my good deeds are like a tampon…

In this week’s lectionary readings we find a prayer from Isaiah 64.  The tide has turned in Isaiah’s (or second Isaiah’s) thoughts and no more are there promises of destruction… now there are promises of salvation and pleas for God to act.

“If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Isaiah cries. 

It is a lament, for Isaiah looks at himself and at his people and knows why God is not answering.  The people have sinned and turned their backs.  So God is waiting. 

As I read this prayer today with my lectionary group, I was unprepared for the next line in the scripture.  As I remember the translation there was always something about filthy rags… but as I read along in my new Common English Bible, the verse leaped off the page:

“We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a menstrual rag.”

To be unclean – ritually unclean – means that a person is temporarily unsuited to take part in holy activities like prayer, sacrifice, fasting, etc.  Temporary is the key word there.  A ritual impurity, such as that caused by contact with bodily fluids or menstruation, are not permanent states of being. 

In order to become clean again… a ritual washing is required.  Sometimes just the hands, sometimes full emersion.  But washing none the less.

When Isaiah uses this concept in the passage, he is connecting the hearts of the people to their worship.  He is connecting a physical reality to a spiritual one.  Because of their sins, they have defiled themselves.  God doesn’t want them in the presence of the divine right now.  Like it will later say in Malachai 1:10 –

“Who among you will shut
the doors of the templec
so that you don’t burn something
on my altar in vain?
I take no delight in you,
says the LORD of heavenly forces.
I won’t accept a grain offering
from your hand.”
When our lives are filled with sin, good deeds mean nothing. They can’t earn us a place in God’s heart.  In fact, the hypocrisy of them only serves to anger our Lord more, because they cover up the truth… that we need to be washed clean. 
That we need to be transformed from the inside out.
That we need our Holy Potter to take our misshapen clay and to form us once again. 
Come, Holy God, tear open the heavens and wash us clean.

A summer of confession and struggle and hope

I have decided to journey through the book of Romans with my church folks this summer.

a) it’s the lectionary
b) I haven’t spent that much time with Romans before
c) it is fitting in nicely with our visioning process
d) it has absolutely positively hit me right in the gut and there is A LOT to preach about

I started off with confession… about one of the worst days of my life recently.  Not that bad things happened, but that I was a terrible, awful person that day. Those verses in Romans spoke directly to my life and so I used my life as a lens for the good news to shine through.

This might be a very difficult summer of preaching if every Sunday asks so much of us… but I think in the long run, it’s going to do amazing things in this church!

I’m going to link here the weekly installments, just to keep them in one place:

P+3 – June 26: STOP… in the name of Love.
P+4 – July 3:
P+5 – July 10: LIFE in the Spirit
(vacation and youth mission trip took up a few weeks)
P+8 – Aug 7:
P+9 – Aug 14:
P+10 – Aug 21:

Why the Revised Common Lectionary is the perfect model for Emergent Church

Random thought came to me tonight.  How it came to me is the subject of my next blog…. but in any case.

Every week, people all across the world use the exact same texts to tell the stories of scripture.  We start with the exact same thing.  And then we take those few words, those phrases, those verses and we transform them into “emergent” sermons.
As pastors, we borrow and we beg.  We look at what others have done successfully.  We rely upon the expertise of others.  But then, when Saturday night comes (yes, I’m a saturday night writer) – it’s just me and my laptop and the concerns and hearts of my congregation that I’m thinking about.  So we take all of the wisdom and advice that’s out there and we adapt and we mold and we shape and we transform what is in reality a very structured institutional thing like the revised common lectionary and we create very different, very contextual, very powerful messages for our local congregations.

That’s what we do with emerging church. we take the core of the Christian faith and the way of discipleship and we beg and borrow and wrestle and share with others – but at the end of the day it’s about how we live all of that out in our local contexts. It’s about how it makes sense for the people we work with on a day to day basis.

Just a thought.

If anyone has had it before – I would love to read more and discuss it.  If you want to borrow it – with it’s short, blinding light of brilliance – just let me know =P

the one we are waiting for

A couple of weeks ago, our president spoke before the nation and an audience at West Point to announce a surge in military personnel in Afghanistan.  This on the heels of being named the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.  And only a week before Barack Obama accepted the prize in Oslo.

The two are in so many ways incompatible. From his speech, Obama himself stated:
Still, we are at war, and I am responsible for the deployment of thousands of young Americans to battle in a distant land. Some will kill. Some will be killed. And so I come here with an acute sense of the cost of armed conflict – filled with difficult questions about the relationship between war and peace, and our effort to replace one with the other.

Some in my congregation have relatives who are serving our country.  Others have friends that they have said goodbye to far too many times. Many in my congregation have lived through wars and have the memories of sacrifice and bloodshed ingrained deep within their souls.
There is not one among us who doesn’t long for peace. And we are unsure if what we are doing as a nation will get us there.  We pray it will.  We hope that peace and stability will come quickly. We want our sons and daughters and sisters and brothers and fathers and mothers and neighbors to come home.

But I think what the counterpoint of the Nobel Peace Prize and our current wars tells us is that we should not look for peace from a national leader. No matter the obesience paid to our president, he is not the one we are waiting for.  He, nor any other leader within our world today, is our savior.  He is not the Prince of Peace.

We are waiting for another.

The prophet Micah describes him in this way:

And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace. (Micah 5:4-5)

Mary and Elizabeth and the child in Elizabeth’s womb cannot contain their joy as they encounter this promise of God – yet unborn.  They have been longing and waiting and hoping for so long.

As Elizabeth greets and praises her cousin, she exclaims: Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.

Blessed is she who not only believed in a miraculous birth… but blessed is she who believes that this child is the fulfillment of what God has promised. Blessed are we who hope and pray and wait and believe in what God has promised.

In a world of cynicism and violence, a world of confusion and hatred, we still dare to believe that the Prince of Peace will reign. We dare to hope that nation will not rise up against nation.  We dare to wait for the day when the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up.

Steve Goodier tells the story of a monument in Hiroshimas Peace Park. It is in memory of a young girl who died from radiation-induced lukemia after the dropping of the bomb and who tried to fold 1000 paper cranes before her death.  The monument reads:  This is our cry, This is our prayer, Peace in the world.

Now as much as ever, our cry is for peace in the world.  And in this season of Advent, we stand in the face of war and suffering and we look for the coming of peace.  We accept nothing short of peace.  And we firmly believe that one is coming that will make our prayers a reality.

calls for justice in the midst of advent joy

This coming Sunday we will light the third candle on the Advent wreath – the candle for JOY.

We hear in the midst of this call to rejoice, however, a very startling message. John the baptist calls out to the crowds: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.  (Luke 3:7-8).
He tells people to share their coats and their food, to not take advantage of others, to be satisfied with their wages. 

In many ways, that is the spirit of the season that we find ourselves in.  At Christmas we collect canned goods for the local food pantry, collect coats and mittens for children who need them, we remember the blessings of this year, we look out for our neighbors.  We take on a whole new attitude toward life in the month of December…

If only it would last.  Before the holiday lights on the town square are taken back down, our hearts begin to grumble.  Our spirits of generosity are suddenly overwhelmed by the credit card bills that come in the mail.  It seems impossible to sustain that good will towards all into the new year.

But that is exactly what John the Baptist is calling for – Repent, believe the Good News – you can live differently. You can bear fruit that lasts.  You can be changed.

I know I’m on a Susan Werner kick lately – only because I recently discovered her and I can’t put down the album.  One song in particular has just absolutely stuck with me.  It’s called “Help Somebody.”

When I hear this song, absolute joy floods my heart.  It helps me to realize just how much I have been blessed.  I have plenty.  I have a roof over my head.  I have supper on the table.  I have a sense of God’s salvation working in my life.  And if I have it to give – I should…. JOYFULLY. 

There are a lot of places in the world where some have too much and others have not enough.  We are having a huge debate over health care nationally for exactly that reason.  I think all (most) of us would agree that everyone should have affordable access to care.  We just don’t agree on how that happens.  But if we let this song and John’s call fill our ears and eyes and hearts then the question that comes to my mind is how can I help others get what I have. 

It’s not a question of whether they deserve it or not.  Perhaps it’s not even a question as to whether it is right.  It’s a question as to whether we want to give.  It’s actually a question of joy… what kind of joy and peace and wholeness can I create in the life of another person?  What kind of joy can I create in my own life through giving a little bit extra?

We could apply this same formula to anything.  It’s not about what we can get, but what we can give.  It’s about the joy that comes through recieving the good news of God and then not hoarding it, but changing our lives and giving it freely away.  It’s the spark of life that we have to pass on. 

We are going to be looking at the “Enough” stewardship/money series in January – and I think that this song is going to be our theme for the whole thing.  I’m looking forward to the ways that our congregation finds joy in the good things that we have – enough joy to take responsibility for how we use our resources and enough joy that we overflow from that abundance and help others in our community and in the world.

entering the fray: Psalm 109

For those of you who might have missed it, there has been a wave of t-shirts, bumper stickers and other such things that say “Pray for Obama: Psalm 109:8”

On first glance, you think – oh, that’s nice.  Of course we should pray for our leaders.  And then you read the actual verse:
May his days be few; may another seize his position.
Then you read another line or so…
May his children be orphans, and his wife a widow.
Uhh… it kind of makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it?
For the last 10 weeks, I have been leading a Sunday school discussion of the Psalms.  We are using the “Invitation to the Psalms” study put out by Abingdon Press.  For the most part, I would say that my class was very unsure as to what to think of those Psalms when we started.  Sure – its some of the most beautiful poetry in our tradition, it holds amazing lines and words of comfort.  But the Psalms also include things like wishing that babies heads would be dashed against stones. 

When I heard about this whole Psalm 109:8 thing, I took it to my class.  The week before we had talked about “Love and Wrath” – including some of those very difficult verses that call for vengeance.  When I brought up the whole topic, I started with the slogan – and they immediately looked up the verse themselves and were shocked and horrified (just as they were when we talked about those poor babies).

Here is the dilemma.  One of the things that we talked about in this class is that every emotion and feeling is okay before God.  We have to let it out – we have to speak the truth about how we are feeling.  We find terrible and awful things in the Psalms because these are real human emotions.  It is a valid human reaction to be angry and vindictive.  In that sense, those who are wanting to use this verse are completely in the right.

On the other hand – the movement of these very same Psalms take those feelings to God and then leave them there. The Psalms are acts of worship, not propaganda. They are the desperate cries of those who are suffering and in exile and bondage and fear for their lives. And in the end, they trust in God, not themselves to execute that justice.  What I hear in this new slogan is a rallying cry for human action, not an outpouring of raw human energy before God. And that, I cannot ignore.

One final point.  This whole thing revolves around a single verse. I don’t like to pick and choose verses to suit my needs – that’s one of the reasons I follow the Revised Common Lectionary for my preaching.  But in the scriptures, there are instances where single verses are used to help recall things that have been said and done in the past.  One prime example is Jesus on the cross calling out the first line of Psalm 22

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Many believe that by saying this particular verse, he wasn’t merely expressing forsakenness, he was also pointing us back to the entirety of the Psalm, a Psalm that may begin in desolation, but ends in an understanding of having been rescued.

So, let’s just take a quick glance at the entirety of Psalm 109.  Ironically, those who have chosen this verse are working against their own intentions.  It is a Psalm of David, that begins with him pleading with God because wicked mouths are speaking lies about him. And then there is the quotation of some of the lies and horrible things those persecutors are saying… which includes 109:8.  David’s response:  let what they curse be their own reward. Let them curse me. You, God, will bless me.

I’ll let that stand on its own…

the limitations of congregations

The following is something that Taylor Burton-Edwards presented at our School For Ministry here in Iowa this spring, and I was reminded of it again through a series of posts about how we nurture disciples and can we do it in the church.

What really strikes me is that we use the same words to describe a variety of different entities, so let me first of all define some things:

the church: for me this has never been a building.  it is the Body of Christ – the hands and feet of Christ – made up of you and me and all other followers of Jesus. This is not limited to a denomination, or even a congregation.

the congregation: a local institution and community of believers.

With that subtle distinction to guide us, here is what TBE says about congregations:

Basically, the congregation as we have known it all these years (over 1400 of them!) was and is designed to be a PUBLIC form of Christian community that does the following, and really not much else:

  1. The public worship of God
  2. Teaching the basic doctrine of the faith
  3. Providing some means for caring for each other (pastoral care, fellowship groups, and the like)
  4. Being a good “institutional player” for the good of the larger community

Those are the things, and really the ONLY things, the congregation AS congregation, is designed to do.

Making disciples– committed followers of Jesus who are growing in grace and holiness– is not on that list…

For many centuries in many places, monasteries and extra-ecclesial “societies” took on that role.

In England in the 18th century, Methodism did that.

In both, it was understood that BOTH some kind of congregational life AND some kind of accountable small group life were essential for people to grow in holiness and discipleship to and mission with Jesus. So those early Methodists weren’t trying to rethink church without congregations and the signficant facilities they had to do what they did– public worship, teaching, care, and being institutional players. Rather, they were trying to rethink church by ADDING structures that ALSO helped everyone in those additional structures ALSO grow in holiness of heart and life.

As I work on my sermon right now, I’m wrestling with the question – How can you be a Christian outside of the church… but this discussion reminded me that the question really is “How can you be a Christian outside of the congregation?”

I’m not sure that as followers of Christ we ever exist outside of the church – but so often in our language we speak as though the church is something you must join and something you must go to. Really, we are thinking about the congregation.

I see immense value in the congregation and the tasks that it brings to the world. But we have a whole big chunk of our lives that exist outside of the congregational life. When we limit our faith to the congregation, we limit our faith to Sunday mornings… or Tuesday night bible study… or Thursday youth group.

What I am more interested in is what the church is doing outside of the congregation. Where are we demonstrating our faith in the other institutional homes of our lives? in our family? in our work? in our schools? Where can we look for guidance in these other areas of our lives?

The lectionary readings for this week give us examples of faith in action without the “congregation” – without the institution or “in-group.”  Esther has actually put aside her religious practices in becoming the queen, and yet we describe her as faithful.  The disciples are complaining about people acting in Christ’s name outside of their little band of followers and he chastises them (again) and urges them not to put a stumbling block before anyone who wants to act in his name.

The way I take those texts:  There are lots of faithful people out there who aren’t a part of our congregations – who aren’t a part of institutional Christianity.

Our job in response is twofold: First, to encourage them in the good that they do like Mordichai encouraged his neice, and  in the process we might invite them into our congregational life.  Second, we should be challenged to learn from them new ways to be faithful Christians outside of the congregation.

Passion Sunday

For about two and a half weeks now, I have been working on and reworking and tweaking our Passion Sunday worship. Last year, our format was pretty much a lessons and hymns service – where we read the scriptures and sang songs in between chunks of the reading.

I’m always torn about whether or not to really focus on Palm Sunday or to span the gammit and do the whole Passion Sunday reading. Knowing my congregation, probably only 15% of those who regularly attend worship will be at our Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services. And that is only 5% of the whole church. So if we didn’t hear the Passion story on the Sunday before Easter, the depth of the journey, the betrayal and the sacrifice would go unnoticed. And Easter just isn’t Easter if you haven’t journeyed through the cross.

But how do you tell the whole story on a Sunday morning? I’ve been reading a lot of other pastor’s litanies, and how they have put together worship and used some ideas from here and some ideas from there. The main structure that has fed into the service we will be doing tomorrow is a responsive singing of “Were You There.” The verses are not the typical ones, but each one ties into the readings that have preceded it.

What I did end up doing however, was take each of the scripture readings and put any spoken words into particular people’s voices. There is a narrator, but then there will be someone speaking the words of Jesus, of Peter, of the Disciples, of the Crowd, of Pilate, of Judas, and of Caiaphas. And then as I continued to wrestle with the text, each of those voices tell a bit of their own story and give some context to the message as we hear again the story of Christ.

I’m pretty happy with the final script, and I’m putting it all in God’s hands for tomorrow morning – praying that the spirit will be in our reading, and will help everyone present understand the Journey Through the Cross.