Researchers seek reasons why this happens but it might be reduced to simply thinking that "someone else will do it."

Someone else will give the guy on the corner something to eat. Someone else will organize the yard sale for the parish. Someone else will visit the lonely looking lady that sits in the back pew.

But Scripture call us out by asking, "Why are you waiting to show mercy? Why are you waiting to lend a helping hand?

How often do we think that help will come from some other external source? When we do that, we forget the simple truth that we are literally the "body" of Christ: we are God's hands on earth. Only through us can God show others that they are loved by the God who loves us.

Christ has no body but yours,No hands, no feet on earth but yours,Yours are the eyes with which he looksCompassion on this world,Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,Yours are the eyes, you are his body.Christ has no body now but yours,No hands, no feet on earth but yours,Yours are the eyes with which he lookscompassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
                               --Theresa of Avila

Monday, March 10, 2014

New Clothes

As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. (Colossians 3:12)

It is significant to note that every one of the graces here mentioned by St. Paul have to do with relationships between people. There is no mention of gifts like cleverness or diligence. Not that these are not also important in the Christian disciple's life, but the great values that govern a Christian's life are those that govern human relationships -- Christianity is first and foremost community. 

Compassion. If the ancient world needed anything, it was compassion. It is no wonder that this value was at the very heart of Jesus' teaching. In that world, the sufferings of animals meant nothing. The sick and maimed were pushed to the margin and sometimes even exiled. The feeble were treated poorly. 

Kindness. The word Paul uses here describes the kind if virtue practiced by an individual whose neighbors good was as important one's own. Call to mind the parable of "The Good Samaritan." It is the same word that Jesus used when he described his yoke as easy (Matthew 11:30). Too often goodness taken by itself can be a stern thing. But kindness is the kind of goodness that has been mellowed by compassion.

Humility. It has been said that humility was a virtue created by Christianity. In the ancient world, humility always had a touch of servility to it. To be humble was to recognize that one was "less than." In the gospel way, humility is not a cringing cowering thing. Rather, it is based on the awareness that human beings are creations of God, made in God's image and likeness. Secondly, it is based on the belief that all human beings are the children of God. There is no room for arrogance when we are living among men and women who share a bloodline that is shared with the Son of the Most High God.

Meekness. Aristotle taught that the person who possessed this virtue was the person who lived the happy mean between too much and too little anger. For Paul, this is the person who exercises an appropriate level of self-control: always angry at the right time and never angry at the wrong time, an individual who simultaneously exercises strength and the sweetness of true gentleness.

Finally, Patience. This is the spirit that sees foolishness and seeming unteachability and never reaches to cynicism or despair. Insults and ill treatment never drive it to bitterness or wrath. It is a human reflection of that divine quality that gives us the confidence that God is always ready to withstand our shortcomings and failings and offer forgiveness at every turn.

These are the garments of Christian grace at work in our lives. These are the clothes we put on at baptism and which, during this holy season of Lent, we seek to rediscover and renew.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

"He raises up the lowly"

At Ash Wednesday Vespers, we traditionally recited the Song of Mary (Magnificat). Each time this canticle comes my way I am increasingly convinced of God's purposes in "raising up the lowly."

It's way too easy simply to apply this concept to the maiden of Nazareth and leave it at that. However, Scripture repeated tells the story of how God calls the outsiders, those whom the world has marginalized, to play a significant role in the salvation of the world. As far back as Sarah (a barren elder woman) who bears a child of promise (Isaac), Ruth (the foreigner) who mothers the Davidic dynasty, Moses (the adopted Egyptian) who led Israel to freedom from oppression. Among these, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth, conceived out of wedlock, who consorted with prostitutes, tax collects, and heals the lame and the blind (who were thought to be cursed by God because of sin).

Abagail Nelson said it well: "For those who have been consistently ignored, marginalized and even forgotten by the world, the idea that God might choose the lowly to be heard, to be noticed, to be preferred is something that bursts into reality like a gift, a possibility for transformation." (ERD Lenten Meditations 2014)

With that said, consider the directions of American political society over the last three decades where the poor are again pushed to the margins, where the foreigner is castigated and denied opportunity for civic redemption, where those who seek to speak truth to power are named as traitors to "the American way."

Nelson concludes, "God does not choose the poor in order for them to remain quiescent in there secret preferred state. Scripture instead shows us that the Samaritan, the prostitutes, the exiled are called to act out God's love in faith in the world, and in so doing, become the leaders we all want."

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

We All Have Choices

People are capable of doing an awful lot when they have no choice and I had no choice. Courage is when you have choices.
-- Terry Anderson
Lent is a time to remind us that we have choices. 

It seems that more and more today, we hear how our lives are somehow determined . . . . by nature and/or nurture. New defense strategies in trials of individuals alleged to have committed horrific crimes range from the now infamous "Twinkie Defense" to more believable determinisms that arise from physical and mental abuse as children. 
Some of these may indeed be valid. However, our wholesale acceptance that we are not individually or communal responsible for the evil that we commit is based in an increasing abdication of responsibility. 

Flip Wilson's comic line from the 1960s, "The devil made me do it" is a more simplistic way of looking at it. Indeed, the devil (however we may conceive of him/her) may in fact be at the root of the problem, BUT we can never forget that the me in the equation is free to turn away from evil and toward God or the good. 

This takes courage. 

In a self-deprecating way, Terry Anderson reminds us of this important truth. Anderson is actually a hero. He could have chosen to turn his mind and heart toward his captors but he did not. He held firm to his identity and to his purpose in life. In this way, he maintained himself as a discrete individual capable of the freedom to choose. 

Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent that follows, is a continual reminder to us and to the world in which we live as disciples of Christ that we are free -- free to choose the path, the way of life -- or to let our lives be determined by forces that seek not to upbuild but to destroy. 

This season, heed the voice of the Lord as he calls us to reconnect with the source of life. Truly, in our world, this will take courage. Just remember, courage is itself a gift of the Holy Spirit and is ours simply for the asking.