Let Us Ramble: On Split Animals

So, after the busyness of the Lenten season and a week taken away to provide childcare for my three children during their spring break, I am back in the saddle again. In the next few weeks I will be preparing for the next session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation and then it is time to prepare for Annual Meetings, so you can guess the direction of posts as those events draw closer.

In the meantime, in between changing diapers for my smiler and breaking up youthful hijinks between the two elder gooseballs, I have been pondering a passage from the Book of Genesis. In particular, I have been thinking about the nature of covenant.

As a pastor, I am surrounded by covenantal relationships. I have a covenant with God in my own personal spiritual life, a covenant with my wife to remain faithful until death parts us, a covenant with God to care for the children I have been entrusted with as a parent, a covenant with God to care for the people I minister with in my appointment as a minister, a covenant with the Maine Federated Church to support this local church, a covenant exists between the United Methodist Church and the Maine Federated Church that sets the guidelines for how the church cares for me and the parsonage in which I live, a covenant with the United Church of Christ to minister on their behalf in this community, a covenant between myself and other United Methodist Elders in my Conference’s Order of Elders, a covenant between myself and all pastors and deacons that serve within our common denomination, and finally a covenant with myself. Like I said, there’s a lot of covenant relationships in my life.

If that run-on sentence above doesn’t prove the point that it makes sense that I think about covenant a lot, then let me just assure you that I do think seriously about covenant and covenantal requirements often. Covenants are often conflicting and challenging. Which covenant takes priority on a daily basis? Do I spend another night away this month at another meeting or do I spend time with my children who sometimes don’t really see me except an hour a day some weeks? Do I sit in the office and wait for someone to come by the church or go visit people who cannot leave their homes? Do I blog about the nature of covenant or do I spend another few hours writing letters to church members? Covenants are complicated.

Genesis 15 lays out a sign of the covenant that is quite gruesome. Animals are split into two pieces and in the midst of the night a flaming torch and a smoking fire pot pass between the two lines of animal parts. It seems a bit gross, but the reality behind the imagery is even more frightening. In covenantal language, the promise is made. May I become like these animals (split in two) if I break this covenant. The severity of the response to a break in covenant is intentionally graphic, intentionally troubling, and intentionally recorded for the people so that they understand the importance of their covenant with God.

So, being surrounded by covenants, what do we do? Do we look at our relationship with God as being so important that we might be divided in two if we were to break it? Do we look at our relationship in the marriage covenant as being so powerfully binding? I have never been divorced, but many of the people I know who have been through the process refer to it as being a traumatic and spiritually violent process—almost as if they were torn in two. Do we look at our relationships we share with our beloved family in the church the same way? I know few places where a falling out can be as traumatic as in a church. Hearts break in those circumstances.

In honesty, where I found myself pondering covenant a lot this week was while thinking about the United Methodist Church. Are we facing a breaking in covenant as a whole? Have we been so brutally biased in our approaches to each other, to the looming conversations, and in our application of church politics that we have missed basic concepts such as loving each other? Has a lack of love led to a breaking of covenant? Are we tearing ourselves apart in some literally testimony to the concept that broken covenant leads to torn relationship and a torn body split in two?

As we go through this season of resurrection, what does it mean to go forward in covenant with a God who moves past death into life? There is much to ponder this Eastertide. I pray that we all go forward with love and peace.

Let us Seek: Blessed Relationships

For me, today’s readings from the Revised Common Lectionary are falling on blessed ears. In particular, I feel very blessed by one verse in the selections. 1 Peter 3:8 immediately drew my attention when I read through the readings this morning. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the verse says “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” The New International Version translates this passage “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble.” The old school King James Version translates this passage “Finally, be ye all of one mind, having compassion one of another, love as brethren, be pitiful, be courteous:”

While I don’t often read The Message, 1 Peter 3:8-12 is a good read as well:

Summing up: Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing and also get a blessing.

Whoever wants to embrace life
and see the day fill up with good,
Here’s what you do:
Say nothing evil or hurtful;
Snub evil and cultivate good;
run after peace for all you’re worth.
God looks on all this with approval,
listening and responding well to what he’s asked;
But he turns his back
on those who do evil things.

I was drawn to this passage today because I was reminded of the value of loving others yesterday. I had a good long conversation with a colleague who has been slowly becoming a friend since the creation of the Upper New York Annual Conference. We talked about the future of the church over a delicious Persian lunch and talked about our own journeys in her church after the meal had ended. Our time was a blessing.

It reminded me of many conversations that I have had with other colleagues and friends over the years. The time together reminded me of late night debates and conversation in the dorms, dining halls, and at BT’s with my friends from Roberts Wesleyan College. The time together reminded me of sitting at study groups at a diner on Route 104 and over the bookstore counter in seminary at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. The conversation reminded me of the relationships I have built at Annual Conferences with my sisters and brothers in the United Methodist Church first in Buffalo as a part of Western New York Annual Conference and then at the OnCenter in Syracuse with the Upper New YOrk Annual Conference. The time in fellowship reminded me of the deep conversations that took place and the relationships we have built at Silver Bay and in Rochester through the Annual Meeting of the UCC which I shared with newfound sisters and brothers over the past few years. I was reminded of all of these blessed ministries through time with a colleague who is becoming a friend.

The next two weeks are going to be very busy for me as a pastor. There are a lot of meetings to attend for both of the denominations that I serve. There are a lot of things that I will need to get done in order to do the very best I can in those situations. While I imagine that the UCC Annual Meeting will not likely be very stressful for me (due to the very congenial and loving nature of the folks that I generally have experienced during those meetings), I know that the UMC Annual Conference will definitely have moments of tension and stress. I am entering a very busy time in my year, but occasions like the one I engaged in yesterday remind me that there are blessings ahead.

The Message tells us to snub evil and cultivate good. How does one cultivate good? You cultivate good in the garden world by taking good care of your soil, maintaining healthy plants, and keeping pests (and pets) away from your plants. In time, plants grow because you care for them. I imagine that the next few weeks will have many opportunities to cultivate relationships. I pray that I take the time to cultivate good in the midst of all of the challenges.

One of our zucchini plants in hand-tilled earth!

The King James Version reminds us to have compassion for one another. In situations of stress and challenge, can be easy to desire victory at any cost. The act of having compassion is an act which can be a blessing in situations that naturally lead to division. The act of receiving compassion is an act which can be a blessing in situations that naturally lead to withdrawal from relationship. King James Version of this verse reminds us to enter into a reciprocal sharing of compassion. Compassion passed around a circle of folks just like we pass around the cup during communion. The body and blood of Christ for everyone around the table–the compassion of sisters and brothers for all in the family.

The New International Version binds together compassion with humility. In this translation we are reminded to go beyond compassion for others. We are invited to enter into humility. We are invited to humility when we live in a world where there are groups calling for win/lose scenarios. Humility in victory might mean not letting it go to your head. Compassion and humility in victory might mean sitting in grief with those who believe different than you. Humility in loss might mean taking the long view of matters instead of taking it as a critique of your position, your belief, or your character. Humility and compassion in loss might remind you to look beyond yourself even as your grieve. Hopefully, humility and compassion might lead us to seek situations where there are no winners or losers. We might be led to places where we are family instead of combatants.

The New Revised Standard Version reminds us to have tender hearts. This challenge might be greater than any other challenge for those of us who have been in the trenches of denominational squabbles for years. I am reminded by my friend and colleague that there is room for tenderness and growth in relationship even when everyone at the table has had challenges in their past. There is still room for love and growth in hearts that often wear suits of armor into challenging meetings. If we can risk being vulnerable, there may be places where even hearts broken with grief and loss can find new life.

I am thankful for this verse today and for all the colleagues and friends who have shared love with me over the years. I am grateful that love still rests at the heart of what it means to be Christian.