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!

IMG_0258.JPG

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.

Let us Preach: “Living into the Mystery”

Date: May 27, 2018
Text: Romans 8:12-17
Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean

Note for those reading this online: Although I am certain that the quotes this morning can be found in the complete works of John Wesley, I relied heavily on “The Methodist Defense of Women in Ministry: A Documentary History” by Paul Chilcote (Cascade Books, 2017). Unlike most of my digital books, my Kindle version did not have easy access to page numbers to reference.

To begin this message, I would like to share a quote from John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, and chiefly considered the primary founder of Methodism. He wrote these words on February 25, 1774 in a letter.

“If you speak only faintly and indirectly, none will be offended and none profited. But if you speak out, although some will probably be angry, yet others will soon find the power of God unto salvation.” (John Wesley to Martha Chapman on February 25, 1774)

I would like to teach on our tradition as a people this Sunday morning. We are gathered here on Trinity Sunday. Today is a Sunday where we celebrate that God is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. We gather to celebrate that God is our divine Parent, our Brother, and our Advocate. We gather in the belief that God is in our midst in a very Trinitarian sense. God exists in a Trinity—three in one. God is the One who brought all things into being. God is incarnated in the person of Christ, our Redeemer. God is also our Advocate and our Counselor. God is present in our lives in the Holy Spirit.

God’s ongoing role in our lives through the Holy Spirit has had a direct impact on the history and nature of Christianity. God’s work in and through the church has taken on surprising and strange forms over the nearly twenty centuries we have been a growing and evolving church. God calls, God invites, and God has prodded us to live in strange ways.

Consider the words of Paul to the Roman church which we have shared this morning. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” Again, Paul writes: “It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

We are a church who claims to be joint heirs with Christ. We claim that God’s Spirit witnesses to our place in God’s family as heirs. As we gather on this Sunday when we claim the Trinitarian nature of God, we are reasserting a big claim—a monumentally large claim. Some would say that it is insane to claim that the God of the universe would draw us in, bring us into the family, and adopt us into an inheritance far beyond what we deserve.

We need to be clear on what Paul is saying before we understand how it affects our tradition. What Paul describes is not our being adopted into the family of God reluctantly. What Paul is saying is that we are given a place in the family that becomes through God’s own work both imperishable and unbreakable. What Paul is saying is that we have a place in the inheritance that will not be removed. What Paul is saying is that we have become inextricably connected with the divine God who is our Creator, our Redeemer, and our Sustainer. When we say that we are the children of God, we are not using empty words. We are the children of God for God has made us a part of the family.

In our history, our legacy, and our tradition, this adoption changes the way that we approach the world. Did you ever stop to think about how this belief affects worship? In a few minutes we will have time for prayer and we will come before God. Some of us will ask for healing. Others of us will give thanks for something good. Some of us will ask God to help us be better spouses or parents. We will all come before God and some of us will make big requests. The boldness to come before God ties into this legacy of adoption.

Think about it for a moment. If you were hungry and without food, you might walk into a restaurant and ask for something to eat even though you could not pay. Would you be surprised if you were turned down? No. The restaurant employee or owner is not “running a charity!” They have a business to run! Some of us might ask anyway, but there’s an understanding that we might be lucky to have a cold sandwich that’s going stale.

Think about the reality of what we do in worship. We come before God and we ask the big things. We ask for God to be present in the lives of the suffering with a certain level of expectation. Will God say yes? Maybe. I do not know if this is the moment God says “Yes,” “No,” or “Not yet.” What I do know is this: A lot of us will make a big ask. Where do we get off asking God for help with employment, health, relationships, or a thousand and one things a lot bigger than a stale cold sandwich? Where do we get the audacity to make these requests? Where do we get the nerve?

I think we understand at a subconscious level that Paul is right. We have been invited into the family. I might not have enough to feed a thousand strangers if they show up at my house on a Sunday afternoon, but I can tell you that I will feed my children. My children are family and I do my best to always provide for my family. Worship is one of those places where our understanding takes on solidity. We ask because we are a part of the family. We pray because we believe God will listen. We speak to God because we believe that God will listen longer than we do when we hear a robo-caller ring us on the phone. We speak because we believe that God intrinsically hears us.

The belief that God has brought us into the family has a deeper impact than simply the way we go about Sunday worship. When Paul writes about having a spirit that is free of slavery and fear, we are invited to consider life in a different way. We are called to look at ourselves as heirs of God. Sometimes that means taking bold and radical steps including ignoring what the world tells us we should say, do, or be in the life. Sometimes listening to that Spirit means standing against what the church says we should say, do, or be in this life. Sometimes, we are called in our adoption to be bold, brave, and beautiful.

In anticipation of the sermon this morning, I collected a series of quotes from the letters of John Wesley, the chief founder of Methodism. I want to share them with you and then, after you have heard them all, I will tell you who received these words. For reference, these quotes were written in 1773, 1774, and 1788. The most recent of these quotes was written 32 years before either the Methodists or Congregationalists began meeting in the hamlet of Maine. The first two predate the Declaration of Independence.

“I fear you are too idle. This will certainly bring condemnation. Up and be doing! Do not loiter. See that your talent rust not: rather let it gain ten more; and it will, if you use it.” (John Wesley to Eliza Bennis in April 1, 1773)

“If you speak only faintly and indirectly, none will be offended and none profited. But if you speak out, although some will probably be angry, yet others will soon find the power of God unto salvation.” (John Wesley to Martha Chapman on February 25, 1774)

“Whoever praises or dispraises, it is your part to go steadily on, speaking the truth in love.” (John Wesley to Sarah Mallet on August 2, 1788)

Who could the stiff, staid, often remarkably traditional John Wesley have been writing to in such a strange time? Could it be to the preachers in the Americas? John Wesley had been a preacher in Georgia and had opinions on the Americas, but that wasn’t the case. Was it to the preachers in another part of the British Isles? Well, some of the letters Wesley wrote were to preachers in Ireland, but that is not what makes these quotes exceptional.

The first quote, on not being idle but using one’s talents, along with the firm belief that God would grow those talents, was to Mrs. Eliza Bennis, a female preacher in Ireland who was sharing the Good News before the United States had declared independence. The second quote written by Wesley encouraging the listener to ignore anger and to speak boldly was to Mrs. Martha Chapman. The final exhortation to keep preaching steadily the truth in love was written to Sarah Mallet in 1788, which was a good thing, especially as the Manchester Conference of the Methodist Connexion freely stated the following a year before in 1787:

“We give the right hand of fellowship to Sarah Mallet and have no objection to her being a preacher in our Connexion so long as she preaches the Methodist doctrines and attends to our discipline.”

Let me be entirely clear. the Methodist Episcopal Church in the new world did not ordain women as equals into the ministry until 1956. The Evangelical United Brethren did not give clergy rights until 1889 when it ordained Ella Niswonger. The Methodist Protestant Church ordained Anna Howard Shaw in 1880. Sarah Mallet was welcomed as a preacher in Great Britain over a century before a woman would be welcomed into any of the branches of what would become the United Methodist Church. (source)

All of this took place before Antoinette Brown was ordained in South Butler, NY, as the first female minister in what would become the UCC in 1853. Now, we need to be clear. The Methodists in Great Britain were not ordaining folks as they existed within the Church of England and folks like Antoinette Brown were exceptional in the fact that she was fully ordained and fully educated as a graduate of Oberlin College. To a certain extent, comparing ordained ministry to the ministry of a circuit rider in Great Britain is like comparing apples and oranges, but in both cases it is absolutely clear. The growth of the call of the Spirit resulted in spiritual fruit-growing in the lives of women who were often dismissed and ignored by their society. These women responded to a higher calling that what their society would claim as their place and role.

Ponder what I am saying to you this morning. When God calls us into adoption, it is not a call to simply believe that we are simply okay with the Divine. We are called with boldness into a relationship with God which changes our relationship with the world. The Methodists were calling women preachers into ministry 133 years before the 19th Amendment gave white women the right to vote in the United States and 173 years before the Civil Rights movement worked to help all women in this nation have the right to freely vote. This bold, brave, and beautiful move was the direct result of God at work not only in the lives of those women preachers, but in the preachers, crowds, and advocates who supported their ministry.

The bravery which called women of the late 1700s out of the place where their society would have shackled them is a part of our legacy, our tradition, and our character. To look at the world around us and say “They do not want us to be who we are called to be” is not in our nature, our character, or our being. To be blown about by the winds of this world is not who we are meant to be in this life. We are called to adoption, to freedom, and to relationship with God.

When we ponder our own lives, our future, our dreams, and our hopes it is important to remember that we are called to be an adopted people. We are called to look beyond the words of our birth world into the world that is still being created and restored both in and around us. We are called to become the children of God and that calling affects who we are and how we live our lives. Let us pray…

Let us Ramble: On Spiritual Memory

It has been around a week since I last posted. I have been struggling a number of challenges (e.g., people in need of visitation, preparation for upcoming meetings, denominational drama, administrative responsibilities, etc.). Nothing excessively out of the ordinary has been going on, but there has been a lot of it going on at once. In truth, every time I look at a blank page, I wonder how I am supposed to fill it with wisdom when it feels like there are not enough hours to complete my daily responsibilities.

Today I was looking at that tab on my Chromebook and thinking about what to do with the half hour I had before my next appointment. I recalled that there has been discussion about bringing in some more contemporary music into worship and thought about my forlorn guitar. I was once a pretty good bass player, but I have always been awful at guitar. I decided to pick the guitar up and to check on my muscle memory.

I can tell you that my calluses are practically gone from my bass playing days, but my ears functioned well enough to tune the guitar. I started to strum songs from my teenage years and was transported back to a time of innocence. I strummed the chords to “Better is One Day” and began to hum along. My heart (figuratively) began to syncopate with old rhythms and everything faded away. For a few moments, I remembered my past. I remembered who I once was, what I had once dreamed, and realized that I have had a pretty good life.

  • I remembered singing to myself while incredibly lonely. I have a family now. God provided.
  • I remembered wondering if I would be any good at anything in life. I now have a few areas in my life where I can say “I can do that!”
  • I remembered wondering if God really loved me. I have come to know in my bones that God deeply and truly cares for me.

I invite you to remember who you spiritually are as you go through your day today. Do something that reminds you of the very best part of the person God made you to be in this life. Remember and believe!

My dusty old guitar…

Let Us Ramble: On Hymnody

This past Sunday in church every parishioner was handed two poker chips. Do not fret, my friends—we are not running a gambling ring in the Fellowship Hall. Each parishioner was given a white chip and a red or blue chip for a straw poll. Six jars were set out in the Fellowship Hall and people were invited to place their chips in six jars. The jars were labeled: Tradition, Social Justice, Daily Practices, Historical Context, Personal Practices, and Theology.

The white chips were statements that they were really interested in a subject and would like to hear more about the subject in the months to come. The red and blue chips meant that a person would like to hear more, but not as much as the jar in which they put their white chips.

The poll ended up as follows:

pubchart

What was fascinating about the poll was that there were a ton of “white chip” requests for information on tradition. In the case of this poll tradition was described as: “Where do the things we do as a Christian people come from? What stories rest behind things like hymns, traditional prayers, or even what in other traditions we might call the ‘smells and bells’ of worship?”

So, I am starting to look deeper into things like the nature of the music we sing. A few years back I picked up a book by Richard Mouw and Mark Noll entitled “Wonderful Words of Life: Hymns in American Protestant History & Theology” (Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2004). Sadly, I have not taken the time to read it through. I picked up the book, found it fascinating, started to read it, and became distracted by work matters. I lost track of my progress in the book during the reappointment which was the distracting event, but as there is sincere interest in how our hymns came to influence our worship, I have finally begun to take the necessary time required to properly digest the book.

In the first chapter, which is entitled “The Defining Role of Hymns in Early Evangelicalism,” Mark Noll begins by sharing the contents of a letter from 1731 which was written by Philip Doddridge to Isaac Watts. Writing on the events of a midweek service, Doddridge shared how tears were shed over a hymn written by Watts entitled “Give Me the Wings of Faith to Rise.” According to “Wonderful Words of Life,” Doddridge wrote “I had the satisfaction to observe tears in the eyes of several of the auditory, and after the service was over, some of them told me that they were not able to sing, so deeply were their minds affected with it.”

According to Noll, the key to the power of hymns was that “Ordinary believers had begun to find their voice, and that voice was expressed in song” (p. 4). I find this interesting because of a number of characteristics and generalizations that I have heard and sometimes agreed with about hymns.

First, hymns are theology heavy. Theology, if you go deep enough into the etymology, is “an account or discussion of the divine.” Coming forward through time, theology ties itself into concepts like a philosophical study of the divine or the scientific study of how the divine interacts with humanity, but all ties back to a basic concept. Theology is essentially an account (or a collection of differing accounts) of how the divine relates to humanity.

When I say that hymns are theologically heavy, they speak a lot about concepts of the relationship between humanity and the divine. Let’s look at the hymn by Isaac Watts which we have already mentioned. One verse of “Give me the Wings of Faith to Rise” states: “We ask them whence their victory came: they, with united breath, ascribe their conquest to the Lamb, their triumph to his death.”

In this verse we see references to the conquest of the Lamb of God, imagery used heavily in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 5 reveals the Lamb of God and is filled with praise for God. Revelation 5:9-10 states: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered nad by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” Watts’ verse ties heavily into the concepts of Revelation and especially into concepts like those in these verses of scripture.

These concepts are deep concepts tied into a deep reading of scripture. The lamb of God is referenced many times in scripture and by tying in the conception of Jesus as the lamb of God, the hymn ties into that legacy and modality of scripture. The richness of theology in just a few lines shows in many way exactly how deep hymns can be in their expression of conceptions of how God relates to humanity.

Second, hymns move quickly over concepts which are very rich. Let me connect this idea with a concept in enjoying food, which I know will be a huge surprise to people who know me or this blog. I recently had the pleasure of sharing my first piece of Limburger cheese with my wife. Limburger has a bad reputation. I found the cheese to be aromatic, if not outright pungent. The taste was complex and required a slow enjoyment to get all of the flavors and notes out of the cheese. Enjoying the Limburger took time, slowness, and the desire to enjoy something I have heard disparaged most of my life.

In my opinion, it would be nearly criminal to take a big piece of Limburger, shove it in your mouth, and swallow it down with a big gulp of something to mask the flavor. If you were to do that, I would hope that the food police would come and give you a citation for doing something in poor taste… Why, yes, that was a dry and terrible pun.

IMG_2119.JPG

I will happily accept free samples of other Limburger brands… I’m shameless when it comes to tasty cheese!

Hymns are full of flavor like a fine cheese. They have richness and depth which cannot be rushed. It is hard to miss the depth of a praise chorus where a single line might be repeated forty times in a single worship service, but if you blink you might miss some of the depth found in one of the hymns.

This depth makes sense when you consider the context of a lot of these hymns. Families might own a Bible if they were fortunate, but the hymns they might sing came out of a hymnal which was often printed and shared with folks on a regular basis. In an age before radio and television, they might sing hymns after dinner, sing hymns at the midweek prayer service, and sing hymns on Sunday. While our hymnals live in the church and are often opened only on Sunday morning, the hymnals of the time which Mark Noll writes about were hymnals that were used often. Even if folks did not own a hymnal or could not read it, through regular repetition the deep theology would be shared and taught in deep rooted ways. Even the least literate church members would learn their faith through slow enjoyment of something which was sung regularly and deeply.

Third, hymns were methods of education. We’ve already touched on the how these hymns taught deep concepts. What I am trying to express here is that these hymns were intentionally designed as tools to educate folks about more than just theological ideas. Hymns were sung and tied into the Christian year in ways that mutually assisted teaching about the Christian year. Every spring the church would sing songs of Lenten concepts and then resurrection. Every winter the church would sing songs of Advent and Christmas. The concepts taught in the church tied into the concepts sung by church members. Together they would educate folks about the Christian year in a mutually beneficial way until it became second nature.

This is still true in a lot of traditional churches. Is it Christmas Eve if we don’t sing Silent Night? What does Silent Night tells us about God? What does “Silent Night” teach us about our relationship with God? Does singing Silent Night change the way we live around family members who may make us want to be less than silent and less than filled with heavenly peace? Is it Easter if we don’t sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”? Can it be Palm Sunday without “Hosanna, Loud Hosanna”?

What’s interesting in all of this is Mark Noll’s conception. Hymns took off in popularity because they gave voice to ordinary believers and helped them to express their beliefs through song. Strangely enough, one of the criticisms I hear most about hymns is that they are not accessible to ordinary people. Their language is often filled with strange terms, their pace is too fast, and they are sung to sheet music, which is often something only accessible to people who have had access to an education with music as an emphasis. In many ways, the original strength of hymns is now the challenge.

When the most popular praise songs can be heard on Christian radio twice an hour and we might sing the same hymns two or three times a year, hymns lose their ability to be the songs of the people. So, why do we stick with hymns? Perhaps it is stubbornness, but I tend to believe it is because there are those who still enjoy the depth, the legacy, and the history of hymns. Perhaps, with time, we will find ways to instill hymns back into the regular life of the church. Until then, perhaps they should be appreciated as what they remain—a connection to a vibrant and deep past.

The Parable of the Baker

Yesterday, was a rough day for me in terms of ministry. The day began with watching colleagues, laity, and friends within my denomination begin to process through the previous week’s events with wildly different points of view. The sight of people I care about debating each other was not always pleasant. Shortly after responding to the situation and inviting people to breathe, I was made aware of the constitutional amendment results. I was rendered speechless by the result and told my wife “This is a day my denomination deserves to be ashamed of itself.” Yesterday was rough.

I was speaking to someone yesterday afternoon when I was asked what I do when I am faced with things I cannot change. I told a story that I would like to share with you in the format of a parable.

Living in the Kingdom of Heaven is like this: Once there was a baker who was easily distracted. The baker went to make a loaf of bread one day, but became distracted. The yeast was mixed in with the flour, but the baker rushed the process and forgot the salt. The dough was given time to rise, but the baker forgot to put the bread in a warm place. The bread was baked in the oven, but the baker ignored the step where the temperature was lowered. The bread came out of the oven blackened, hard, and inedible. No children could make sandwiches, no butter could be spread on toast for a snack, and there was a lot of disappointment.

The next day, the baker rose again. The baker considered what had happened the day before and set about making bread with a singular focus. The baker mixed yeast with flour and with the previous day’s forgotten salt. The dough was given time to rise in a war,=m environment. The bread was baked at the correct temperatures for the right amount of time. The bread which sat on the cooling rack was golden and delicious. The baker’s family had what it needed.

Friends, we cannot go back to change the past. All we can work with it the dough we have today. May God grant us grace to live into the day that we have today. May God give us the grace to pick up the pieces and try again.

IMG_1756

An Honest Opinion

In honesty, I have spent a bit of time looking around the internet this morning. My normally scheduled blog post has been posted and I spent the morning looking at debates on the Facebook feeds of my colleagues. I have read carefully statements from groups like the Confessing Movement. I have prayed through debates around the video clip circulating around social media by Bishop Ough.

Honestly, watching the back and forth about the Council of Bishops recommendation is a bit heartbreaking. I hate watching colleagues, laity, and friends debate, argue, and occasionally attack one another. In some cases (but not all), we stand in direct opposition to the recommendation of Paul in Galatians 5:13-15—less concerned with serving one another in love and more concerned with biting with sharp teeth before we are consumed. My soul is a bit bruised from trying to find a space of peace in the midst of the debates.

My own discernment (for today) revolves around Acts 5:27-39. In Acts 5, we find the Apostles brought before the High Priest and the council in Jerusalem for sharing the Good News. There are folks who want to kill the Apostles, but a wise leader named Gamaliel advises them to be careful. Leaders had come, gathered followers, died, and the followers dispersed. If the Apostles were like those leaders then their movement would fizzle out in time. Human plans lead to failure. If the Apostles were acting with God’s blessing, they might find themselves fighting against God.

The council saw the wisdom of Gamaliel’s words and let the Apostles live. Obviously, their movement lasted beyond the lives of those Apostles. There was wisdom in Gamaliel’s counsel. Nobody wants to stand in the way of God when God is preparing to act. Still, here we are with sharpened arguments and deadly counterpoints while the world watches.

I admit that I have a more progressive outlook than some of my conservative colleagues, but I honestly wonder how long this battle can go on legislatively. More than that, I am wondering what is served by any of this battling? Is this constant argument truly of God?

Some context on why I wonder. We were debating the questions around human sexuality when I was teenager. My first time visiting Annual Conference with a friend and mentor included watching people debate questions relating back to Central Conferences with people stating on the floor of Annual Conference that this was a ploy to push what was then known as the “gay agenda.” We had debates around human sexuality as I went through seminary, became a pastor, went through the ordination process, was ordained, and as I have continued in my service. This debate has been going on longer than I have been alive. This debate has been the context of my entire faith journey.

So, why are we continuing to push a legislative solution? Clearly, saying “You have to believe this to be a part of the church” has been neither effective nor conclusive. Now there are people calling for a schism in the church. What good will that do? We have been down that road before on issues like pew rentals and slavery. Nothing concrete was solved through schism. The same debates came back time and time again until we ceased legislating and let the Holy Spirit work within us as a body.

So, why are we here again? Why are we assuming that this is something new? Why don’t we listen to Gamaliel? Do we really need to make human laws? If you believe scripture says “This is the way,” what good will a church law do? Do you hold the church law above scripture? If you believe that God is leading the church in a way contrary to one reading of scripture, do you believe that a human rule should overcome your obedience to the Spirit of God? In either case, when you look at the motivations on both sides, who truly believes that a church law made by humans would ever trump the conviction of another person?

Beloved friends, this is madness. I do not mean to be so very blunt about this, but go and take a deep breath and relax. If this is of God, then God will prevail. If this is from humans alone, it will not succeed.

I find wisdom in an offhand comment made by Father John Mefrige at the last session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. His church, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, believes that the Orthodox Church is the one true church that follows in Christ’s path. How does he understand the rest of us Christians if God has led to one right way while we continue in our own faith? He said he sees a paradox in us! We are not Orthodox, yet there is evidence of the Spirit in us. We are Heterodox, but God lives and breathes in us. We do not make sense, yet here we are giving glory to God as best we can! How very peculiar and marvelous it is that God is praised through people like us!

Maybe we are also called to live in paradox. Apparently, that’s a thing that happens sometimes. If members of the Orthodox clergy can have a sense of humor about the very powerful and deep differences we share with their church, can we have a sense of grace with and for each other?

Go, take a deep breath, and remember that faith, hope, and love are what remain will after all of this has long since passed away. When you have done that, do everyone a favor and remember to continue to breathe!

Let us Ramble: Lessons from Yogurt

I recently returned home from the Academy for Spiritual Formation. This last session we discussed the effects of things like stress and anxiety on the body. We practiced breathing techniques, experienced some meditative practices, and looked at various ways that we live our lives.

At one point during the week, I found myself pondering the concept of challenge and the spiritual life. I have always believed that a healthy spiritual life is one that does not shirk from challenge or adversity. There are lessons in the struggles.

The scripture teaches of this reality in Hebrews 12. Comparing our relationship with God to our parents on earth, the writer of Hebrews invites us to consider difficulties in light of the fruit it produces. The author of Hebrews wrote: (Hebrews 12:7-11, NRSV)

“Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

I will admit that it can be hard to face the challenges of life. Sometimes the disciplining of God can be painful, even if it does correct broken or misaligned parts of us. Occasionally, challenges are legitimately less about correction and more about building up strength, but in general, I think the same response is necessary. If God is working for good in us, then we are called to either work alongside God or to willingly let God work in us.

Now, of all places the where I could find inspiration to understand this relationship with God, I found myself inspired in my reflection by a book that I am reading in my spare time. Unsurprisingly, it is a book about cooking. The book is “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” by Harold McGee. I was reading through the section on dairy that morning and working through the science of yogurt making, which my wife and I have done off and on over the years.

Effectively there are two parts to the making of yogurt. First, the milk being used is heated to a certain level for a certain period of time. McGee describes this process on page 48 of “On Food and Cooking.” Traditionally, this heating process helped to concentrate the number of proteins and to remove some of the liquid, which created.a firmer texture. This process also has the effect of pasteurizing the milk which become yogurt as milk is pasteurized when it crosses 145℉ for 30 minutes during the heating process. (On Food and Cooking, 22)

Even with the advent of the modern technique of adding dried milk powder to increase protein content, yogurt makers still raise the temperature of milk to 185℉ in order to denature the “whey protein lactoglobulin” in order to help the milk keep from coagulating. How? Well, “In boiling milk, unfolded lactoglobulin binds not to itself but to the capping-casein on the casein micelles, which remain separate; so denatured lactoglobulin doesn’t coagulate.” (On Food and Cooking, 20) Caseins, by the way, are the protein molecules that coagulate together to make cheese curd. (Under the right conditions, cheese can still be made from denatured milk. Indeed, almost all cheese is made from pasteurized milk)

Almost there…

What’s needed to move the milk from a pasteurized milk with denatured lactoglobulin is time and fermentation. Bacteria increases the acid content of the yogurt, which allows the casein to coagulate in particular patterns (as the lactoglobulin is blocking some of the connection points). Over time, the yogurt forms together, setting into a gelled mass with pockets for the moisture of the milk.

There’s a challenge in the process here. You may have noticed the milk’s lactoglobulin is denatured nearly 40℉ above the temperature required to kill off bacteria. In fact, yogurt bacteria can only survive temperatures up to between 104-113℉. There needs to be a cooling of the milk before yogurt can begin to be created.

So, here’s where I came to a realization the other day. I am often a lot like the milk I work to turn into yogurt. There are parts in my life that are filled with all kinds of nasty things. Sometimes the only way God can help me to break free of my own stubbornness is to turn up the heat. God knows what I can handle and like a careful cook, I believe there are times when my life is intentionally and carefully brought to a place where I can both begin to be free of the nasty stuff and begin to be prepared for new good things. In challenge I am both freed and given a chance for transformation.

When I am ready, the heat turns down, I am brought into a place where God’s goodness can begin to transform the parts of me that have been prepared. In those moments, there are a couple of things I can do to help the process.

First, I can be careful about my surroundings. Just as a dirty spoon could spoil the pasteurized and prepared milk, I can cause a world of trouble by diving back into the places where I no longer belong. There are behaviors in this life which are not helpful. It is good to move away from them and to stay away from them.

Second, I can practice humility. A lot of things in life can go in ways I do not prefer. Does that mean all of those challenging situations are bad for me? Sometimes humility requires me to be willing to accept circumstances I would not prefer or choose on my own. It can be very difficult to admit that I do not always know what is best for me, but in reality, most of us have blind spots and areas where we do not see things clearly. If I practice humility, there is a stronger chance I can work my way through situations that normally would be inescapable.

None of this means that I would necessarily prefer to face such challenges, but there is something to be said for realizing that there are moments when challenge becomes both inevitable and beneficial. May we all have the wisdom to know when such situations are before us.