Simple Response

So, I have been quiet on social media and on my blog lately. There are many reasons for that silence, but one of the largest has been a sense of being overwhelmed by the sorrow of living in the world.

I am raising three daughters and I am married to a woman who has not always had the best experience with the decidedly patriarchal society in which we live. It is not my story to tell, but she has received comments about having children which occasionally make them seem like they are burdens instead of blessings. I have received those comments as well. It can be heartbreaking to have someone categorize a child as a burden.

I have often wondered if people would make the same comments to my wife and I if I had three sons instead of three daughters. I love my daughters, even when they are difficult. I do not live in an age when I have to start saving up for a dowry to pay for someone to take them in. I live in an age where they will be a blessing to anyone who is lucky enough to allow them the honor of their partnership.

Still, it is a weary process to be a father in a culture which is so patriarchal. Do I benefit from the patriarchy? Yes, but I want my kids to have a bright future where they are treated with equity and fraternity (Aside: I do not mean fraternity as in “a group of men with a common purpose,” but “the state or feeling of friendship and mutual support within a group.” Unfortunately, the original word comes from Latin and Latin has no wonderful gender-neutral possibility and sorority never really gained the same meaning in popular understanding (i.e., French Motto “Liberty, equality, fraternity!”)… Language fails me in this case, as “siblinghood” does not have the same meaning either). I want that world for all of our children.

One quote that has been circling through several parts of my thoughts comes from the 1984 edition of “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” by Benedicta Ward. In particular, I have this saying from the collection surrounding Abba Anthony hanging in my shower. The section goes:

Abba Pambo asked Abba Anthony, ‘What ought I to do?’ and the old man said to him, ‘Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past, but control your tongue and your stomach.’

 

The quote sticks out to me on deep levels.

I am not righteous enough to take on this battle through my own goodness. I have made mistakes, I have benefited in ways I have yet to recognize, I will likely struggle to deny those benefits when I see them, and I am frankly not Jesus Christ. The world has a Savior and there is no need to pretend that it needs me to be another. My trust does not belong in my own holiness or in my own strength.

I also live in a place where I cannot constantly dwell on the past. While there is room for reconciliation, for recompense, and for restoration, to live only in the past has the potential to swallow me up in the knowledge of my own weakness, my own frailties, and my own brokenness. There is a difference between being mindful and living in worry.

In addition, living in the past sometimes cripples my ability to be an asset to the present and the future. If one lives in the past, it is difficult to be present in the now. There needs to be a balance between understanding the ramifications of the past on the present, mourning the injustice of the past, accepting our own limitations, and avoiding obsessive worry about the past.

Finally, it is good to control both tongue and stomach. If the tongue is where the words of my soul enter into the world, it is a good analogy for all I do to affect the world. In controlling my lips, I gain the self-control to control my fists, my feet, and even my thoughts.

If the stomach is the place I take things into in order to find life (or death), then the call to control my stomach is the call to mind my appetites in all senses. Guard your teeth, guard your ears, guard your eyes, and guard your soul.

So, how do I react to all of this stuff going on in the world? I remember it is my job to be a part of the long arc of history towards justice. I remember what has gone by, honor it, but do not let it cripple my present advocacy for justice or my efforts to seek a more just future for our world. I control what comes out of me and seek to fill myself with what is good in holy moderation.

In the meantime, keep the faith friends.

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Patriarchy is pleasant for me, but this one, like all awesome children of God, deserves better than to be looked down on her whole life because of her gender.

Sermon: “Dear Sophia”

Dear “Sophia,”

Blessings to you, Wisdom personified in the name of God! For the last few weeks, we have been looking into your book during worship. We have pondered your calling on the streets, considered the powerful reminders you share to seek your face before calamity strikes, and have thought through some bits of your advice.

I wanted to write to you today because we’re dealing with one of the most powerful passages in Proverbs. We’ve been reading through the 31st chapter and this is a strange passage to consider, especially given all of the conversations around sexuality and womanhood in our culture as of late. Between conversations around the #MeToo movement and conversations around current events in the news, this is a weird time for Proverbs 31 to come around in the lectionary. I might not have chosen it on my own.

There is a challenge in approaching almost any scripture passage because the scriptures were written down long ago. We come to ancient passages and need to ponder their meaning both in context of their origins and our present. The challenge we face is that scripture is often interpreted based on our own perspective. On one hand, these words of Proverbs have created a vivid image of strength that has brought comfort to many people over time.

Interestingly, the passage speaks of a woman who does not find her value in ornamentation or in sensuality. The woman described is one who works hard and is appreciated by her husband. She is prudent and wise in many ways. She is charitable with what she has when she sees someone in need. She does not dismiss her handiwork as junk, but finds value in the work of her fingers. She is confident, strong, and dignified. Her family and her children see her worth.

For someone who sees this goal as an achievable one, this is an image of comfort. Some might say “If I am prudent and wise then I can be like that woman in Proverbs.” Some might consider the skill of their hands, the appreciation of their mate, or even their practicality as signposts of their similarity to the image found in scripture. That can be really comforting coming from that perspective, but let’s be clear. There’s almost always more than one perspective even when we read scripture.

Sophia, let’s be real for a moment. This is one image of femininity, but it also isn’t the only image of femininity. As much as I appreciate your wisdom, there are times when I look at what you say and question where you’re coming from in your words.

I understand that even these words in scripture come from a place of a particular context and cultural placement, but some of the advice you share occasionally just seems like bad advice. Just a few verses before this passage you encourage the wisdom one should have to “Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more.”

Seriously Sophia?

I appreciate a lot of your wisdom, but there’s something dreadfully naive at times in the ways in which people read these passages. They see this image of a talented industrious woman in the scriptures and then look into the mirror. They don’t always like what they see in the mirror and sometimes the very words your scriptures express can cause real harm. Sometimes the words of others from the past or the present can cause similar harm.

Sophia, my job is to share wisdom around these words today. How am I to share these words with someone who has lost control over their fingers? If a person cannot knit, or stitch, or even control shaking due to accident or illness, are they not as capable as this woman? You praise the generosity of this woman, but your own words can cause real harm sometimes. I have seen beloved children of God struggle with Parkinson’s disease and lose control. I have seen beloved children of God with neurological conditions that precluded learning to control their fingers with such dexterity. Sophia, these words can hurt.

What do I say when their fingers are capable, but they have other hurdles to face in their lives? Do I say that mental illness, language barriers, or even just their God-given personality is unfortunately a barrier? Are capable women always this successful or is there room for the refugee and the immigrant to live God-fearing lives? Is a woman less capable because she is born to a people under oppression?

What’s more, what do I say to address the capable woman who can have no children and is left by her partner? What do I say to the women who work long and hard to cultivate this personality only to never find a partner? Are they any less in the eyes of God? Are they any less in your estimation?

Now, I know that your words record the words of another. At the beginning of this chapter, these words are attributed to a king who was trying to teach his son the wisdom his mother once taught him. In many ways, the good king is trying to advise a son on how to choose a good partner. I understand that culturally, the words that are being used would have probably been good advice, but those days are not these days. People take these words to heart and at times it hurts them and drives them to tears.

Sophia, if I might interject on behalf of the women I know who I have seen hurt by these words. What’s more, if I might interject on behalf of all people who struggle with these words.

The woman you describe is someone who has confidence in herself. She sees that the work of her hands have value and does not let the world demean her. She believes in herself. You don’t have to weave garments to find pride in what you do. If God has made you a baker, you bake your heart out! If God has made you a singer, then sing with gusto. If God has made you a great listener, then share your gift with those you love. No matter what gift God has given you, believe in yourself and understand that you have been entrusted with a gifting because you matter.

The woman you describe has a healthy relationship with someone who does not take her for granted. Many people would love to have a healthy relationship like the one described, but sometimes things happen that go beyond our control. We act trustworthy but those we love cannot trust. We act lovingly but the ones we love cannot express love. If the intention here is to express that worthiness comes from the love of a partner, then I have to disagree. Too many people have looked in the mirror and seen bruises. “If I just try harder, then they won’t hurt me.”

Real value does not rest in the appreciation of others. Real value requires a level of respect that we see challenged regularly and rightly by things like the #MeToo movement. It might feel nice to be appreciated, but ultimately our sense of value and worth cannot rest solely on another human being. Occasionally our sense of value requires us to speak out against those who would take advantage of us or keep us silent in the face of past transgressions.

Sophia, the woman you describe is strong both in character and in body. She works hard and is never idle. Some of the strongest women I know have spent years with walkers, wheelchairs, and canes. They are worth no less than someone who can curl a full skein of heavy wool. Value lies in the reality of the person who bears the image of God throughout all of the seasons of their life.

Sophia, I do not wish to dismiss those who find value in your words. I know that there are many folks who do find value and praise God that your words inspire and uplift them. May they remain uplifted! I just wish the people of God to know that their value does not rest on one image of femininity. Folks who bear up life with integrity, respect their own worth, and seek value in right relationship–they all have value in the eyes of the God I know, no matter what gender they claim.

Sophia, as I seek to enter into prayer with the people of God, I hope you hear and understand my respect for you and your words. May your wisdom dwell within us all as we pray, as we go forward, and go out into the world.

Truly,

Rev. R

Let us Ramble: Music, Veggie Pulp, and Rice

It is Monday morning at the Maine Federated Church. My normally quiet office is filled with the distant beeping of an alert as we have a low battery somewhere in the dark halls of the church. Earlier I was listening to classical music from my favorite philharmonic orchestra (London Philharmonic Orchestra). I was hoping it would be just loud enough to drown out the methodical beeping.

In time the note started to bother me despite the music. I found a chromatic tuner, sat patiently, and learned that the alarm was only slightly off from being a B♭, although it was annoyingly a little sharp and thus out of tune with the music scales. I went on a hunt, loaded up Boccherini’s Streichquartett no. 2 in G minor, opus 27 so that the note would be only slightly out of tune instead of wildly discordant.

Such things may seem strange, but they are part of a fairly normal Monday morning when my energy is low and I need simplicity for my soul’s sake. Sunday is exhausting for me as a minister. I pour my heart and soul into preparing for worship. After I spend my time talking with folks who are loved by God. I try to remember all of the names of people who matter to them, all of the history I know of their lives, and do my very best to be a loving and encouraging person. As someone who increasingly enjoys spending time in secluded peaceful spaces, that effort exhausts me in deep ways.

Monday is about sermon and worship prep for me. I read, I study, I pray, and I seek to get a head start on the week ahead, because you never know when something will happen which will require a few days of concentrated effort. Emergency room visits, deaths, and other life concerns cannot be scheduled. Monday is a time to make certain most of my ducks are in a row, even if that row usually requires a few days to straighten out.

In a lot of ways, as a pastor, Monday for me is about resetting the rhythm from one week to the next, which is something close to what other folks hopefully experience on Sunday mornings. I give thanks for what has happened, pray for guidance for the week ahead, and prepare for meetings, sermons, and even for the prayers I will share in the week ahead. For me, these rhythms of gratitude, prayer, and study are acts of worship.

Let me give a concrete simile. Life on Monday for me is like what is currently cooking in my rice cooker. For breakfast this morning I made smoothies for my family. I juiced carrots, a tomato, and a lot of spinach leaves. I took the juice and mixed in some homemade yogurt. We had a cup and a half of goodness each to start our day.

After my wife went to work, I started to clean things up. I grabbed the juicer pulp of carrot, spinach, and tomato. I scraped it into our smart rice cooker. I added some dried peppers, water, and dehydrated beef broth. I left the pulp cooking away for a few hours. When lunchtime approached, I added a bit more water, some homemade curry powder, and some wild rice.

Now, after a morning of working on worship preparation, lunchtime is approaching, and I will set the table with what is effectively vegetable porridge with rice. Nothing special was added to the pot. I worked with some dried spices, dried broth, dried rice, and leftover vegetable pulp. I simply used what was on hand, but in a short while I will enjoy something life-giving which will hopefully allow me to be a blessing to others.

On Mondays, I scrape out the bits of me that are filled with worry and doubt. I remove the parts and pieces which are covered with gunk and I clean them out. I wash away my irritation with playing the wrong notes on guitar, pick out the bits of me that went to bed wondering if I did well, and I prepare my heart and soul for another week of service. This week I may need to be ready to bring life into conversations around death, bring hope into places where people feel hopeless, and proclaim the gospel with and without words. I cannot do that if I am living in doubt or frustration about things that nobody will remember and nobody will care about in a week, a month, or a year.

On Mondays, I start to look around for what will be needed. I have an appointment this week on Tuesday that will require my heart to be open to listen, to advise, and to care. I have to search the cupboards of my being for my compassion and make certain it is ready to be used. I have (another!) sermon coming up this week and it takes more than time with a commentary to really engage the text with God’s beloved. Today is the day when I get my head into the scriptures, into the plans, and see if all will still be well with what I planned weeks ago. This is the day when I pull together what lifegiving bits of my heart and soul are still healthy and begin to simmer them with the spices of the week. In particular, today I am thinking with joy about sending kids to camp yesterday and mixing that in with a hope for people I will be in ministry with this next week. It should be a great week.

In truth, this is the day upon which a lot of my ministry rests. How does one survive in pastoral ministry for more than a decade with ups and downs? Monday morning is part of how I live into the rhythm of pastoral ministry. As the string quartet hums along with the slowly repeating beeping noise, I find space and energy in the silence to prepare for what is coming and where I will need to go. As such, today is not about making appointments. Today my appointment is with my God and my heart so that I can go about living out ministry throughout the rest of week.

I hope that you find a place of peace today as you go about your life. If you cannot find peace today, I invite you to consider that Sabbath is not entirely about one day a week. Sabbath is also about finding moments to focus on what is truly important. May you find life and love in your silences, your companionships, or whatever feeds your soul this day.

Rob’s Veggie Rice Bowl
(makes enough for several lunches for 3-4 hungry folks)

Okay, so it could be more photogenic, but you don’t know what you are missing until you taste the creaminess of the veggie pulp alongside the nuttiness of wild rice. Also, I really do recommend a dollop of butter!

3 cups Veggie Pulp
1 quart & 1 cup water, divided
1.5 TBSP Dehydrated Beef Broth
⅛ cup Dried peppers
1 cup Wild Rice
2 teaspoons curry powder (I smoked mine with a cold smoker to add flavor)

Combine pulp, one quart of water, dehydrated beef broth, and peppers in a slow cooker, fuzzy logic rice cooker, or an oven proof bowl. Cook for three hours on a low setting (or in an oven at 190℉). Place into rice cooker and cook with the brown rice setting along with water and curry powder. Stir and cook on brown rice setting. Serve warm with a dollop of butter!

Let us Ramble: Prejudice and Wisdom

When I was a young boy I visited with my relatives down south in Georgia. My grandfather’s sisters lived in a small town where they spent their days in a house that was quite large and quite ornate. I wondered at the house, the railroad tracks that ran past the front yard, and the massive properties on the side of the tracks on which they lived. As a kid I was more interested and terrified of fire ants than I was of the social situation, but even I noticed that the people who helped my grandfather’s sisters maintain the property came from the smaller homes on the other side of the railroad tracks. As an adult, it took me forever to realize that they looked different too.

I do remember hearing negative things. When things went missing it was never because they were misplaced. The “help” had taken them. Even when those things were found, it was still the fault of the people who came to help the two elderly women in their home. I realize now that there was a world of things going on behind the scenes. There were likely issues of race, prejudice, class, and economics at play. There were also questions of grief as two women lost the ability to control first their bodies and then their minds. I don’t excuse the behavior, but I did have the seeds of my first nightmares about Alzheimer’s disease in those days.

As an adult who is now removed nearly three decades from those events, I do not blame myself for having neither the wisdom nor the education to ask questions. What small child really knows enough to ask those questions? Furthermore, would my proper southern relatives have even taken me seriously? I do my best to act with the wisdom gained in my day to day life now, which is where this post originates.

I identify as a millennial but I am not a young adult. I have three children who I am raising to the best of my ability. I pay my taxes, dutifully pay off massive student loans, and understand that I cannot be bailed out of every challenge by my father. I do my best to be a constructive part of society. I also listen to a lot of complaints about millennials.

Perhaps it is my sensitivity to hearing people complain about my generation that caused me to notice something I found disrespectful the other day. Several folks that I know shared a couple of memes suggesting that eighteen year old students are spoiled. One or two of the folks pointed out that eighteen year old kids used to charge the beaches of Normandy and other folks pointed out that eighteen year olds used to serve in Vietnam. They proceeded to mock eighteen year old kids as being spoiled.

It begged a question in my mind. Who do they think serves in the Armed Forces today? Who do they believe are recovering from wounds from IEDs in hospitals and clinics or leaving children without parents after ambushes? What’s more, when they come to an age where they need care to live out the end of their lives, who do they believe will be the doctors or nurses? Who do they believe will care for the needs of their property? Who will teach their children? Who will serve in the fire departments, police forces, and even on road crews when they are no longer capable?

To me it was mind boggling. I remember my relatives saying that my grandfather’s sisters did not understand what they were saying about other people. I also remember a few choice moments when the generation who raised me made a few choice comments that were not so gracious. For all of the criticism of the people who came before, my own family has struggled to leave behind the bad habit of criticizing others for being different, whether that be in terms of race, age, ability, or education.

The memes gave me pause because it seemed as if another generation had been raised up to sit on their lawn and insult other people for having the audacity to live life differently than they once lived. What’s worse, I am almost certain that somewhere in my life I do the same thing. I might even be doing it now.

So, let me apologize for those moments when I forget the lessons I learned from the mistakes and missteps of my ancestors. Let me apologize for people who do not see what they are doing in their attempt to be funny, opinionated, or simply a part of a disastrous movement who wants to disenfranchise as many people as necessary to maintain the way things have always been. Let me apologize for the things that I will miss in my own heart and my own actions. Please forgive me.

Eighteen year old soldiers, students, and human beings… You have my respect. Please, live a life that is incredible and help me to live a great one as well.

Let us Ramble: Tradition, Worldview, and Action

Today I wanted to continue the discussion around the three worlds involved in any reading of scripture. The world inspiring the text, the world we live in, and the world within the text work together to birth something within us. Our everyday life is inherited from the world which inspired the creation of our scriptures and eventually delivered to us our scriptures through faithful transmission from generation to generation. As we open our scriptures, we find ourselves engaging in a conversation between author and reader which has happened before and will happen again.

So, what do we do with that conversation? Do we allow the Jesus of the scriptures to speak with us? Do we allow that Jesus to inform our actions and challenge our own world?

Another layer to this conversation comes into play when we consider the fact that each of us either consciously or subconsciously allow our tradition to enter into conversation. Perhaps we focus on a particular passage like Micah 6:8 or read our scripture through the lens of our culture. All of us come to scripture with some tradition, even if that tradition is so ingrained that it never reaches our consciousness.

I think that the theologian and Biblical scholar George Pixley puts it well in the opening chapter of “Resistance: The New Role of Progressive Christians. Pixley wrote: (5)

“Tradition is present everywhere, and apart from it there could be no shared life. Everyone comes into a community that has beliefs and practices shaped by its history; and all assimilate many of them before being in a position to evaluate them. Everyone engages in some process of selection from other traditions. This process is shaped by what makes sense and by personal and collective experience.”

Regardless of any opinions about Rev. Pixley’s theology, it is hard to argue that he puts the matter quite succinctly. Our engagement with scripture is affected by our relationship with the world around us. A simple conversation with a variety of people including survivors of abuse at the hands of an angry father will reveal that the very conception of God as a male parent can be wildly reassuring in the context of one person and incredibly disconcerting in the experience of another person.

So, to summarize: The scriptures we read come to us from a history we can never visit nor completely verify, are read through the lens of a tradition that can affect the way we read them without our knowledge, and ultimately we are the ones who decide what course we will chart in our journey of faith. Will there be prevailing wind and waves? Of course, but ultimately we are each handed the tiller on the boat of life.

For me, this reality begs a question. What we do with all of this? How do we plot a course through the maelstrom of life? I truly believe that each person must make their own choice, but my own journey has put a priority on observing, emulating, and engaging in a dialogue (through my actions) with the faithful of the past. By living into a course of faithfulness as taught to me through both living saints and the records of those from the past, I find a course that I can plot through all of the winds, waves, and eddies of life.

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We all need guidance now and again!

A great example of what I mean can be found in the scriptures. Consider the viewpoint expressed by the Apostle Paul in the fourth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Paul lived in an age when the church was not fully established, had many places where it needed to grow, and was struggling with conflicts and questions. In other words, the church had a lot in common with modern ministry. Whether we are reforming a challenged faith in the 21st century or establishing a minority religion in the 1st century, I see a lot of similarities in the challenges faced both then and now, although there clearly are differences.

Paul, a leader in those chaotic times, set an example on how to live into ministry. I find Paul’s ministry to be particularly fitting as I am continually coming to understand that ministry is quickly changing from the context of those who brought me into the ministry to a ministry that is unlike any that has come before in the history of the church. Looking at the example of Paul helps me to find a path, because life is clearly difficult at times. We need to find a new way, a new path, and remain faithful to those who have come before us. Paul wrote the following in 1 Corinthians 4:12-13: “When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.”

These words help me to find compass points for my own journey. These words (which tie into my understanding of passages like the beatitudes) help me to go on a journey from where I am to where I need to be as a person of faith in a leadership position. Paul did not see to domineer in his ministry, so I follow Paul’s example in not seeking domination within the church. If Paul could envision a world where the minister was not a dictator, then I can seek to live into a ministry focused on similar principles.

What are your touchstones for life? Do you find foci within the scriptures or do you set your course by other sources?

Let us Ramble: Within the Text

During this past Sunday’s sermon I referenced the book “Cadences of Home: Preaching among Exiles.” Written by Walter Brueggemann, “Cadences of Home” does an excellent job at delving into the work of the ministry of preaching. In particular, I referenced the chapter “Rhetoric and Community.”

In that chapter, Brueggemann delves into concepts explored by the French Philosopher Paul Ricouer. In particular, Brueggemann explores the application of Ricouer’s conceptions to the scripture. To summarize that work (with a hearty encouragement to read the entire book), Brueggemann argues that any passage might be seen as an interaction between three worlds.

The first world is the world where the events described in the passage took place. This physical world had people walking around and interacting. In considering gospel passages, this is the world in which Jesus walked, talked, and preached.

The second world is the world in which we live. As people, we read books, walk around, have conversations, and live out our lives. This world is the world in which we act, live, and have our being. This world will be the world of the future’s past and is the future of the past. This is the world of the present.

The third world is the world within the passage. The world is one which is described within the stories of scripture. While it is the inspired word of God, it is also the world described by the authors of the texts. The words are often challenging, purposeful, and occasionally reference other texts and stories which we no longer have access to in our own libraries.

Unfortunately, the world described in the text is the only one of the other worlds which can interact with the present. Unless we invent a means of either time travel or the means to travel far faster than the reflected light headed out into space, we will never see the world of the far past. We can observe remnants and artifacts of the past, but not the events. Without divine blessing, technological innovation, or something beyond our current comprehension, we will never experience the days described in scripture.

I rehash this bit of scholarship from Sunday’s sermon for a reason. I reference it because this morning I was reading a different book by a different author which works hand in hand with this passage. I was reading Robert Alter’s “The Art of Biblical Narrative.” Alter is a large proponent of paying attention to the texts of scripture. Indeed, Alter writes (37) “All of these narratives are presented as history, that is, as things that really happened and that have some significant consequence for human or Israelite destiny.” For the record, Alter immediately points out Job is an exception to this rule. It should also be noted that Alter’s work focuses on the Hebrew Bible.

What is interesting about this concept of the Hebrew scriptures being presented as history is that there are a lot of details about the stories of scripture that are presented as history, but which had no witness at the time of the authorship of these stories. Alter points out that there is a “tension between the divine plan and the disorderly character of actual historical events…” (37).

Alter refers to a lot of this presentation not as a form of historiography accounting for the events of the past as a form of intensely accurate chronicle of events. Rather, the scriptures are written in the eyes of Alter with a purpose. Speaking on the author of David’s story: (40)

“…these stories are not, strictly speaking, historiography, but rather the imaginative reenactment of history by a gifted writer who organizes his materials along certain thematic biases and according to his own remarkable intuition of the psychology of the characters. He feels entirely free, one should remember, to invent interior monologue for his characters; to ascribe feeling, intention or motive to them when he chooses; to supply verbatim dialogue (and he is one of literature’s masters of dialogue) for occasions when no one but the actors themselves could have had knowledge of exactly what was said. The author of the David stories stands in basically the same relation to Israelite history as Shakespeare stands to English history in his history plays.”

Alter goes on to describe how Shakespeare wrote beautifully and powerfully on historical events as a form of dramatic expression. Scripture itself creates a world in which something powerful is expressed. I believe that even if God were to divinely inspire every word and every translation of scripture, we should still pay attention to the world in the text as described by individuals like Brueggemann and Alter.

As readers of scripture, we should spend time within the world created in our texts and in the purposes behind the description of that world because that is the world we can still interact with as a people. We may never see the Sermon on the Mount preached by Jesus, but we can still interact with the Sermon as recorded by the gospels. We may never meet Paul before the day of resurrection or our own journey to that other shore, but we may interact with the concepts presented through his letters. We may never interact perfectly with the world that once was the present, but the world described in our holy texts can still be powerfully a part of our lives.

As time permits I hope to delve deeper into how the texts we read call us into a world influenced by this third world explored by this “rhetorical criticism” which is found within the scriptures, but for tonight, I invite you to ask a simple question. How does the world within the scriptures influence your personal life?

Sermon: “On Goliath, then and now”

Sermon: “On Goliath, then and now”
Date: June 24, 2018
Scripture: 1 Samuel 17:1, 4-11, 19-23, 32-49
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Note: This is the manuscript that I am preaching on today. There’s always space for unexpected leadings of the Spirit. In other words, I often wander off script.

Once upon a time, there were three bored kids on summer vacation. They look all around and all they could find to play with was a single quarter. One of the kids started flipping the quarter.

“You know,” she said, “every time I flip this coin it lands on heads.” She flipped the coin three times and it landed on heads all three times. The second kid asked for the quarter, looked at it, and said “I bet every time I flip it, it will land on tails.” The coin was flipped three times and, wouldn’t you know it, it landed on tails all three times.

The third kid asked for the coin. He looked at it long and hard. He weighed it in he hand, flipped it around in his hand a bit, and made up his mind. “You know, “ the third child said, “it might seem funny, but I think I just made twenty-five cents,” put the coin in his pocket and walked off. Somewhere, their parents’ hair grew a little grayer as the arguing began.

Of course, that story is meant as a joke, but I tell it for a very serious reason. Three kids each looked at the same coin. Two of the kids saw that there were only two possibilities. They were bored, and the coin would land on heads or tails every time. The coin was a distraction on a boring day. The third child saw the coin and saw twenty-five cents. The way they viewed the coin changed the way they acted with the coin. Their outlook affected the way they acted.

As funny as our story was meant to be, it gives us a way into a very common fact of life. The way we interact with the world is affected by the way that we see it. One bad experience with a dog can make you less than thrilled with the idea of meeting a new dog. The words your parents used in your youth to describe your neighbors can affect the way you see them and their children today. We are affected by our worldview and our worldview has an effect on how we read scriptures.

Let me ask a simple question every Christian should ask now and again. How does your outlook on life affect the way you read the scriptures? How does the way you read scripture affect the way you look at life? The assumption of church is often that the scriptures affect the way we live, but do we ever stop to look at how our lives affect the way we read those scriptures?

Let’s take today’s reading as example. Most of us who are a certain age or older have an image of this story, the story of David and Goliath. The image was put in place when we were young by stories in Sunday school and church camp. For me, the image I grew up with was a giant man who was just covered in muscles. The Israelites were afraid of Goliath because Goliath was tremendous. In honesty, David did not stand a chance against the Goliath in my mind’s eye. Goliath was big, strong, and powerful. David was just the youngest child of a large family and didn’t stand a chance. David’s place was where he was as the story begins. David was sent to deliver cheese, because how much trouble can a small kid get into with cheese?

The image I took away from the story was one of David overcoming tremendous odds. What’s strange is that the scriptures themselves do not really line up with that image. At least, they don’t line up when you pay close attention to the science behind the story.

The tallest man alive, according to the Guinness Book of World Records is Sultan Kösen (K-ay-sen). He was, when measured in 2011, eight foot, 2.8 inches tall. The man named Goliath described in our scriptures had nearly a foot and a half on Mr. Kösen. He was really, really tall. Now what makes that interesting, is that every inch of Goliath has weight. There are several formulas used to calculate the proper weight of an individual by height, but assuming that Goliath was 25, Goliath should have weighed:

If based on the Robinson formula (1983), the ideal weight is 353.4 lbs
If based on the Miller formula (1983), the ideal weight is 301.1 lbs
If based on the Devine formula (1974), the ideal weight is 399.3 lbs
If based on the Hamwi formula (1964), the ideal weight is 445.1 lbs
All of this means, based on one healthy BMI recommendation, his recommended weight is 360.2 lbs – 486.8 lbs.

Think about that for a moment. Assuming the lowest ideal body weight, the body weight which would have the most muscle with the least fat, Goliath would have weighed more than 300 pounds, been carrying over 150 pounds of armor, had likely more than 20 pounds of weaponry with just his spear, and that isn’t counting other clothes, his leg-guards, his helmet, his javelin, or even his shield, provided his shield-bearer wasn’t carrying it, which seems likely as a shield would have really helped when David started launching stones.

What’s more interesting is when we apply another formula from modern science to the breastplate which Goliath wears. A study by the American Association of Physics Teachers suggested a surprising conclusion when studying backpacking individuals who carry large backpacks over a period of time. Let’s be clear, the weight would be carried on the back instead of the front in a backpacking situation, but the challenge of Goliath did take place over several days.

According to the article in “The Physics Teacher” entitled “Backpack Weight and the Scaling of the Human Frame” by Michael O’Shea, there’s a revelation about a common misconception. The misconception is this: one imagines that a larger person can carry more weight comfortably than a smaller individual. When a person at 220 pounds looks at a healthy individual whose Body Mass Index (their BMI) is not overweight, one would expect that they could carry more than a healthy individual with the same BMI who weighed only 132 pounds.

Unfortunately, the science of our assumptions do not add up. O’Shea studied people on intensive hiking trips for over twenty years and found that the 132 pound students on his trips tended to have an easier time carrying the weight than the healthy larger individuals who went into the woods. When he did the science, which I will not repeat here, he found that the weight of the individuals did not correlate with the amount they could carry. A person with significantly more musculature at 220 pounds than a person who weighed only 132 pounds struggled significantly with the same weight in their backpack.

You might ask how that could be. They have another 88 pounds which is composed primarily of muscle. How could they struggle to carry the same weight backpack as someone nearly two-thirds their size? The study showed that the extra musculature carried by the more heavily muscled individual decreased the amount they could comfortably carry and manage because the weight of their very muscles acted against them.

What does this have to do with Goliath? Goliath has people who can carry his armor for him, right? Consider the musculature weight needed to walk around with all of the equipment we’ve seen described. Think about how tall Goliath is described as being in the story. There are two possibilities here. Either Goliath carries all that weight because Goliath is an incredibly tall and incredibly lanky individual who uses his strength to carry all of that weight or Goliath is standing there taunting David because he likely has so little strength left that all he has left in his arsenal are verbal barbs.

When you look at the science behind Goliath, it is actually a strange story to have in our scripture. If you look at it in the eyes of a literalist, someone who believes the Bible is true word for word, you have a real problem. Goliath had to be not only freakishly tall but also freakishly strong. Goliath was so large, perhaps the word giant is the only way to describe a person who could carry that much weight with that height and still appear to be anything but a mess.

What if we looked at it differently though… What if the Bible is trying to make a point to us? Yes, Goliath is 9 and ¾ feet tall. Yes, he likely is carrying around enough weight that the ground, if not flattened by great use, would have likely sunk into the ground as he walked. Yes, Goliath is described in intimidating terms.

It also should be said that this gigantic man of inhuman proportions is dead at the end of the story. I hate to put it so bluntly, but the small shepherd boy kills Goliath. The scripture reading stops, but David walks up Goliath and cuts his head off with his own sword, presumably with Goliath’s shield-bearer just standing there slack-jawed. Goliath meets a brutal end at the hands of a young shepherd.

File:Guillaime Courtois - David and Goliath - Google Art Project.jpg

“David and Goliath” by Guillaume Courtois

So, what kind of coin is this? Is this a story out of the history of this man named David? Are we supposed to look at this image and say “Wow. I wish God were as present in my life as he was for David.” Are we supposed to look on a story like this with jealousy? Are we possibly willing to see ourselves as one of the Israelites who goes on after David to conquer the Philistines after Goliath falls? Are we seeing this story as an invitation to wait for our opportunity when our David shows up? Do we cry out to God for a hero as the Philistines stand there shouting out?

Such a response might be understandable. Look at the world we live in. There are children separated from parents within the borders of our own nation. Those kids are held by our own government. We sometimes think that it is not our problem, but those pesky scriptures keep popping up. Think of the words of Deuteronomy 10:16-21:

“Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of Lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing. You shall fear the Lord your God; God alone you shall worship; to God you shall hold fast, and by God’s name you shall swear. God is your praise; Jehovah is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen.”

We hear words like these and the connections are hard to miss. We might not have been in Egypt, but many of our ancestors only left Europe because life in those places was challenging. Who would have jumped on a boat and risk the ocean except to seek opportunity or freedom in a new land? How many of them kissed the ground when they got off the boat? There are some in this place who have the blood of the original Americans within their veins and their ancestors survived hardship, challenge, and difficulty in the wilds of history even before Europeans came to this land. Europeans did not exactly make it easier upon arrival. Those of us who are in this room have been given opportunity and blessing and it can be easy to want to hold onto those blessings tightly, but the words of scripture… God calls for circumcised hearts, even as our minds scream out that there’s only enough for us. Even if our hearts are not stubborn, our own self-interest is often very stubborn.

Yet, scripture is clear. God is not partial. God takes no bribe. God executes justice for the helpless and for strangers. The Israelites were called to remember that they were once strangers in the land of Egypt and a good memory would remind them of Abram coming with his wife out of Ur to begin the story of the people. They were called to remember God’s blessing because God blessed them in their need. Has God gone deaf? Has God gone blind? God is our God. Doesn’t that mean we should consider what the impartial God would want?

Yet, sometimes we act like those Israelites. We stand there and watch. If we wait long enough, David will come. If we wait long enough, there’ll be another revelation. If we wait long enough, we can distract ourselves. In college I was forced to read a book on the nature of popular culture. It was called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” Maybe a fitting sequel could have been “Waiting Around with Ourselves to Death.” Yes, we believe God will bring justice for those strangers in our land. Yes, God will hear the cry of children. Yes, God will act. We just seem to be waiting for David to show up.

What if the whole point of stories like David and Goliath is for us to realize that Goliath isn’t what he seems? Yes, a strong man carrying that big armor at that height would be intimidating. Yet, could he really do anything to the people if they’d just gotten up and worked together? Who cares if he’s over nine feet tall if there are “two or three of you” gathered together? Who cares how much he can carry if he isn’t even wise enough to put the spear down and grab his shield?

What if we’re not supposed to wait for David? What if we’re David? What if you are David? You! Yes, you! Last week in this place, someone prayed for those kids. I won’t mention them by name, but I will say there were a lot of amens in the room. What if everyone who said “Amen” did something beyond just say “Amen?”

What if we insisted that those kids are cared for, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because we know of how potentially hazardous it is to annoy a God who hears the stranger and cares about their well-being?

What if we didn’t wait for November, but we started pressing for change in the way our representatives act now. What if we wrote our representatives, shared our concerns, share that we are not interested in their political party, but insist that they work for change now? What if we showed up at the next event they hold in town and ask what they’re doing right now to help? What if we didn’t see such a huge problem and say “Where’s David?” What if we stopped and said “I am a child of God and this changes today!”

Do you know something, that story about the three coins at the beginning was meant to be humorous, but it also had several purposes. Did you laugh at that third child’s actions? Did you think he was being a bit unfair? If I was his parent, he wouldn’t keep that coin.

Someone is taking advantage of these kids. Someone has taken their coins. Whether these children are here seeking asylum, freedom, or are the children of parents who have broken the law, they are suffering. Heaven knows what’s happening to the elderly and the infirm who cross the borders out of fear or perceived necessity. It should cause us to act, for we were once a people who were strangers in Egypt, strangers on wilderness coasts, and faced with strange people from a far off land. We have been in their shoes and we should remember how God was present for us.

 

Let us Ramble: Trees

Today’s reading in the Revised Common Lectionary contain a powerful teaching of Jesus. Jesus teaches about the fruit of each tree revealing the nature of the tree. Jesus teaches that a good tree does not produce bad fruit and a bad tree does not produce good fruit. I’m fairly certain Jesus isn’t talking a tree having a bad year due to inclement weather. In general, a person knows the reality of a tree by what it produces. If a tree consistently produces bad things, the chances of it producing something good is pretty poor. If a tree consistently produces good things, the chances are a bad harvest is a fluke rather than the rule.

Our church has a parishioner who owns an apple tree that produces the weirdest apples. The tree predates the parishioner, so when I visited at the home, I found myself confronted by weird apples. Interestingly enough, the parishioner took it to the local Cooperative Extension office and the apples are unidentifiable. They’re apples. They’re tasty. That’s about all we know about those apples besides one basic fact. Those apples are good apples!

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Think about that reality for a moment. There is no known ancestry of these weird apples. There are no known relatives. For all we know, the tree is unique. We do know the tree produces good fruit, so it is a good tree. Jesus’ teaching reveals something about the tree.

What does the fruit you produce say about you as a person? Are there things in your life that might need Jesus’ healing touch? Have you ever stopped to think about where your path is leading?

If you are in need of change, God hears prayer. God is able to work in us even though some of us are really stubborn. To begin that journey of change, pray to God for help. If you’re out of practice, begin by speaking to God as if you were talking on a phone. If you’re not comfortable with that paradigm, write God a private letter or email. When you’re done, sit with God for a while with an open heart.

When you are ready to go, seek a church community that can support you. If you’re in the area of Maine, NY, I would be happy to journey alongside you for a while. If you’re out in the greater world, ask folks you know if there’s a church or pastor that they’d trust. Get several recommendations or go try one out for yourself. If need be, gather with a few friends who are like-minded and see where the journey goes.

Let us Ramble: Keeping Focus

I have not posted much lately on my blog. One of the reasons is that I have been traveling for denominational Conferences over the last few weeks. One of the things that I did not realize when I took this appointment was that these meetings would often fall back to back. Another reason is that I have been focusing on doing some more intensive sermon prep given the things going on in our culture.

Let’s try to explain this in parable form. The work of a minister is like that of a baker. Every week they are expected to bake food that will feed people. Some people need sweets and others need something hearty. Some folks need something to build conversation around (like a dippable biscotti) while others need something that will last them for a journey (like… hardtack?). Each week people will come in need of food. A wise baker pays attention to what people need and desire.

Recently, there’s been so much dissension and frustration filling the world that I have felt a need to focus on bringing forth something that will fuel people for the journey. Mix in a little bit of a call for justice, a bit of history, a touch of feminine spirituality, with a whole lot of the Good News… You can see what I have been trying to bring forth and you can see that it takes some focus, some knowledge, some study, and a whole lot of prayer.

Meanwhile, people are going about life while I prepare these sermons. Some people are burning the candle at both ends with a call for justice that is both timely and righteous. I want to encourage such fervor, but also remind people that the journey will be difficult. People more than likely will oppose them and their efforts, no matter how noble or heartfelt their intentions.

Ultimately, the people in the trenches decide how they will relate to other people and the opposition they might bring into their lives. The God that I serve has always laid on my heart a strong belief in free will, so I wanted to share a couple of words from a wise scholar in our recent church past.

Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman was a wise professor and leader within the African-American tradition. These days, Rev. Dr. Thurman is considered a respected and wise figure well beyond the bounds of that tradition. His words were often visionary and deep. He wrote the following in his book “Jesus and the Disinherited:” (pg. 28)

“If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection. It is a man’s reaction to things that determines their ability to exercise power over him.”

Now, Rev. Dr. Thurman wrote these words in 1976, so they’re not entirely in line with modern sensibilities on gender address, but they are still filled with wisdom. I love the simplicity of these words and I love the fact that I came about these words while looking for something completely different.

If someone knows how to throw off your temper or your equilibrium, then you are in a vulnerable place. I don’t know if I would say that you will always be kept under subjection or subjugation, but I do believe that it is almost impossible to act with freedom when you allow yourself to continually be dominated by the actions of others. If your spirit and soul are able to be pushed into a knee-jerk reaction as a result of a simple provocation, then your ability to exercise decision making is highly curtailed.

We live in days where there are folks who continually push buttons both in the world and in the church. I do not believe it is political in the slightest to point out that the sitting president of the nation in which I live (in June of 2018) makes a habit of making strong statements that provoke other people. If anything, he is a great example of someone who attempts regularly to coerce and cajole people to his point of view through throwing people off of their equilibrium.

Friends, many of us have been engaging in ministries that will require time, patience, and perseverance to bring to fruition. We do not have the time or luxury to become puppets to the attempts at subjection and subjugation by others who do not agree. I invite you to ponder Rev. Dr. Thurman’s words and to move forward with care.

Let Us Ramble: On Baptismal Hope

Blessings friends. Sunday was an exciting Sunday at our church and in my own house. We celebrated worship with Rev. Dr. Marsha Williams, Associate Conference Minister of the New Conference of the United Church of Christ. We heard a powerfully thoughtful sermon on Christ’s love, shared communion, and eventually shared in a moment of sacramental beauty as my daughter was baptized. It was a holy and powerful moment as she was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Sunday ended with memories of friends gathered, love shared, and God’s baptismal grace entering into the life of a child of God. As a parent, it was one of those moments where everything happens seemingly in a blur. Our church family has a new baptized member! What a joyful day!

Who knows where this newly baptized child of God will go? Reflecting back, I find myself drawn to reflect on “Our Time for Younger Disciples.” I shared with the children a reality. On Friday night I had sat with my friend and colleague Emily. Emily is preparing to welcome her third child into the world. She’s a woman of God who is called into ministry while living life as a mother similar to the way I am a man of God called into ministry while living life as a father. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

Rev. Dr. Marsha has a really cool title. She’s an Associate Conference Minister in the United Church of Christ and she has earned her doctorate. On an aside, while I do not aspire to Conference leadership in any denomination, I will admit that I want a doctorate someday. Anyway, Marsha is descended from a different part of the human family than my European roots and claims her African heritage with justifiable pride. We look very different. We’re married to two very different (but amazing) women, work out our call in different contexts, and each have our own traditions. We both look my ministers and pull portions of the same yoke for Jesus. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

I also shared with our younger friends that I have a friend at the Academy for Spiritual Formation named Hyunho. He’s a child of God from another completely different part of the human family who happily lives into his identity as a child with roots from South Korea. Hyunho is an Elder in the United Methodist Church like me! He is thoughtful, kind, intellectual, gracious, and kind. Hyunho has a humble and loving spirit that I long to have in my own life. His community’s practices and beliefs have inspired his approach to ministry within a cross-cultural appointment. In the midst of all of our differences, we are both called. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.

I think back on these differences and similarities because God calls us all. The child we baptized Sunday may be called by God to be a scientist, a minister, a teacher, a nurse, or anything else. Each of the children who came forward for the children’s moment Sunday might be called to something different and strange—they will be called to believe in themselves and who they are called to be in this life! I hope our kids in church remember that God calls each of us. We are all called to be children of God—each and every one of us. I hope they live into the love of God that draws them near.