Spiritual Renewal is Crucial!

I have had a very productive week. I managed to write the first draft of my sermon for Sunday on Thursday afternoon. This came on the heels of working in the food pantry at church and knowing that choir rehearsal was later in the day.
Each day I have taken a self imposed mini retreat. My goal is to spend one hour either doing research and/or writing. So far, I have met my goal.

This week marked my first week not in seminary. For three years my focus has been on a class, a paper, or a project. Every goal I had seemed centered on an academic achievement.

After seminary, I was afraid of losing that spark that drove me to finish my degree. If this week is any indication of what is to come, I should not be worried.

I realized today that one can become complacent and not seek out ways to make life interesting. Actually, I felt that way before seminary. I felt like my professional life was in a big rut and that I was simply going to exist. One of the many gifts I learned while in school is that I do have the ability to make my own choices.

I couldn’t remember when I practiced a consistent spiritual discipline before I went to school. I was not aware that my life depends on maintaining moments of spiritual renewal. For me, a spiritual discipline is crucial.

I am not necessarily talking about a religious commitment, but about some type of reflective study which links me to the divine. It may be in a time of prayer, or writing, or even research. These are times when I block the world out and connect to a sacred space in my life. Seminary taught me how to speak and be in that part of myself which felt “stuck.” Allowing time with the sacred reminds me of hope and excitement. I feel alive.

Today, I am grateful for the experience of going to school and being the first person in my family to receive a master’s degree. I also am grateful that I have the opportunity to practice my spiritual discipline in a way that revives me.

The Journey Through the Exile

I am now an official commissioned pastor in the United Methodist Church. Up until this point, I served as a local pastor. Being a local pastor meant that I served one church in my annual conference. I could not offer the sacraments outside of my assigned church. Moving from local to commissioned pastor meant that I turned in forms and answered questions and completed my seminary degree. All of these things were read, questions were asked, and I moved on. I may now offer the sacraments at any gathering of which I am a part. As John Wesley said, “The world is my parish.”

I completed the first part of the process to full ordination. Hopefully, after a three year provisional period which includes more answers to questions and additional forms, I will be ordained as an elder in full connection with the church. The list seems to never end. I finish one set goals only to discover there are another set of goals. I keep wondering if I will ever complete the journey.
Despite the many hoops through which I am required to jump, I have enjoyed this journey into answering the calling which God placed on my life.

Last week I preached from the Book of Ezra and discussed the issue of exile. The biggest question with which I struggled was the question, “Why did God allow this to happen?” While I dismiss any notion that God simply stands aside and allows bad things or events to happen, I cannot get away from the fact that God acts in the middle of horrible circumstances.

Many times in my life, I have felt as if I was in a spiritual exile. I felt as if life, and God for that matter, had been unfair and I was left wandering through the wilderness. As I struggled in exile, God came to me and guided me through the desert. I have learned to be grateful for the journeys that I must take through the wilderness so that I may be led to the streams from which living water flows.

In the Beginning

June 1, 2010 Tuesday
“In the beginning God created….” I never stopped to think of the implications of that first little phrase of the Hebrew Bible. Yes. I get that God created the heavens, earth, plants, animals, people, but I don’t believe that God’s creation stalls at the beginning of an ancient text. The truth is we have many beginnings in our lives. I am starting out on a new journey having recently finished my MDIV. I could tell you all of the ways that God “created” in my life as I journeyed through numerous papers, flying back and forth from Albuquerque to Denver to attend classes. Yes, there are numerous “beginning” stories in my life.
I want to focus on the newest of all beginnings in my journey. On Friday evening, I will be commissioned as a provisionary elder in the United Methodist faith. I will be considered provisional for three years. After that period of time, I will become and elder in full connection. In a way it is like receiving tenure.
This new “creation” in my life is a bit overwhelming and a tad scary. It is at the beginning of this journey, which could be riddled with self doubt and fear, God steps into the picture and creates. I begin my narrative immediately linking it to the Biblical narrative. The God, who created the world, creates a new beginning in me.

Strength in the time of Chaos

“Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights” (Hab. 3:17-19).
When one has a child that is diagnosed with a medical issue, in my families’ case it was hemophilia, the rug seems to be pulled out from under the family. The diagnosis came as a complete shock. My wife and I felt like our world had been taken out from under us. What was supposed to be a happy event, changed into something that was, at first, catastrophic. The only place that we could turn was to God. It was with that diagnosis in mind that I first read this prayer from Habakkuk. Its words were very powerful to me as I began to find hope in the midst of chaos. I took Habakkuk’s example and claimed strength in the time of trial as the ultimate place for comfort and reassurance was found in God.
This passage is a beautiful prayer which reinforces the steadiness of God. Judah would face destruction if its economic resources were to be destroyed. Even though destruction would occur if everything that provided sustenance were to vanish, Habakkuk still pledged his devotion to God. Habakkuk claimed victory over destruction because of God’s promise to give him strength in the midst of trials.
We have all had our Habakkuk moments when the trials of life became so great that we could not see the good in anything. Life becomes overwhelming to say the very least. I hope that I can be like Habakkuk in those very tough times. I hope that I can look out over what I perceive as destruction and remember that the one who created beauty out of chaos promised that I will be kept safe.
Habakkuk also reminds me to stop focusing on my problems and turn my eyes towards God. It is when I focus on the presence of the Divine in my life that I remember that I have hope in the middle of darkness. It is through God that I can pull myself out of a bad situation and rely on the spiritual strength given by God. I will run with a power like I have never had before. Strength in the middle of crisis is what this psalm to God claims.
Years have come and gone since we first heard the diagnosis of hemophilia. We no longer look at the diagnosis as catastrophic, but we find strength in the blessings that we have been given as a result of this little life coming into our world. Yes we have needles in our house, and yes we have a medical closet that could rival some small hospitals, but we have our son who was our gift in the middle of a devastating storm.

J.B. and Job

The ending of the Book of Job, 42:7-17, contrasts sharply to the ending of the play J.B. written by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Archibald MacLeish. While the play claims that the end of the story will occur, it does not present a completely tidy ending. The end of the Book of Job provides a very happy ending in which Job is restored to an even better place. The theology of Job stresses the importance of maintaining a personal relationship with God. This relationship endures suffering and pain. Throughout the tragedies of life, Job remains faithful.

In MacLeish’s play, it is Nickles (who is Satan) that returns to the story. His ending dialogue with J.B. suggests that humanity can be pushed to the brink of despair. He is proved wrong as we learn that Sarah, J.B.’s wife, came back. Nickles is forced to surrender his lowered expectations of humanity. Perhaps the premise of the return of Satan was to continue to speak hopelessness in the midst of hope. In the Book of Job, Satan’s voice is muffled quickly and is not present in the speeches of the other characters including the wisdom literature of God and Job’s own proclamation of remaining true to God’s path.

MacLeish unleashes Satan’s voice from the very beginning to the very end of the play. Perhaps this voice might emphasize Job’s struggles in a more human light. Our minds are constantly bombarded with messages of conflict and frustration. Nickles’ voice reminds us that there is still struggle in our enlightenment. There is confusion in our hope.

Another key issue regarding the ending of both the play J.B. and Job is the role of the wife in J.B. All that is told in the Book of Job is that Job’s wealth and health were restored. Scripture treated the wife as property. The most important role that she plays in the Book of Job is to tell Job to “curse God and die” (Job 2:9 NRSV). In MacLeish’s play she is J.B.’s partner. Her return at the end of play is so powerful that Nickles (Satan) himself must accept defeat. When Sarah is at the door, Nickles leaves. The power of human love overcomes any plague or mind game that Satan can deliver. J.B. concludes that “God does not love. He Is.” Sarah responds “But we do. That’s the wonder” (MacLeish 152). Theologically I do not agree with the concept that God does not love. The whole premise of the Christian faith is built upon the concept that God loved us so much that he sent His son (Jesus).

Sarah’s power is also found in the commitment to her husband. Amid the rubble of life they stand together as a unified force. Together they will sift through the ashes of the city as well as their marriage to discover beauty (as the petals that are present). J.B.’s fortunes were restored to him through the relationship with his wife. There is an analogy at the end of the play that Sarah and J.B. refer to as “the coal of the heart” (153). Coal is energy and when heated produces energy as a source of warmth. Perhaps the struggle to find the heat by which to warm the heart is a challenge for all of us as we find those things that hold us together as a couple, community, and world. It is with a more realistic ending that J.B. offers a message of redemption in a refreshingly new light.

BS2615-1 The Bible as seen through the eyes of those with disabilities

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. (John 9:1-3 NRSV).

Deborah Creamer’s interview brought to light that those with disabilities may read certain Biblical passages differently than those without disabilities. Many of you know that both of my boys have severe Hemophilia Factor VIII Deficiency. Basically, there is a clotting shortage in their blood. They must take medication in order to clot. Unfortunately, the only way to be cured of hemophilia is to have a liver transplant. It is a life time disorder and does not change severity. The recessive gene which carries the code is passed along the X chromosome and the mother is the one with the altered DNA. When a child is born with hemophilia, there is a tremendous amount of guilt that many women suffer because of the genetic circumstance.

I discovered the above verses from John and read them with new eyes. As Debbie mentioned in her interview, we tend to generically read many of the scriptural texts. This particular scripture (John 9:1-3) provided tremendous insight into my own life as to the reason behind my children having hemophilia. In some ways this was a source of comfort, but in other ways was a source of anger. Why did my children have to be born so that “God’s works might be revealed in them?” Wasn’t there another way that God’s works might have been shown?

Debbie’s interview reminded me that, like my children, I read the passages on healing with a different lens. My oldest son is 13 years old. I wonder how my son read the passages regarding healing. Does he struggle with some of the questions that Debbie brought up regarding healing? In the interview she addresses several different ways that someone with disabilities may respond to the Biblical text. There are some who dismiss any problems with the text in a generic sense. There are others who call their faith into question. If one is faced with the kind of faith that measures the amount of faith to the amount of healing, there is the potential for enormous damage when healing does not occur.

The interview made me realize that I need to be sensitive to my sons and how they interpret the Biblical passages of healing. I must be able to hear their struggles with the passages in which healing brings wholeness. The Biblical text from John 9:1-3 is a very good beginning to understanding how our fellow believers with disabilities interpret the texts of healing.

Our Unique God

11Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east,* they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ 5The LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. 6And the LORD said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.’ 8So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. 9Therefore it was called Babel, because there the LORD confused* the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

I watched a video of Marcus Borg last week. The conversation centered on the nature of Biblical interpretation. Borg’s approach is to treat the ancient writings as being steeped in mythology. These qualities are expressed in the Biblical text of Genesis 11:1-9. While one might agree that the elements of mythology are fully present in the Biblical text, it is the interpretation of the passage that accentuates the inspired component of Biblical understanding. In the story of the Tower of Babel, God is depicted as not being omniscient, has at least one heavenly compatriot, and is the author of confusion.

James Kugel’s depiction of the ancient “model” of God as not being omniscient is fully realized in the story of the Tower of Babel (Kugel 108). In reading the narrative one clearly sees that God must move to view the city in Genesis 11:5. God had to move down to view the city of Babel which implies he was up somewhere and not present in the city. This ancient description of God as having to move, or not knowing what is fully going on, is in stark contrast to the descriptions of God that are present in the later Biblical texts (Psalm 139).

In Gen. 11:7 there is the implication that God is not alone. God enables the other spirits, or the other spirit with Him, to move down to witness what is happening in the city. This is not the first time in scripture that God implies that there is a dialogue occurring in the heavenly realm. In the creation story God says, “Let us make humankind in our own image” (Gen. 1:26). In the story of The Fall God says, “See, the man has become like one of us” (Gen. 3:22). Who or what else is with God in this story? The three verses that suggest a heavenly court offer no hint as to who else is with God. In following a Trinitarian model of God, the other figures present might include the Son and the Holy Spirit. The concept of the “other” is a part of the story that is left to interpretation. The other participants with God never speak. God does all of the talking. Utilizing reader-response criticism as found in the Post-modern Bible suggests that the interpretation of the “other” is dependent upon “the psychological cluster, interactive cluster, and social or structural models” (Postmodern 27).

Another component of the passage of Genesis 11:1-9 is that God is the author of confusion. Verse 7 indicates that God created confusion on purpose. God created different languages and scattered the people all over the world. There is an implied assumption about this story that humanity was part of one city. Earlier texts seemed to indicate that this was not the case reinforcing Borg’s interpretation of the passages as mythological in nature. There is also the open ended question of why would God create chaos?

While I agree with the idea of many Biblical stories being mythological, there are certain characteristics of God that are present in this text. God is the prime mover and is all powerful so as to create language and scatter the people all over the world. These primitive concepts of God will be developed as society matures.

Doubts in the Middle of Storms

23 And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. 24A gale arose on the lake, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. 25And they went and woke him up, saying, ‘Lord, save us! We are perishing!’ 26And he said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, you of little faith?’ Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. 27They were amazed, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?’ (Matt. 8:23-27 NRSV).

Several issues surround this amazing story of Jesus. One issue I question is his ability to sleep in the middle of a storm that was so powerful that water washed over the boat. I think it is safe to say that Jesus was a very heavy sleeper. As this story enfolds the disciples plead with Jesus to do something. Jesus’ response was one of amazement that the disciples still didn’t get it. They did not understand that Jesus was the Son of God. The disciples’ response to this miracle is evidence that they had no idea that they were in the presence of the Son of God.

The disciples had witnessed many other miracles before this miracle. Why did they still question Jesus? Why didn’t they simply believe? They met the living God face to face, but still doubted. What amazes me is that, despite witnessing this miracle, there would still be doubt and actual denial.

I am, sad to say that I am a lot like the disciples. I have experienced the presence of God in my life. I have witnessed his works as I move towards ordination. I have seen him heal my soul and I, who once was spiritually blind, now see. Why do I still continue to doubt?

Although Jesus questioned the faith of the disciples, there is a positive about what the disciples did. They acknowledged and went to the one who could calm the storm. The story does not say, though it implies, that the disciples had no idea how Jesus would help. The only thing they knew was that he was there source of comfort. They knew that he was the one to run to for answers. They, in their doubts, had no idea what Jesus would do or say to help get them out of a bad situation. They simply went to the right place.

This story reflects the fact that there are storms racing all around us in our lives. We are flooded with financial issues, day to day worries, and crisis that occur. We only need to turn to that calm presence that is in the boat, so to speak, with us. The God who calms the sea restores and refreshes our souls. He is with us. We must turn to him and ask for His help.

Be Still My Soul
Be still, my soul; the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul; thy best, thy heavenly, Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

by Catharina von Schlegel, 1697-?
Translated by Jane Borthwick, 1813-1897

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