Sunday, April 24, 2016

A New Vision

A New Vision
Mark 1:14-15
            It seems to me we spend too much time and effort worrying and wondering about the end times.  The Book of Revelation may be fascinating, but it shouldn’t be our chief concern.  Confucius was right when he said, “When we do not yet know enough about life, why worry about death?”  What will happen when Christ returns and the world ends should not concern us anywhere near as much as doing what we can to improve the world here and now. 
            I’m afraid that one of the reasons we focus on Revelation and the end times is that we want those we don’t like or who don’t agree with our view of the world to suffer the punishments described in John’s vision.  We each have our own private list of those we can’t wait to see dropped screaming into the lake of fire.  Getting even is, unfortunately, a too-human desire, one that most of us haven’t been able to extinguish.
            Jesus certainly spoke often enough about what would happen to those who failed to live according to his teachings.  Once again I turn to Matthew 25:31-46 for a description of the fate of those who did not serve “the least of these.”  But Jesus, in his teaching, was much more concerned with the here and now.  Even in the abovementioned passage he spoke of the present actions that would lead to eternal reward or eternal separation from God.
            Jesus’ first words in Mark’s gospel are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”  The gospel—the good news.  Not the news of impending doom for the wicked (although that is included), but the good news of a new life.  Not the news of a life somewhere, sometime in the future, but one that could—shouldmust—begin now.  Not the news about a set of doctrines that one must adhere to in order to achieve that life, but the good news about a new way to live.  Not belief but action.
            Karl Barth, one of the great theologians of the twentieth century said, “The Church exists to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and which contradicts it in a way full of promise.” 
            The Church is not a social club.  It does not exist as a place where like-minded individuals can meet, exchange the secret password with each other, and feel smug about being better than—or at least different from—people on the outside.  The church is not a place of escape from the troubles of the world.  It is (as we often call it) a sanctuary, but it’s much more a place where we can receive strength to face those troubles and overcome them—not just strength for ourselves, but strength we can share with the truly hurting people around us.
            The church, Barth says, is a sign—a big neon sign that tells people, “Here is something different from what the world has to offer.  You don’t have to play by the world’s rules:  the rule that says ‘He who dies with the most toys wins;’ the rule that says, ‘If you don’t eat the other dog the other dog will eat you;’ the rule that says, ‘If it feels good, do it;’ the rule that says, ‘Get yours and don’t worry about the other guy—in fact get yours before the other guy gets yours.’”
            The church is “radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and…contradicts it in a way full of promise.”  If we are to be the church which represents the kingdom of God as it exists on earth we are—we must be—radically different from the world and its standards.  To the extent which we compromise with the world’s standards we fail in our attempt to exhibit the kingdom of God here on earth.

            And what is the promise?  Eternal life?  Eternal reward?  That’s good—but only if we let people know that the reward is for them as well; that the promise is theirs as much as ours; and that the kingdom of God is open to all who dare to live as Jesus lived.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Developing Character

Developing Character
Romans 5:3-5
            “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.  Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”
These are the words of Helen Keller.  Her story is familiar to us.  Born with the ability to see and hear, at nineteen months she suffered an illness that took away both senses.  When Helen was seven, Anne Sullivan, a former student at the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston (herself visually impaired), became her teacher, thus beginning a long and—for both of them— rewarding relationship.
If anyone understood trial, suffering and adversity, it was Helen Keller.  Because she contracted the illness at such a young age, she had virtually no language skills to rely on.  Nevertheless, she persisted in her attempts to learn, becoming the first deafblind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.  She went on to become a world famous lecturer and writer.  Her story is inspiring by any meaning of the word.
Keller was also a Christian, introduced to the religion by Phillips Brooks.  Less well-known is that she was also a member of the Socialist Party, a suffragette, and a pacifist—a rare combination then, and, in many parts of America, an even rarer combination today.
Because of her Christian faith, she would have been acquainted with Paul’s letters.  She must have, on more than one occasion, read his letter to the Romans, including the words of today’s Scripture.
“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Suffering to endurance to character to hope.  “Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened,” says Helen Keller—and we know the truth of these words.
Does this mean that God sends us suffering in order to toughen us up?  I don’t believe that.  I have a difficult time believing that anything but good gifts comes from God.  Does God allow trials and suffering to come our way?  I have trouble with this as well, although not as much as with the previous statement.  Perhaps God opens the door to let hard times in.  Perhaps God doesn’t open the door but doesn’t try to keep it shut either.  As Christians we do believe that God does not allow us to be faced with any temptation that we cannot resist—with God’s help, of course.
Regardless of the source of trials and suffering—and we will all face these over the course of our lives—there are two ways to react.  First, we can give up, give in, and surrender, allowing the hard times to overwhelm us.  Our other choice is to do what Helen Keller and Paul did:  rely on God’s love and strength to get us through.  If we take this path we will surely develop both endurance and character.  Furthermore, we will reach the place where God can use us to help others face and endure their own trials.

At the end of the road that begins with suffering we will find hope; not a wishy-washy kind of “I hope things will work out for me,” but a hope born of the character that our suffering has created.  This is the sure and certain hope that we will inherit the future that God has prepared for those who endure—like Paul.  Like Helen Keller.  Like me?  Like you?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Knowing When to Change

Knowing When to Change
Romans 12:2
            The opening song in the musical Fiddler on the Roof is entitled, ”Tradition.”  Tevye, the lead character, sings about the traditions that hold his little village of Anatevka together.  We are introduced to some of the townspeople, individually and in groups, and hear about the traditions that govern their lives.  By the end of the song we realize how important tradition is to these people.  Their lives are bounded by their traditions, and they are prepared to live out those lives with no changes.
            The remainder of the musical details the changes in Tevye’s life.  His three eldest daughters all marry, each one breaking a more important tradition than the one before.  At the end of the story even the tradition of place is broken, as Tevye and his family are forced to leave their home for America, while the three elder daughters are scattered with their families.
            While we may not hold tradition as sacred as the people of this tiny village, many of us are bound so strongly by our own traditions that we cannot see any reason for changing.  Others seem ready to throw out any and all traditions at the drop of a hat.  “Out with the old!  In with the new!” is their battle cry.  “Get rid of the fossils to make room for new ideas and ways of doing things.”
            What’s right?  Do we hold tightly to past ways of believing and acting, or do we greet change with open arms, ready to move forward into a brave new world?  The answer is—both. 
            John Foster Dulles said, “A capacity to change is indispensable.  Equally indispensable is the capacity to hold fast to that which is good.”  In other words, the problem is not whether to change or not, but to be able to discern which traditions are worth holding on to (in Dulles’s words, “that which is good”) and which to let go—what to keep and what to discard.
            John Baillie, in his book A Diary of Private Prayer, says it differently.  In one of his morning prayers he asks God to help him stand, “…for the conservation of the rich traditions of the past:  for the recognition of new workings of Thy Spirit in the minds of the [people] of my own time…”  One day later he prays, “Let not the past ever be so dear to me as to set a limit to the future.  Give me courage to change my mind, when that is needed.”   In other words:  “All-Wise God, help us to understand which traditions should be continued and which should be set aside because they are keeping us from spiritual growth.  Don’t let us be trapped in the short-sighted vision of one who is continually looking backward, but also help us not to throw the proverbial baby out with the proverbial bathwater.”
            In his letter to the Romans, Paul appeals to that Christian community to be “transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Paul is speaking specifically about giving up conformation to the world, which, for him (as for us) is diametrically opposed to the will of God, and the exact opposite of what is good, acceptable and perfect. 
            In most cases the things which we should give up are easy to spot.  If you need a reminder, check Galatians 5:19-21.  Here, as in other places in his letters, Paul lists those “traditions” of the world which we should discard. Most of them are easy to identify if not quite so easy to dispense with.

            It’s more difficult to give up what seems to be good and acceptable for what we know is perfect.  Sometimes attitudes and habits which have always seemed to be all right suddenly look less so in the new light God shines on our lives.  This is when tradition becomes a burden and an impairment to our spiritual journey.  This is when what was once the way we lived must be jettisoned to make room for new insights and new workings of the Spirit in our lives.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Spiritual Journey

The Spiritual Journey
The Gospel of Mark
            I am indebted to Dr. Mitzi Minor for this outline.  Several, several years ago, before I was even thinking about seminary and ministry, I attended a workshop session led by Dr. Minor.  She is an expert on the gospel of Mark.  This is the outline she presented that day.  I believe it could apply to any of the gospels, as well as those chapters of Acts (8:1-9:30, 13-28) which deal with the conversion and ministry of Paul.  I’ve chosen Mark because this is the work for which the outline was originally intended, and because, since it’s the shortest of the gospels, it can be read in one setting.  I suggest you take a couple of hours for this.  Read Mark in its entirety; then read the outline; then, with the outline in front of you, read Mark again, applying the outline to the gospel.  I think you’ll find it both interesting and rewarding.
The Stages of the Spiritual Journey
Everything seems fine…
            And then it doesn’t.
            There is a sense of disruption:  something “here” is lacking.
            We must go “there” to find it.
The Summons
            Someone is “called” to journey “there”…
            The pilgrim departs and is given spiritual aid for the journey.
The First Threshold
            A place, a moment, a circumstance suddenly communicates to the pilgrim
                        that the journey will not be easy.
            Hence the first awareness of the commitment required—will the pilgrim
                        journey on, or will (s)he turn back?
The Road of Trials
            If the pilgrim journeys on, (s)he will encounter joys and triumphs, but also
                        trials and challenges, for this road goes through wildernesses and
                        valleys darkened by the shadow of death.
Leading to the “Belly of the Whale”
            The journey leads the pilgrim to the farthest point of self-emptying,
                        To the “dark night of the soul;”
                        Into the “belly of the whale.”
The Return Journey
            When the pilgrim finds him/herself not dead but alive (reborn), when (s)he finds
                        that the self-emptying has led to the deepest self-confirmation, then (s)he
                        must return home to share the wisdom gained.
            I.e., the pilgrim must invite others to undertake the journey.

One final step:  how does this description fit your personal spiritual journey?  Where are you in this outline?