Sunday, February 22, 2015

Communicating With God

Communicating With God
Romans 8:26-27
            How do we communicate with someone with whom there is no common ground?  I’m not talking about someone from another country who doesn’t speak the same language.  I have had that experience when travelling abroad.  Usually the language barrier isn’t a problem—at least not an insurmountable one.  In most hotels and places of business there is someone who speaks English—a result of so many people from America and other English-speaking countries wanting or needing to travel the world.  Occasionally we have run into a situation where it is difficult to make ourselves understood because there are no words we can share.  Even then, sign language usually gets the job done—especially if we want to buy something and they want to sell something.
            What I mean is a situation where, even if you share a common language, you don’t share a common vocabulary.  Have you ever spoken with someone whose vocabulary is so specialized that you can’t understand him or her?   Like me, you’ve probably encountered a textbook or technical journal that is so full of jargon you can’t get past page one.  Computer manuals are like that for me.  I’m hopelessly lost by the time I’ve gotten through the table of contents. 
How can we overcome that kind of disconnect?  How can we hope to understand what the other person is trying to share with us?  If the shoe is on the other foot, how can we hope to have someone understand us when we don’t share a common vocabulary—someone, for instance, who doesn’t understand our jargon or technical language?  How can we bridge the gap in such situations?
            I think Paul understood the problems involved in this kind of communication.  He must have been a very well-read and well-spoken person.  Trained in Scripture, trained in Judaic law, and quite likely trained to some extent in Greek philosophy and religion, it would seem he could communicate with anyone; and yet he understood communication problems.
            As much as God wants to communicate love and caring for humankind, there is no common language.  We do read frequently in the Hebrew Scriptures of God speaking to humans, but there must have been some sort of translation device.  When Isaiah, conveying words from God says (Isaiah 55:8), “my thoughts are not your thoughts, and my ways are not your ways,” he’s letting us know that God understands the problem.  There needs to be a way for us to communicate with One who is so far above us that we don’t even share common ways of thinking or acting.
            We can’t solve the problem.  We lack the resources.  We can’t possibly think, act or speak on God’s level.  The translation device must come from God’s end.  Paul tells us that the translator is the Holy Spirit. 
 “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought,” Paul says, “but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.  And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
What a blessing!  What a relief!  We don’t have to worry about being misunderstood. Because God loves us so much a way has been provided to eliminate the communication gap.  The Spirit, who enters our lives when we commit ourselves to God, helps us communicate our longings and desires so that there can be no misunderstanding.  The unapproachable God becomes eminently approachable.  The transcendent One becomes immanent.  The Holy One becomes Emmanuel—God with us.

Then all things work together for good.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Misusing the Bible

Misusing the Bible
2 Timothy 3:14-17
            Paul understood Scripture.  He undoubtedly understood it better than the other early apostles.  They were mainly from the working class and had little formal education.  Yes, they would have known Scripture.  That would have been a significant part of whatever education they received—perhaps the most significant part.  Paul, however, had been trained as a Pharisee and had great credentials as a scholar.  He had studied with Gamaliel, one of the leading experts of his day.    This is part of what enabled him to develop a theology which encompassed both Jews and Greeks.  In today’s parlance, he knew the word!
            Remember, when we speak of Scripture in the first century, we’re speaking of the Hebrew Scriptures—what Christians usually refer to as the Old Testament.  That was the only Bible there was.  It was well into the fourth century C.E. before what we now know as the New Testament became canon.
            Paul’s advice to Timothy is excellent:  “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness….”  Whether we believe that God dictated Scripture to the sacred writers, or that they wrote as human beings under divine inspiration, the Bible is our record of God’s relationship with humankind.  Whether we believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, or feel that some of its stories are allegorical and some of its language figurative, the Bible is where we find God’s attempts to redeem humankind and reconcile us with our Creator.
            We must be careful, however, not to misuse the Bible—and it is easy to do that.  Here are some ways people have misused God’s word over the centuries.
            The Bible as Science Text.  The Bible does not claim to be a science textbook, and should not be used as such.  Even those of us whose science education doesn’t extend further than a couple of basic courses in high school know that Scripture’s descriptions of the way the world works are more figurative than accurate.  Galileo proved long ago that the sun does not revolve around the earth.  The Church did itself a disservice by maintaining that the Bible said it was the other way round.  Church leaders compounded the error by waiting until nearly the end of the twentieth century before stating that Galileo was right.
            Let us realize that scientific discoveries are God’s way of revealing to humankind how things work.  Science is not anti-Bible, even if some scientists take that stand.  The more we learn about science, the more we should realize how awesome God  is to have created a universe that works in such a wondrous, marvelous way.
            The Bible as History Text.  The Bible does not claim to be a history textbook either.  Other historical records show that the Bible is not entirely accurate in its description of events.  That was never its purpose.  The Bible was given to humankind to be a record of our relationship with God, not a record of humans’ time on earth.  Because we demand our historical records (such as newspaper stories) be as accurate as possible, let us rely on Scripture to tell us how we should live, and not how our societies developed.
             The Bible as Support of Ungodly Stands.  Krister Stendahl, the eminent Swedish theologian and New Testament scholar, said:  “The last racists in this country, should there ever be an end to such, will be those with Bible in hand.  There has never been an evil cause that has not been made more evil when it could use the Bible to support its arguments.” 

            We must be careful not to use Scripture to support positions which in any way denigrate any of God’s children.  Thank heaven we no longer burn heretics at the stake—although some religious extremists still insist on executing those who do not believe as they do.  Over the centuries since Christ walked this earth the Bible has been used to shore up some pretty un-Christlike beliefs.  Not only racism, but slavery, abuse of women, and many other inequalities have been supported by verses taken from Scripture.  Paul knew what he was saying when he insisted that there was no difference between people in God’s sight.  Men and women, Jews and Greeks, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, straights and gays—all are God’s children, and all are to be respected as such.  We have no right to demean those whom God has made.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Be Careful What You Sing

Be Careful What You Sing
Psalm 96
            We are frequently reminded to be careful what we say—and it’s a good reminder.  If you’re anything like me, you have a tendency to start your mouth before engaging your brain.  That can be dangerous.  I sometimes say things I wish I hadn’t.  If only I had thought before I opened my mouth, I would have been better off.  How much trouble—and anguish and sorrow—we would save ourselves if only we thought first and spoke second.
            It’s not speaking I’m concerned with today, but singing.  I believe we also suffer from the same lack of thought when we sing as when we speak.
            Professional performers don’t have to believe what they sing.  They just have to sing the song in a manner that convinces their audience that they believe—or they could believe—what they sing.  After all, audiences want to believe that the singer is sincere.  In theatre it’s called the “willing suspension of disbelief.”  The audience knows that the actor is not really who he says he is in the play, but, for the sake of being entertained, accepts the performer’s words as truth.  Professional singers are, after all, actors.
            When we sing in church, however, we’re not professionals.  When we sing as members of a congregation, we fulfill another role, and it has nothing to do with acting.  On these occasions we lift our hearts and voices to God.  Sometimes, as in Psalm 96, we raise our voices in praise of God’s power, and love, and glory.  We might find ourselves singing, “Praise my soul the God of Heaven, to God’s feet thy tribute bring” or “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation” or “When morning gilds the skies, my heart awaking cries, may Jesus Christ be praised.”  We might also express our praise with old favorites such as, “To God Be the Glory,” or “How Great Thou Art.”
            Sometimes our voices are lifted in prayer.  On such occasions we might sing “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” or “I Need Thee Every Hour,” or “Lord I Want to Be a Christian.”  At other times we find ourselves singing words of encouragement, such as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” or “Christians We Have Met to Worship,” or “He Lives.”   
            In each of these cases, it is assumed that we believe what we sing.  There’s no acting here, no pretending, no playing a part.  We are believers (isn’t that what we call ourselves?) expressing our deepest longings, our heartfelt praise, our sincerest thoughts.  Or are we? 
            Do we really mean what we sing?  Do we think about the words we’re saying?  Do these statements come from our hearts or are we thoughtlessly repeating words and melodies we’ve sung so many times that they’ve ceased to mean anything to us.  It’s easy to lose ourselves in familiarity, to become so accustomed to text and tune that we lose the freshness of sincere expression.
            I think we have to be especially careful with hymns of commitment.  When we sing “Have Thine Own Way, Lord,” do we mean it?  Are we really turning everything over to God?  Are we singing in complete surrender, or just mouthing familiar words?  If we mean what we sing won’t it make huge changes in our lives?  Are we ready for those changes, for the complete surrender to God’s will that these words imply?  What about “I Am Thine, O Lord,” or Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord, to Thee,” or Where He Leads Me I will Follow?’  Are we ready for such a commitment?
            What about “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus?”  Do we have the courage to go through with it, and can we with our whole hearts promise, “no turning back”—and keep that promise?

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Gardening: Getting Down and Dirty

Gardening:  Getting Down and Dirty
Mark 4:1-20
            There are two things we know about this Scripture.  We know this parable.  We’ve heard it preached many times.  We know how seed was sown then—by hand, with the sower reaching into a bag and scattering the seed by throwing it.  We know that wasn’t efficient because he couldn’t always control the direction of the seed or where it fell.  We know about the four kinds of soil.  We know three of the four kinds were not conducive to producing a crop. 
-The seed that fell on the dirt path, which had been packed down by the tramp of many feet, was eaten by birds. 
-The seed that fell on rocky ground couldn’t take root, so the plants withered and died.
            -The seed that fell among thorns and weeds had no room to grow, so the plants were choked off before they could produce fruit.
We know this parable so well that we don’t even need Jesus’ explanation to his disciples. In fact, we wonder why people living so close to the land couldn’t figure out the meaning.
            We know that Jesus wanted his listeners to understand that they were the soil.  They were to receive the words that Jesus spoke and in turn share them with others, thereby bearing fruit for God’s kingdom.  We also know that at different times in our lives we’ve probably been all four kinds of soil.  There have been times when our lives have borne fruit for God, but there have also been times when we’ve been hard hearted.  There have been times when we have been “good soil,” and times when the rocks of tribulation have gotten in the way of our being fruitful.  There have been times when we have been attentive to God’s call, and times when other interests choked off God’s words to us.
            The other thing we know about this Scripture has to do with gardening.  In this parable the sower is not the main character.  He only exists to move the story along.  The central “characters” are the four kinds of soil.  True, the story couldn’t get started without the sower, but once he scatters the seed, his part in the tale is over.  He goes home and lets nature take its course.
            That’s not the way a gardener works.  A person who is truly committed to gardening spends hours with the plants.  He/she prepares the soil to receive the seeds or young plants.  The ground has to be tilled, either by hand or by machine.  Rocks and other obstacles to growth must be removed.  Sometimes fertilizer must be added. 
Once the seeds or plants are in the ground the gardener’s work is not over.  Everything must be watered regularly.  Weeds spring up in places where they shouldn’t, and must be removed—not just once, but many times during the growing season.  Certain kinds of grass love to sneak under garden borders and invade plant beds.  It has been my experience that grass often won’t grow where you want it, but is prolific where you don’t want it.
            The fruit, whether ornamental flowers or food for the table, doesn’t grow by accident.  It must be cultivated, tended, cared for, watched over, and then, if everything works out, the garden produces thirty fold, or sixty fold, or a hundred fold.
            Gardening is hard work, and you can’t do it properly without getting down and dirty—getting down on your knees and getting your clothes and your hands dirty.  That’s the nature of gardening, and that’s the nature of working for God’s kingdom.  We have to spend time on our knees in prayer and in service.  We have to get our hands dirty with people and tasks that might not always be as clean as we would like.  But down and dirty we must get.

            How else are we going to bear fruit?