“Supper Table” Questions

Today I began reading a new book I have been anticipating. I picked up a kindle version of “Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne” by Dr. Wilda Gafney. I have to admit that I am excited by the voice Dr. Gafney uses in her writing. It will be no surprise to most that I immediately caught on to her conversation around the kitchen table in her home. I love this quote: (Gafney, p. 2)

“All are welcome at this table, and as a sign of that welcome I offer not only dishes I like; I try to meet the dietary needs of my guests—which is not the same as cooking exactly what they want exactly the way they want. I am no short-order cook…”

Dr. Gafney proposes to use the narrative of the supper table as a structure for her book. Even reading through the introduction, it makes sense. Her conversation intends to: (Gafney, p. 7)

“[affirm] the interpretive practices of black women as normative and as holding didactic value for other readers, womanist interpretation makes room at the table of discourse for the perspectives of the least privileged among the community and the honored guest of any background: the child who is invited into ‘adult’ conversation around the table with ‘Baby, what do you think?’ and the extra place at the table for whoever may come by.”

The concept of the extra place at the table excites me. As an introverted person, one of my favorite things to do is sit down with people I respect and listen to their conversations. I probably spoke too much in seminary. A few years out with a few years of pastoral experience, I wish I had spent more time listening, especially to the strange voices I did not understand.

I am enjoying this book. I feel as if there is plenty at the table. Let me give an example of how Dr. Gafney asks some amazing questions. I plan to chew the ideas over for a while and will hopefully encourage you to pull up a chair at the table.

Here‘s my personal example of how this book inspires questions. It is a few weeks before Advent. We are facing the same story that is retold time and time again. I could easily polish an old sermon, but who likes reheated leftovers in a season of feasting.

Instead, what if I were to look at some principles Dr. Gafney presents (p. 8) and ask myself hard questions? Have I given voice to Elizabeth in the past? Have I ever deeply pondered her place in the story? Is there room for a woman’s story in this season focused around the coming of Christ? Have I made room for that story? Have I checked to see if that story honors the African roots of the text?

These questions are powerful. I admit these questions are convicting. If I look at Dr. Gafney’s four womanist principles, the well draws deeper (p. 8). Do my words as a European male legitimize other voices including the biblical interpretation of black women? Does my ministry allow for the inherent value of each person in the text and in the community interpreting the text? Do I allow conversation with the text so that there is room for conversation outside of my personal cultural sphere? If we don’t make that room, can we rightfully expect diversity in our churches? Dr. Gafney does not ask this outright, but If we do not make that healthy room, should we hold ourselves accountable for that failure?

I believe these questions are especially important for me as a European male minister in a very homogeneous ministry setting. I am appointed to serve in a town surrounded with roads where someone from outside the hamlet will likely pass Confederate flags or road signs tagged with swastikas to reach the church. I serve in a town where you must travel by car to find any significant diversity in population. Who will ask these questions if I abstain?

Truthfully, I am a bit intimidated by Dr. Gafney’s book. I do not want to engage in cultural misappropriation. I respect her research and words. I want to honor her work and enjoy her scholarship as someone who at least tries to share the table. To paraphrase Dr. Gafney, I could go back and keep doing things the way I always have. I do not want to keep doing the same thing! I want to learn and experience new things!

There are moments already in my reading where I feel like I might belong at the kids’ table. Although, I will honestly say I do not sense there is a kids’ table in Dr. Gafney’s home. Maybe that is an American custom of European descendants? I do not know. I know I am looking forward to spending time with this book and recommend it to other folks who are interested in broadening their horizons.

Side note: Dr. Gafney (noted in the acknowledgment which doesn’t have a page number on my kindle edition) notes that Dr. Mark Brummitt helped to coin the phrase “womanist midrash.” If it is the same Dr. Brummitt, he was one of my favorite seminary professors and at one point offered to be an emergency midwife if my wife went into labor the semester she was in his course while pregnant. If it is the same Mark Brummitt then it is a small world.

Today’s “Snowy Day” blogging vista! Those neon tetras really like the cover of Dr. Gafney’s book! If they keep this up, they’ll take my job…

Preparing for Advent

I am slowly entering the season of Advent. I know that Thanksgiving is still a week away. I am aware that the first Sunday of Advent is December 2nd this year. I know that today is not even halfway into November. I am still getting ready for the season.

This Advent I am planning on working through two devotionals from Upper Room Books. One devotional I am planning on working through is “Simply Wait: Cultivating Stillness in the Season of Advent” by Pamela Hawkins. I am planning on spending time with Simply Wait in my personal devotions. Thoughts that are borne out of my time with that book will probably find a place on my blog.

Digital and Print Devotionals

I am also planning on working through “Mandalas, Candles, and Prayer: A Simply Centered Advent” by Sharon Seyfarth Garner with both my family and the Adult Sunday School class. Effectively, it is a book with a lot of coloring and prayer involved. Most of the time I spend in this book will probably end up staying with me.

I share my plan with the world for a reason. I do not intend to brag. My intention is to prepare myself for the journey ahead. I also share my plan with the world hoping someone might begin to think about how they plan to spend their Advent season. If you’re blessed enough to have the resources to get a book, now may be the time to order a book, find a book, or even find a reading plan for the season.

I grew up hearing about the five P’s of planning: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance. Occasionally a sixth P would find her way in with the other five P’s if I was in a more informal setting (Boy Scout camping trips in the woods). As much as I do not believe in burying one’s thoughts too deeply into the future, there’s wisdom to the five P’s. If you need time to plan, this is a reminder to get ready!

Stay Awake! Snow is Coming!

Today I woke up to a white lawn. The sidewalks were slushy, the streets were salted, and my older kids wanted to build a snow fort. The residual heat of the world would reveal the lawn in a few hours. The sidewalks barely needed salting. It was beautiful this morning.

Snow comes suddenly!

I pondered the snow as I prayed my morning prayers. The gospel passage this morning included Matthew 24:36-42. Matthew 24 is a section of that gospel which is very eschatological. In simpler terms, Matthew 24 speaks of the events many Christians believe will come at the end of this age. Matthew 24:36-42 stuck in my mind and I contemplated it throughout my day. In the New Revised Standard version, Matthew 24:36-42 reads:

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”

As I contemplated the passage, I found reasons why this passage might have stuck in my mind. I am preparing for Advent, the beginning of the Christian year which follows the end of the Christian year in the cycle of the Christian calendar. As a result, every time I have approached questions of the end of days as part of the Christian year the weather has been cool. I have repeatedly read these passages while watching snow fall. The falling of snow marks the return to the theme of Christ’s return.

I also believe my mind stuck on this passage because of my anticipation of the first snowfall. Winter will become miserably cold and mucky. The first snowfall is still beautiful and wondrous. You never know when it will come until it is practically upon you. Sure, you can check the meteorologist’s predictions, but those predictions are not always reliable.

Regardless, my thoughts remained with this passage. I pondered how people continue to live their lives in an often misguided world. People still get married, still feast over normal things, and still live ordinary lives. Let me be forthright. I still enjoy a good meal, still live life as a married man, and continue to work through ordinary things. Life has continued on from one day to the next every day of my life.

Still, Christ’s words ring out. Stay awake! Stay alert! Shortly after this passage there are several more eschatological parables. There is a story of bridesmaids waiting for a groom with lamps. There is a tale of two servants entrusted with the running of a household. There is a parable of three servants entrusted with three different sets of funds. These parables ring out! Stay awake! Stay alert!

It can be incredibly easy to slip from the narrow path. It can be as easy as drifting out of a lane when driving while tired. We are called to stay awake. The lines on the road of life keep passing us by, the steering wheel sits easily in our hands, and the seat can be comfortable. Still, we must stay awake! No matter how many miles, no matter how many days, no matter how long the journey, we are called to stay awake!

A passage earlier in Matthew 25 marks this lesson’s importance. Jesus says in Matthew 25:6-8:

“And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various place: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”

I see these foretold rumors and wars as a part of everyday life. I hear of potential schisms in my church, confrontations within my country’s government, and conspiracy theories regularly. In stressful times it is easy to forget our principles. We must stay awake and live in faith. We must stay alert and live in hope. We must stay alert and live in love. We must stay awake.

The snow of our lives may fall at any moment, so stay awake! Nobody knows the number of their days. Nobody knows the number of our days. Stay alert! Stay awake!

Wisdom at Chenango Bridge

Last night I went to an event hosted by my bishop at the Chenango Bridge United Methodist Church. Bishop Webb came to our district to discuss the proposals headed to the Special Session of General Conference scheduled for this February. As I entered the space, I was frazzled. I had believed the event started at 6:00 PM. I arrived on time because my wife is far more focused and capable of remembering times than me. I was tired and suffering exhaustion from a budget meeting after a morning of study and worship.

Let me admit that I was anxious about the meeting. I had hoped to sit with a friend who was unable to attend. I had hoped the meeting was later so I could relax over dinner before entering a space of shared anxiety. I came into the space tired on several levels.

Before I sat down to listen to the presentation, I said hello to Bishop Webb. He asked about my children. Bishop Webb has an excellent memory about such things. I may not agree with everything my bishop says or does, but I appreciate the way he expresses care to his clergy by knowing details about their family. We exchanged pleasantries. I took a seat where I could read the screen easily for the presentation.

There were a few minutes to kill, so I went through the library on my Kindle to see what might be interesting on my tablet. I recently replaced my Kindle. The library was sparse, but one downloaded book was a collection called “Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings—Annotated & Explained” by Christine Valters Paintner.

I recently have spent a lot of time going back to one of the more definitive translations upon which a lot of my Kindle collections of the Desert Ammas and Abbas rely. Benedicta Ward’s translation is normally a wonderful resource, but it is unfortunately not available on Kindle. I opened Paintner’s collection and went forward to the furthest place read. I read the next saying. I was surprised by the applicability of the saying. The next saying was:

“[Abba Nilus] said, ‘Do not be always wanting everything to turn out as you think it should, but rather as God pleases, then you will be undisturbed and thankful in your prayers.’”

This ensnared me given the circumstances. I was in a room full of people who had gathered to listen to their bishop speak about a challenge before the church. There were people who did not know how they intend to perceive events in the years to come. There were people who knew their opinions and hold their convictions firmly. The saying of Abba Nilus was strong in a room filled with people who often want everything to turn out as they desire.

I know this was true of at least one person in the room. I am definitely from a place of personal experience. There have been many times I have sought to have things turn out in the way I desire. There are places I seek to have things turn out the way I desire. There are places I will probably seek to have things turn out the way I desire. I see this is a sign of my humanity. I do not pretend it does not exist.

Living in this self-knowledge, I found myself challenged by Abba Nilus from across the centuries. Do I need to seek that everything turn out as it should? When in a room with dozens of individuals, should I expect things to turn out the way I desire? Is it reasonable to expect that outcome?

More to the point, what is my purpose? Why do I seek to have my way? What if Abba Nilus is correct? What if surrendering my desire to God’s pleasure leads to thankfulness and peace in my prayers? Are those benefits worth more than having my way? Frankly, I believe these blessings are worth more than having my way.

The epistle known as Philippians has something to say about this reality. In the New Revised Standard Version, Philippians 4:6-7 says:

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

I entered the sanctuary of Chenango Bridge UMC with a sense of anxiety. Abba Nilus called me out on my attitude from across the centuries. As I reflected on the experience that call was confirmed by scripture and Spirit. I have already said I am not perfect in this blog post. Imperfections and all, I will seek to find that peace in these conversations.

I may not always find the peace perfectly. I will still seek that peace through prayer. When necessary, I hope that God will setup reminders to draw me back. Thank you God for Abba Nilus. May words from the past continue to draw me to You and to the scriptures.

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Today the blog was written on my Chromebook in front of the family aquarium, These Neon Tetras were very interested in reading about Abba Nilus. Maybe they’re kindred spirits?

Space for the joy of “gōd-spellen”

“God of peace,
you strive to set within us
a Gospel joy.
It is there, very nearby,
ever renewed by the trusting way
you behold our lives.”

–Brother Roger of Taizé

For today’s blog I wanted to contemplate this prayer by Brother Roger. Brother Roger’s book of prayers entitled “Praying in Silence of Heart: One Hundred Prayers.” This small paperback collection sits on my office desk for when I cannot find inspiration. As a result, Brother Roger occasionally appears in my sermons, blogs, and contemplations.

My copy of Brother Roger’s book of prayers.

This prayer catches me off guard. What catches my attention is how Brother Roger describes God as active. God strives, places, renews, and beholds. We may find joy within us, but it is a gifted joy. We are recipients of a gift. The joy we receive finds renewal in God’s action. We are passive in this transaction. We receive the gospel joy as God makes space in our souls.

I find this description both theologically sound and realistically upsetting. Theologically, God is a giver of grace. Grace is unmerited favor. The Holy Spirit is described in Galatians 5 as bringing about fruit in the lives of the believers including joy. In that passage joy is counted as a powerful fruit of the Spirit. Joy exists alongside the heavyweights love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Joy is not something that just comes about in life. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit and the Spirit is a gift of grace and love.

Joy is often confused and seen as a synonym of happiness. Traditionally, joy was once something deeper than happiness. Joy was a feast compared to the fast food of happiness. One could be happy for a day, but joy was something with depth and breadth beyond a moment. One of the most irritating memories I have of the holiday season was seeing a poster in a fast-food restaurant asking proclaiming “Joy to the [mass produced and frankly questionable sandwich].” Nearly a decade later, I am still mad at that restaurant for insulting joy. I believe joy should never be used to designate something coming with a side of fries.

Still, I find this realistically upsetting. Why? If this is theologically sound, why be upset? I am upset because I want to force joy into parts of my life. If my wife and I are arguing, I want to force joy into that place of conflict. If my kid is screeching in time with the beating of my pulse through my headache, I want to force joy into my skull alongside peace. If there is a meeting where anger abounds, I want to force joy into that place.

Instead, I must let God renew my joy. I must open my heart and be patient. I must allow the gospel joy to come into my life through God’s work. If I spoke Middle English before around 950 CE, perhaps it would be more clear. When gospel was tied to the phrase go[d]spell (gōd-spellen), it might have been more obvious. Sometimes we must let there be time for the words of the God spell to be spoken into our lives.

So, there’s a prescription offered by Brother Roger. We must let God work in us to find our joy renewed. May we all have the patience to let God renew the joy within us.

The Value of Scripture

So, yesterday I posted a reflection on a verse from Psalm 57. I posted the reflection as my day had been improved by the time I spent in that psalm. I had been nervous and found comfort in that verse.

I found that verse within my morning prayers. On most days of the week, I listen to both the Morning and Evening Prayers broadcast through the internet from The Trinity Mission. I pray along with that podcast on a regular basis because it is a way I can enter into my devotions without using a set of eyes that can often become dry, irritated, and frustrating. I enjoy the time I spend listening to the scriptures and often find those prayers to be a wonderful way to start my day and a wonderful source of comfort as I rock my infant daughter to sleep in the midst of a cloud of prayer.

I often wonder if I am not clear enough in my ministry on the incredible value of regular immersion within the scriptures. On Sunday morning we do not have time to dive deeply into the scriptures and I often wonder if people think I believe that spending time in a passage or two each week is enough. Sometimes I wonder if they think those two or three small passages are all I spend my time studying each week. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I spend a lot of time in the scriptures. I do not share every passage I study, every chapter I read, or every thoughtful verse that I ponder. Like an iceberg, only a certain bit of what I spend my time studying, pondering, praying, ruminating, and reading comes to the surface. I often wonder if the analogy of a milk-cow might be fitting. The scriptures inform my ministry like the grass of a field fuels the milk that comes from the udders. Both are chewed over, digested, chewed over, digested, chewed over, digested, chewed over, and digested before coming to fruition in something to offer others.

Some of you might ask “Why go through all of that effort?” Would it be easier to just read a commentary or quote a blog? It would be easier, but the effort itself blessed others in my ministry and those who come across a person who is made better by his exposure to the wisdom of the scriptures. The scriptures and my time in them are a blessing.

Scripture is one of the primary means of revelation for the Living Word which we worship. The “Word of God” is often interpreted to be the scriptures, but the Bible is a revelation of THE WORD OF GOD revealed in Jesus Christ. It is incredibly important to spend time in the scriptures as they are one way that we have of coming to know the God of love. The more we expose ourselves prayerfully to the scriptures the more we can come to know God is ways that can affect our lives in powerfully wonderful ways. `

To be clear: The scripture is not God, but the scripture reveals God in the same way that the reflection in a mirror is not the thing itself, but a revelation of what it reflects. The scripture is an incredible tool and a wonderful means to know more about God, but the scripture is not the end goal of worship.

I found blessing and solace in Psalm 57 yesterday because I spend time in the scriptures regularly. Just as the power of the community of God grows through regular participation in the worship, service, and the rest of the life of the church, regular exposure to the scripture helps us to grow in faith, to find solace in times of need, and encouragement in times of blessing.

I recommend regularly engaging in Bible study, both together with others in community and in the lives of individuals as a wonderful and powerful means of grace! Times of study can be wonderful means to grow both personally and communally.

Under God’s Wings

“Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
until the destroying storms pass by.”

—Psalm 57:1 (NRSV)

Tomorrow is election day in the United States. In our town of Maine, there are many choices to make between incumbents and challengers. With the political climate being as it has been lately, there is a lot of tension in many hearts and minds. What will happen if one candidate wins an election? What will happen if another candidate wins? Tension and anxiety are high.

I was pondering the reality of this election before entering morning prayer. The Psalm of the day in my prayers was Psalm 57. The first verse of the Psalm stuck with me. The imagery of the Psalm begins with the image of a petitioner asking God to be merciful as their soul takes refuge. This soul turns to God and seeks safety underneath the wings of God.

The imagery that stuck in my mind was one of a Parent providing safety for a child during a chaotic storm. Images floated through my brain of a robin spreading wings over nestlings during a rainstorm, a father penguin standing over his chick throughout a winter storm while his partner walks to the sea, or a mother goose protecting her goslings.

This imagery stuck in my mind when I finally reached my computer. I felt the urge to click on Facebook, to read the news, and do many of the things I told myself I would not do before Tuesday evening. I thought about what I might absorb from such an anxious world, thought of the imagery of the Psalm, and went about my day.

Tomorrow will be what tomorrow will be regardless of my anxiety. I will vote, I will pray, but I will not be afraid. God is greater than any storm and nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Tomorrow will come, tomorrow may end with me calling out, but tonight I shall trust that God’s wings are enough to shelter me.

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Courage and Voting

Today’s blog post is two days in the making. I have been pondering what it means to be a Christian in an age where political differences in the United States are resulting in violence. Bombs are being mailed to opponents of the president and Republicans have been threatened at one particular early voting site in North Carolina. The world seems to be more and more violent the closer we get to November’s election.

I am wondering how we should reply to these situations. Scripture tells us to pray for the lands where we find ourselves. Even if some Christians do not appreciate the idea of Christians being a people living in exile, the thrust of Jeremiah 29 still points us to ponder how we relate to the “city where we are sent.”

Of course, none of this is easy. To be honest, in some circles, asking people to take Romans 13 seriously is a dangerous proposition. Calls by Paul to the Romans to be subject to governmental authorities are seen as less than applicable in some contexts, especially when we disagree with those authorities. A person who might quote Paul as sharing the gospel truth in one letter might chafe at considering his words in another. It is natural that we rejoice when governmental powers agree with us. Unfortunately, it seems increasingly common to call for their damnation when they disagree. Calls to respect people of different opinions in Romans 14 and 15 are seen as equally ludicrous at times.

It is difficult to live in such times. Whether you are a democrat, republican, or neither, these days are difficult days. As election day draws closer, there is a real sense of dread building in some circles. Will there be violence if one party loses favor or if another gains favor? Will there be violence if something changes or will there be violence if nothing changes? Heaven knows how many families are dreading Thanksgiving and those often turbulent conversations around the dinner table.

To be honest, I half expect to hear more stories about threats and potential bombings to increase as election day draws nearer. I am not seeking to be a pessimist. I find myself watching a pattern and pondering the outcome. In truth, my own days of believing in the myth of American exceptionalism in terms of believing in a political process that might be free of intimidation and gerrymandering are pretty much at an end. Perhaps I am simply choosing to save my idealism for my life of faith or perhaps I am simply worn thin by the matters of this world.

You may be asking what any of this has to do with being a pastor or spirituality. My simple answer is to say that it relates because these are the days where we need to have courage. Yes, the news is full of stories of challenges and those stories will increase. Yes, the President has warned there will be violence if his party loses the election next month, although it is strange he warns that the violence he seems to fear would be from the party that might gain political power. An honest appraisal might say that violence might occur regardless of who wins. Yes, the world might become a dark place after this election. Yes, these are days that require courage regardless of political party.

Then again, maybe these days are not as dire as it seems. Things might go poorly, but they also might go well. In a sense, these days are like every single day of our lives. Even in the best of times, all of us live with only one day. We all live in today. Yesterday has gone by. Tomorrow is a dream. Today is the only day that any of us has to live within. Since you cannot control the future and cannot change the past, today is like every day of your life. To borrow from the ancient philosopher Heraclitus, you can only step in the same river once.

The world is always changing and the natural uncertainty requires courage. It takes courage to live in a world which might change in a moment due to a blood clot, a missed stop sign, or an unexpected illness. It takes courage to live in a world where someone might leave tomorrow, where you might lose your job at the end of your shift, and where a loose dog might catch you while you wait for the school bus. It takes courage to live in this life and while the future might seem stressful, today is really the only day that any of us have ever had to live within.

I hate to bring in ancient monastics again, but I do enjoy them. There is an applicable gem in my often quoted copy of Benedicta Ward’s “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection.” That gem is a quote from Abba Serinus. The quote goes: “Abba Serinus said, ‘I have spent my time in harvesting, sewing, and weaving, and in all these employments if the hand of God has not sustained me, I should not have been fed.’”

If you would prefer a biblical approach to the concept that life is a bit more transitory than some of us expect, Luke 12:13-21 contains a parable where Jesus warns people about the folly of building up riches on earth. A rich man has a bumper crop, plans to tear down his barns, and intends to build bigger barns to hold his massive crop. He plans to live out his days with wealth! Jesus shares that his folly is to plan to live out long days with his massive wealth. The rich man will die that very night. All of the crops from his wonderful harvest will not keep him from his own mortality.

Whether you approach the subject from the Abba’s viewpoint that all of life has led to this moment because God has provided or whether you hear Jesus’ warning about the uncertainty of tomorrow, in my opinion one thing is clear. We all have this one moment. We can respond with gratitude, make assumptions about the future, or even follow the advice of Ecclesiastes 5:18 (“This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot.”). Regardless of how we spend our days, these days are the days we have.

So, how will we spend them? If today is the day you have to live, what will you do? Will you live in fear? Will you decide to ponder what comes in every package, worry about every group of people near every polling place, or will you step forward to take your place in history? If God has brought you to this time and place, is it not your responsibility to live in this moment?

 

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I invite you to participate…

Two people named James on “Thoughts and Prayers”

I’m currently fighting a sore throat. I say this because the only medicine we had in the house was a “night-time” variety and my cough medicine is making things a bit hazy this morning. My office door is closed, I have disinfectant wipes at the ready, and I am here at my desk trying to sort through my thoughts.

The strange companions on my desk today. “Ugh drops” indeed… Clearly, the local store does not sponsor this blog. Actually, I’m the only one who sponsors this blog…

As a people, we live in challenging times. When I was a child, when we needed to learn something we had to talk to a teacher, go the library, or devise a way to find out on our own. My brother ran a dial up BBS (Bulletin Board System) in our home, but to be entirely honest, the BBS was more useful for playing video games than learning massive amounts of information. The internet may not have been in infancy, but it was certainly a toddler.

These days, we are flooded with information. This blog will reach places that my brother’s BBS would never have reached without a great deal of effort. We have more access to information and misinformation than ever. Facebook, my social media of choice, is filled with information which goes from completely factitious to unfortunately real in the space of a few swipes of a finger.

The world of information has expanded exponentially in my lifetime and I am only in my thirties. There is so much to see, so much to grasp, and only so much emotional energy with which to process it all. My brain may still be the most powerful computer I own, but it runs off of a reserve of energy that is tied to things like my mood, my mental health, my stomach, my body, and all other parts of me. A sore throat might not lessen the amazing processing power of my mind, but my focus is certainly not on the mysteries of the universe when it hurts when I swallow.

In a world that is overwhelming and complicated, it makes sense that sometimes it feels as if all we can do is offer “thoughts and prayers” when things are going awry in the world. What can I do about a bigoted law named HB 1369 stripping the right to vote from Native Americans half a country away in North Dakota when I cannot even talk on the phone without being in pain?

It makes sense, but there’s some part of me that feels a need to push back, even as my throat burns. Ironically, in Benedicta Ward’s compilation and translation “The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection” which is attributed to Abba James, who shares a name with a letter which also says something on the subject. In her translation, Benedicta Ward points out:

“[Abba James] also said, ‘We do not need words only, for at the present time, there are many words among men, but we need works for this is what is required, not words which do not bear fruit.”

These words are reminiscent of the words from the Letter of James. In the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), James 1:22-24 says:

“But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.”

For me, these words from the Letter of James relate directly to the words from Abba James which were shared centuries later. The letter calls out at people to become doers of the words. Hearing is wonderful, but there is something powerful about moving beyond hearing to acting. As Abba James points out, there are many who hear, many who speak, but not enough who act. This sentiment is forcefully and famously restated in James 2, where its says:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

We must connect our words and our deeds. How does that look when you are sitting in an office with a sore throat and trying not to give anything to a church full of preschoolers, teachers, and paid/volunteer church staff? Well, that is my question to answer for today. How will you respond to a world which needs you to do more than simply speak?

Moving past the Milk

Today I was pondering the scriptures. One of my regular habits is to spend my Monday afternoon going through various books and passages seeking a word for myself, for a congregation member, or for the community. I was reading through a passage from Hebrews 6 and found myself caught up in verses 1-3. Hebrews 6:1-3 says the following in the New Revised Standard Version:

“Therefore let us go on toward perfection, leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, and not laying again the foundation: repentance from dead works and faith toward God, instruction about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And we will do this, if God permits.”

Now, I found this passage was catching my eye, so I stopped to ask why it caught my attention. I slowed down and checked context. Hebrews 6:7-8 states:

“Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed; its end is to be burned over.”

Going further on in the chapter, Hebrews 6 states in verses 10-13:

“For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

So, looking forward through the sixth chapter, we see a strong correlation between the warning (do not stay put), with a checking on the results (what is growing in your field), and a reassurance that God will not overlook the work and love of the audience, which is tied to the full assurance of hope.

This ties together with what follows this chapter as a conversation of Melchizedek, the priestly function, and the completeness of the work of our High Priest Jesus Christ. Indeed, the conversation continues until a “therefore” appears in chapter 10. In chapter 10, Hebrews is translated as saying: (10:19-25)

“Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

So, we have a call to move beyond the basics, a call to good works and love, and ultimately a “therefore” that encourages us to live life assured of faith with clean hearts. We are called not only to have hope, but to hold fast to our hope in the belief that Christ is faithful. From that place of faithfulness and confidence, we are called to ponder how we might provoke each other on toward further good deeds and love. This call to community, good deeds, and love is where we are called to go from the basics listed in Hebrews 6:1-3.

This is challenging, because there are many times in life when it seems easier to focus upon these basic matters. As a United Methodist minister, I am questioned regularly about how many people I get to confess their faith, join my church, and be baptized. There are entire ministries whose only goal seems to be leading others to this place of basic belief (in the eyes of Hebrews), and then to move on to the next person. “Once saved, always saved“ is a motto of some of those who believe this is the only call of Christ.

The writer of Hebrews challenges this belief in my sight. The writer says (immediately preceding the call to move forward in 6:1-3) of those who he is addressing (in chapter 5:11-14):

“About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.”

What we need to move beyond… (Image: Santeri Viinamäki [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons))

These basic concepts that the authors of Hebrews is addressing (matters which have concerned the church for millennia and have been the cause of war, debate, and suffering) are listed as the simple matters which should be understood by those who have not progressed beyond the basics. The writer of Hebrews even seems to imply that those who do not progress beyond a focus on such things have a bit of “dullness” around them.

All of this begs the question. Where is God calling the church? Certainly we do not abandon the foundation of what we believe, but where is God calling us? Is it to endlessly repeat the basic foundational principles or to move on toward something greater? Where do those building blocks lead us? Do our ministries spur us on toward good works and love? If they spur us on toward hate or self-service, is it time to consider retooling or scraping those ministries altogether?

There are many things to ponder and I do not offer answers, but the question should be asked? Are we moving beyond the milk? If so, where are we headed?