Sunday, June 21, 2020

Life in ABA Form

Life in ABA Form
Genesis 12:1-9
            Some time ago the person in charge of our high school Sunday school class purchased copies of a devotional book to use as the basis for her lessons.  The book is called OMG.  One day, passing through our church library, I spotted a stack of these books.  I’m always on the lookout for good devotional material for myself, and I’m still a teenager in many ways, so I took one.  The devotionals are short, interesting, and thought-provoking.  I can see how they would appeal to high school students.  For the past couple of months I’ve read one each day.
            A few days ago I came across one by Lillian Daniel entitled “Not Another Moving Day.”  As the daughter of a journalist, she moved with her family all around the world, especially in Asia.  “I didn’t get to live in my own country (U.S.A.) until I was in ninth grade.”
            I can sympathize.  My parents were ministers in a denomination whose leaders moved its pastors wherever they decided they would do the most good.  I never thought much about it because that was the way we lived. I knew no other way.  Many of my friends within the denomination were subject to the same lifestyle. 
            We were never moved out of the country, and I spent all of my scholastic life in New York State.   Still, I was always aware that I might end a school year in one place and begin the next in someplace completely different.  The only school I spent four years in was high school. 
            Daniel’s choice of Scripture passages (Genesis 12:1-9) resonates with me.  Abraham’s experience was hers—and mine.  In my own ministerial career I’ve developed a sermon based on this passage.  I call it, “But God Had Other Plans.”  In it I detail how my life was moving in one direction, and I thought I was all set, only to have God turn me in quite a different direction.  I’ve preached that sermon several times, every time I left one church and started in a new one.  Actually, I’ve preached it twice in each move:  once in the church I was leaving, and again in the church I was moving to.  At this point in my life, I hope I only preach it once more.
            Daniel and I both understand Abraham’s situation, and even more, that of his family.  We both know what it’s like to have someone say, “Start packing, we’re moving.”  Disappointment at leaving good friends and familiar territory?  Yes.”  Excitement about the new place?  Yes.  Fear and trepidation about the new place?  Definitely yes!
            Musicians label the different sections of a piece of music with capital letters.  The first section is A, the second section B, and so on.  If a section is repeated, we call it by the same letter we did before.  We refer to this system as the form of the piece.  One frequently used musical form is ABA.  Its roundedness offers a sense of completion.
            Daniel’s life might be described as being in AB form.  Once she reached maturity and had her own family, she stayed pretty much in one place.  Actually, she talks about one additional move in her adult life, so perhaps a better form would be ABC—an unusual form in music, but not uncommon in life.
            My life has followed a different form.  It began, of course, with A (moving frequently from place to place), followed by B, when I lived in the same city for thirty years, most of them in the same house.
            Shortly after I met my present wife we moved from that city.  For the next several years we returned to A, as we moved frequently.  We used to joke that if a truck pulled into our driveway, all our furniture walked out the door and onto the truck.
            Now we seem to have entered another B section.  For the past twenty-two years we have lived in the same area, most of them in the same house.  We expect the form of our lives to stop here (ABAB)—another unusual musical form, but one with which we are quite content in our lives.
            One thing we know:  just as God continually led Abraham and his family, and just as the church provided a stabilizing force for Daniel as she moved from place to place, so God has gone with me—now us—to each new place.  If God calls us to move, we will go, knowing that God will go with us, bless us, and use us no matter where God might place us.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Tattooed on God's Hand

Tattooed on God’s Hand
Isaiah 49:8-18
            No, Isaiah doesn’t use the word tattooed.  I first heard that word used in this passage by Dr. Christal Williams, the Regional Minister for the Tennessee Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  She was addressing the pastors of her region on Zoom during the early days of enforced separation due to the corona virus. 
            Dr. Williams wanted to assure us that we had not been forgotten.  It would be easy for us to assume we had been abandoned.  We were without our flocks.  When we went to our church buildings we found them silent, empty, even a bit frightening.  Who knows what might lurk there?  Perhaps there were some stray remnants of the virus, left over from the last time our people gathered. 
            Pastors enjoy silent time; we need it.  But this was too much—much too much silence, Much too much separation.
            In those early Zoom meetings we reached out to each other, almost desperate for contact, wanting to hear other voices, wanting to see friendly faces, wanting to know we were not as alone as we felt.
            We talked church.  Dr. Williams asked us what we were doing to keep our congregations together.  What were we doing to maintain our own physical health?  Our mental health?  Our spiritual health?  Did we need anything she could provide? 
            At the end of the conversation, Dr. Williams reminded us that we were tattooed on the palms of God’s hands—that we were tattooed on the palms of her hands.  We were not forgotten,  we were not alone, regardless of how we felt, no matter what we perceived our situation to be.
            What a blessing!  What a relief!  Not only were we not forgotten, we were indelibly engraved on the palms of God’s hands.  God knew our loneliness.  God knew our separation.  God—and Dr. Williams—could not possibly forget us.  We were a part of them.
            Israel was sure God had forgotten God’s people.  They had been conquered by Babylon.  Their temple and their holy city had been destroyed.  Their king had suffered the humiliation of defeat—taken captive, blinded—and would soon be put to death.  Their leading citizens—those who might cause trouble, who might lead a revolt—had been taken into captivity as well, exiled from the land they loved, the land God had promised them centuries—millennia—before.  What did they have to look forward to?  How could they exist, let alone prosper or find joy, living in a strange land, with a foreign language and unfamiliar customs?  They could only weep.
            But God had not forgotten Israel.  God could no more forget God’s people than a mother could turn her back on her nursing child.  In fact, a mother’s love and care would wane before God’s love and care would diminish.
            We are not living in exile, but we are moving through difficult times.  The enforced separation of several months, even though it is becoming less severe, has left its mark on us, and continues to mark us.  The economy, which had been humming along comfortably is now in free fall.  Unemployment has reached unprecedented heights.  The frustration of a great part of our population has finally reached the breaking point over the murders of citizens by the people sworn to protect them.  The leadership of the country is increasingly ineffective.  What can we do?  Where can we turn?  Where is our help?
            God says, “See, I have tattooed you on the palms of my hands.  You are a permanent part of me.  I will not forget you.  I’m here for you.  Come to me for rest and reassurance.”

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Living in the World

Living in the World
Jeremiah 29:1-7
            Since its inception Christianity has struggled in its relationship with culture.  Do we participate in what is going on in the world around us?  If we do, how much?  In which areas?  Do we accommodate Christianity to the culture in which we live, or do we seek to change culture to reflect Christian ideals? 
            In his book Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr presents three ways Christians have tried to solve this dilemma:  1) Christ against culture; 2) the Christ of culture; and 3) Christ above culture.  He finds problems with all three approaches. 
            Just by naming the approaches we can see that all three are unsatisfactory answers.  Christians must live in the world.  We cannot separate ourselves from it.  Those who choose a monastic life still must interact with the world at some time and in some ways.
            Nor can we accommodate our Christian beliefs to the beliefs of culture—any culture.  There are aspects of culture against which we must stand.  No amount of theological gymnastics will produce a solution that will please both the world and any meaningful definition of Christianity.
            If we accept that we must live in a specific culture, and that we cannot divorce ourselves completely from that culture, which aspects of culture do we adopt, and which ones do we avoid?  To a great extent, this must be an individual decision. 
            Do we join the military forces of our country or do we refuse to take up arms?  If we refuse to fight, do we agree to serve in a non-combatant role?
            Do we participate in the political process? Do we run for office?  Do we vote?
            Do we purchase things we feel we need, or do we become totally self-sufficient?  How far can we lower our standard of living before it produces discomfort?  How much discomfort can we live with?   
            Do we make use of the education provided by public and private schools, or do we educate our children at home?  If we chose home schooling do we take advantage of curricula developed for that purpose or do we teach only what we see fit to teach in the manner we believe it should be taught?
            I realize I am just touching the surface here, but it is an attempt to begin a discussion of the issues, some of which have been with us since Christianity’s inception.
            God, through Jeremiah, gives a partial answer.  God’s people were to live in the Babylonian culture as they would at home.  Marry.  Have families.  Plant gardens and eat the food from them.  Above all, seek the welfare of the culture, for that is where they will find their welfare.  God did not instruct them to desert their religion.  Far from it.  They were to remember YHWH and follow YHWH’s commandments—but within the culture where they found themselves.  They must live as normal a life as possible while maintaining their relationship with the God of their ancestors.
            Karl Barth, the great twentieth century theologian proposed another solution.  He said, “A Christian must stand with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”
            We can’t forget God’s instructions as to how we should live.  We dare not forget the situations that exist around us or the problems that cause suffering in the culture in which we exist.  Rather, we should seek to transform our culture in ways that conform to the words Christ has left with us, in order to help bring the kingdom of God to earth.