In the month of May we’ll be talking at Church in Bethesda about knowing God’s will. You know, a simple little thing like that. I started a chart, though I like to call it a “matrix” of my thoughts so far. I’ll throw it in this post at the bottom. We all know the movie, but do you know what a matrix is? I went to dictionary.com to see if I was using it properly… it’s a starting place or point of origin. I like that.
Anyway… look the matrix over and throw me any suggestions. Here’s a brief explanation of it I’ll be sharing on Sunday morning… “The chart is my attempt to gather my thoughts on moving forward with, knowing and entering into God’s will in life. The seven circles are representative of the ways I have thought of God’s will being accessible to us and the different applications of that divine will, and their interdependence (over-lapping). To the side of the circles I tried to describe the “avenues of knowing” or the scope in which we seek and apply that will. I also brainstormed a short list of concepts, activities, hopes and implications of God’s will… we’ll talk about these and more as we process this together, leave the matrix behind and approach a type of “solution.”
As you look it over and think about this week, I’d like to say just a few words about the interdependence (overlap) of the circles: I take it very seriously. I believe that we can move through life very connected to God and what God hopes and dreams for this world, and I believe that keeping all our circles over-lapped is key to not getting off in undesirable country. I mean it like this: Some folks are better at intuiting things, and some are more knowledgeable with the scriptures, just as some are wrapped up in the daily personal things of life while others have more time and opportunity to grapple with the global, cosmic issues… we need one another in this endeavor. It would be very difficult for one person to tackle all this alone: we need one another. Intuiting without a good grasp of scripture can easily go awry, just as imposing views of scripture divorced from a connection to living, breathing people can be suffocating and deadly. God has some daily concerns and some comic concerns, how do they interrelate? Divorcing God’s love of us and God’s love of creation, I believe, is a great example of how we Christians have lived an imbalance in the world that helped create some of our environmental problems today.”
Second Sunday of Advent
I enjoyed the liturgical passages for today, especially the Peaceable Kingdom verses in Isaiah. In case you haven’t seen them, those passages were as follows: Isaiah 11:1-10, Psalm 72:1-7 & 18-19; Romans 15:4-13, and Mathew 3:1-12. Next week’s passages are included in the church calendar on the website.
In the sermon time I spoke with a copy of one of Edward Hicks’ paintings behind me, a painting of the peaceable kingdom. He was a cool, Quaker sign-painter quite a while ago. Google him and you can learn all you ever wanted to know about his work. We had several of his paintings at the Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and I enjoyed his style back then as now.
What a beautiful picture… the Peaceable Kingdom. It’s a haunting image of all the animals and serpents and infants wallowing in a seemingly blissful harmony. And as Hicks’ paintings all had social and political ideas strung through the with the scriptural imagery and meaning, so today the image of the peaceable kingdom laid out for us in Isaiah can be read and used in many different ways. I Googled it last week and found a website using it to promote a vegetarian lifestyle. Even though I have all kinds of respect for vegetarians, I doubt seriously that the leopards had turned to bean curd and the lion to mango smoothies. I appreciated so much the thoughts that Michael shared during communion of their appetites being so satisfied by God that they had no need any longer to kill and eat one another. What a great insight.
You see, as I dwelt on the passage throughout the week I came to realize that the image might be getting in my way. The image follows a description of the One who comes to make the kingdom possible. The kingdom is not the hope, but the One who comes is the hope, the point. The kingdom simply follows after, very naturally.
The kingdom is the daily manifestation of the One’s sovereignty. Go back and read that description of the One, Isaiah 11:1-5! How can I miss that the point is not found in lions and lambs and leopards and snakes, but in the coming of the One, and the reign of such a Sovereign that can change us into a community of peace, allowing us to take our place in that great mosaic of justice and truth?
So, we have our baby Jesus in a manger… another image that we get so caught up adoring and fighting to have on display. I love that image! I don’t want a single nativity scene going back in the closet! But, I also want to make sure that I don’t allow the images I pick and choose to be able to distract me from the realty of what is happening.
Here’s what I mean… I was thinking this past week about the whole birth scene of Christ. I started to have a few questions: What was Joseph thinking? He took Mary on a road trip when she was nearing the end of her term? What was Mary thinking? Why didn’t they use Expedia.com or call ahead and book a room? We won’t hardly let pregnant women fly these days, especially not in their third term! Why was there nothing for Joseph there in the “city of his family?” He’s the hometown boy, and he’s got no strings to pull?
But, then I remembered a little something… you know our sensitivities are probably a lot more delicate than Mary’s and Joseph’s. I mean, we are constantly building bigger and better hospitals, fine-tuning every aspect of the experience, incurring more and more debt. Why? Because our sensibilities say that no baby should be born into anything but a $2000 a day, psychologically soothing birthing suite with a flat-screen TV, movies and good drugs on demand.
Joseph and Mary don’t seem to put off by the manger. And neither does God. I mean, God can arrange for the star, but not a room at a Best Western? Of course, God could do anything needed in the situation, but a room at the inn didn’t make the cut. Even so, it was the orchestration of the whole scene that grabbed me. John is sent to “prepare the way.” There’s a census in the empire. Jesus’ family must go to the prophetic town of Bethlehem. (Every knows that the Messiah will be born there!) Angels are dispatched to alert the shepherds and a star is hung to announce to any and all with the ability to read it, “This is the place!”
There was a fair level of orchestration going on here, but not the theatrics that the manger can become for us. The momentous event is the arrival of the One, the arrival of Christ.
The images are great stuff and have stood the test of time. But they are there to convey the ultimate glory of the One who has come, is coming, is here. The Peaceable Kingdom is about the reign of One who can change our lives and bring us the peace. The manger could have been anything, and it would have made no difference to the coming of the One. I read a little further in the Romans passage, in fact into the next chapter, chapter 14… and in the context of our making sure of our mutual respect and acceptance of one another, Paul pens these words,..
“For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too. So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up.”
The peaceable kingdom is not lions and lambs, but you and I. The Kingdom of God is not what we eat and drink, but how we meet and greet. If I could take the liberty to just pull the kingdoms together for a moment, we’re talking always about the reign of God in a people who claim to be beholden to such a King. The making of congregation is the manifest image of the kingdom as we submit to the reign and the sovereignty that calls us together. There is no other way to make the peaceable kingdom, to dream such dreams, than to give ourselves, our fealty, our will to God for the using. I love the idea of satisfaction that Michael shared, and I also believe that the lions are simply commanded not to kill the lambs. Isn’t that the point of the strong caring for the weak? We are beholden to One who calls us to peace, regardless of the many appetites that might also call to us.
We finished our sermon time with a prayer by St. Ignatius Loyola. I read it in the plural sense for our corporate worship, but I’ll render it here, faithfully, as it was written:
“Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty,
my memory, my understanding and my whole will.
All that I am and all that I possess
You have given me.
I surrender it all to You
to be disposed of according to Your will.
Give me only Your love and Your grace;
with these I will be rich enough,
and will desire nothing more.”
St. Ignatius Loyola
I suffer from an affliction, and I don’t know how many of you can empathize. So often in life I rent a movie, and it turns out to be really bad, really lame, but I must watch it all the way thru. It is monumentally difficult for me to stop a movie part way thru. This has lead me to see a lot of sorry movies, in their totality.
I have also seen some movies that began pretty slow, but around the midway point starting heating up and got good. And I was glad for the inability to walk away at the rough start.
The story of Jesus isn’t like that. From the beginning, things are happening and people are popping up that demand our attention and warrant our sticking around to see where this thing goes.
Think for a moment with me of the way this the story begins to unfold…
⊕ Zechariah and Elizabeth, barren, visited by an angel, and conceiving a son. John is their son, who would be known as the Baptizer, the forerunner who would lay the finishing touches for the arrival of his cousin.
⊕ Of course, there’s Mary and Joseph, engaged, visited by angles, unexpectedly and seemingly miraculously pregnant, caught up in a sudden political necessity that sets them on the road for Bethlehem on the eve of her delivery… Bethlehem, the town of prophecy, a humble place, and yet a place where the prophets of old had pointed and said, “Watch.”
⊕ Jesus is born and more angles appear, gathering some shepherds from the fields to come and bear witness. I’m comforted folks, that these shepherds are called to witness… we aren’t told they’re in the line of kings, they aren’t priests, they’re humble shepherds. If they can be called to bear witness, then I know that I can be as well.
⊕ As an infant Jesus is taken to the Temple and there awaits Simeon the Prophet who raises Jesus and proclaims to God, “I have seen your salvation!” And then there’s Anna, the sweet widow Anna, who praises God at the sight of Jesus and picks up where the angels with the shepherds left off, telling everyone she sees, “Jesus is here.”
⊕ But, we’re not done yet, because some wise men of the East still have to drop in looking for this child, the new king of the Jews. They had seen his star in sky… the arrival of Jesus being what it was, an announcement seemed to be placed in the sky for those able to read it, and follow the directions, even from far away.
⊕ And the arrival of the wise men leads to a dramatic escape to Egypt for the family of Jesus, fleeing the murderous wrath of the petty King Herod who could not stomach the idea that prophecy and events were coming together to announce such an arrival.
No, this story starts off running and soon careens into the political and religious maelstrom of the day. And we find more and more characters along the way, who like the humble shepherds, invite us into the story with their authenticity and honesty. One of my favorites is the man in Mark 9, when a father brings a son to Jesus and his followers for healing… and ends up in a fascinating conversation with Jesus… Mark 9::14-29. When a story like this one starts rolling in such a fashion, it’s hard to not be a little overwhelmed. And I relate to a parent who believes that going to Jesus is the right move, but there’s still room for growing that belief! It’s an expression of humility and inadequacy when caught up in a compelling story that feels just too good to flip channels and look away.
“Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed,
‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!’”
I love the season of Advent. We need to start again each year, returning to the beginning of this story, the conflict, the miraculous, the hopes and machinations of both God and humanity. It becomes for us a needed anchor, a place to remember the belief of a previous year and the need for even more belief in the year that waits to begin.
My prayer for this Advent Season, for myself and for this church family, is to humbly join that father in Mark 9, “We do believe, help us in our unbelief!”
I have enjoyed the writings of a very smart lady named Marva Dawn, and in a book she co-wrote with Eugene Peterson she penned these simple but true words, “You cannot help but be disillusioned if only Santa Claus come to your house. But if the one you yearn for is the Christ Child, you will never be disappointed, for he always comes.”
So, welcome to Advent.
Oh, man. I should’ve known that if I preached three weeks on what it means to be a good neighbor that a test my authenticity might be arranged. The photo above is what I woke up to on Saturday. My neighbor, who is building a new home next door, needed to pump out his flooded basement. So he removed a piece of fence between our yards and piped the water into my backyard… that’s what the photo is, his pipe that emptied his basement into my yard. All I know is that the words popping into my head weren’t learned in seminary.
That pipe has to be chalked up to “bad neighborliness.” The question for me is, “What is my response? What is my responsibility as a neighbor, regardless of his?” Believe me, I thought about tearing the pipe up and throwing it in his yard. I thought about calling County offices. I wondered what exciting things I could pipe from my house over to his.
I’m hoping that may not be exactly what he told his construction crew to do. I don’t know because there wasn’t anyone around yesterday or today to ask. I’ll be watching tomorrow. I did find out that one of the church office assistants told him he could do something, but she didn’t think he was planning to pipe into my backyard. So he probably acted with something he felt was akin to permission.
So, I’ve been cool… no graffiti next door, no hexes or curses on anyone’s holiday shopping. I’m trying to find that happy place, that place and time of contented cool out of which I can express my extreme distaste for that pipe, a sincere hope it will leave and never return, and a real conviction that I will use County authorities to make sure it doesn’t, but only if I am forced to it.
So, here’s hoping…
You know I didn’t do this kind of a post for Mother’s Day… I hope you can forgive me. But I thought I would collect here some of my thoughts I am sharing with a class tomorrow morning, the Sunday which we celebrate as Father’s Day.
What does our Bible most often give us, as pertaining to God? My thoughts are running something like this:
The scriptures give us (not exclusively) images of God in a quest to help us know God and love God. I’m daring in my sense of over-simplification, but I think the idea rings true enough.
Not being divine oursleves, not divine in essence or personality, we’re not able to perceive God in a full, undiluted manner… so the images of scripture quite naturally flow from our own context and existence to be understandable and cogent.
And here’s a point of distinction… these images must be allowed to function in ways that help us know and love, but not allowed to funtion in ways that circumscribe God. It’s healthy to remember that scripures aid us in knowing God, not “figuring God out.”
So, let’s cruise some (just a few) images: father, mother, bridegroom, shepherd, potter… and later in a fuller way, son and spirit. To help enliven our images we have some amazing verbs that come along with the God of our scriptures… God loves, hates, marries, becomes jealous, divorces, forgives, molds and fashions, protects, calls, sends, speaks, listens, and remembers.
I was in an unexpected and interesting snatch of conversation this past week when a friend bemoaned the fact that some of the push towards inclusive language in church culture and vocabulary was actually excluding the masculine. So, in a rush to make God not exclusively masculine, we might try to make God not masculine. But God is masculine. And God is feminine.
And God is so far past those adjectives and realities that after they help us understand and love God a little more than we have previously, we have to remind ourselves that our being drawn to God is the point of this exercise, not divine sexuality. When the images wear a little thin or start to get too bossy, leave them aside for a few weeks and come back to them… let them breathe a little.
Fellas, there’s not a doubt that the father image, the masculine image, is the hands-down winner of which image pops up most through the scriptures. But I don’t think that really gives us much reason for self-congratulaion or high-fiving. If anything, we might uniquely have a bar set pretty high for the love of a bridegroom, the patience of a father, the sacrifice of a parent. *sigh*
So, let us do what honor to the Divine image that we may! Let us give someone something to celebrate in the way we love, are fathers, and are husbands.
So, I’m preaching tomorrow nite in Fort Worth at The Search. I’m sitting here on Saturday nite with a beautiful, brown ale (Chimay, Blue Label) and finally ready to collect all my thoughts… and I was thinking of sharing them here.
The Philippians passage pivots around the idea of Christ’s humility, and our call to live in such a way… a way I think might be very difficult for many of us to imagine much less actualize. In my sermon time I don’t want to lay out a set of rules or expectations for personal humility, but to explore the depth of Christ’s humble way, and the barriers in our own thinking and way of life.
The main barrier for us just might be the way that we, as Amerians of our day, tend to think of humility. I believe we tend to think of it as an atribute mostly for “winners.” I mean a pursuit of humility doesn’t impede our drive to win, simply how much we gloat the win over the losers. But, maybe humility calls us to lose… to lose like Christ lost. Note the humiliy of Christ in verse 8… humility came at a great loss to Jesus, the loss of life. Yes, there was a victory, or an exalting, but it was later, after the humbling.
Don’t wander from the idea just yet… you see if we keep humility as an expectation for winners, then we’re free to chase our own rights and entitlements without any impediments whatsoever. Oh, we’ll be humble… as soon as we get what we want.
An here’s the perfect example: I wish I could have taken a photo out on the highway the other day, because a “winner” of a Christian cut me off on his way to cutting off many others. He drove a huge green pickup and on his back window was the giant outline of a shark, complete with a dorsal fin and teeth, and inside of the outline was the word “ZEALOT” in gigantic letters. Below it in all capitals it also said, “AGGRESSIVE CHRISTIANITY.” And below that was a quote from Psalm 69:9, “For the zeal of thine house hath eaten me up…”
The imagery and wording alone would have made me itch, but his offensive, crappy driving just made it all too clear. This “Aggressive Christian” was all about his own rights, driving where he wanted, screw the turn signals and get outta my way! He didn’t give a flying rip about any other driver on the road… we had just better make way. I guess my Christianity wasn’t aggressive enough.
Do a double-take on verse 4 of our passage… the emulation of the humility of Christ in our own lives is prefaced by this starting place, “…looking to the interests of others.” Sounds like a call to lose. Sounds like some humility before the finish line. So we don’t circle the Walmart parking lot for ten minutes trying to beat the next chump to a front row spot. We walk from further back like a “loser.” And when we leave we take our buggy to the little buggy corral… because as a “loser” we’re not entitled to saving that extra 30 seconds and leaving it in our parking space.
So far we’ve got a mildly entertaining idea… but what happens when we start expanding our list of rights and entitlements? We eventually get a list that doesn’t sound so funny… funny like death on a cross.
Oh, and by the way. The humility of Jesus did lead him to a cross. Ours probably won’t. We probably won’t die in our obedience, but don’t let that curb your enthusiasm. We’re still called to the path, wherever it leads. Paul doesn’t say the destination (results) had to be the same… he calls us to the same “mind.”
So, I’m not telling you what to put on that list of rights and entitlements to lose. Ask the Spirit to help you out… that’s what I’m doing.