Archives For Holy Spirit

For this episode we deployed podcast regular Kenneth Tanner, along with Chris Green, to interview Robert Jenson.
A student of Karl Barth– there aren’t many more of those left- Jenson is a legend.
Count yourself lucky and color yourself grateful that C&GJ snagged this for your audiological pleasure.
Jenson was described as the greatest living theologian by Stanley Hauerwas, and as “one of the most original and knowledgeable theologians of our time” by Wolfhart Pannenberg.
Jenson’s two volume Systematic Theology is a classic. His latest book, a series of lectures delivered at Princeton University, is Can These Bones Live: A Theology in Outline. Jenson, who recently entered hospice, suffers from MS so you’ll have to exercise some patience and hospitality as he responds to our questions.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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Nocturnal Omission

Jason Micheli —  January 16, 2017 — 2 Comments

Do you have to be born again to be a Christian? Here’s my sermon from this weekend on John 3.1-15.

Jesus answered Nicodemus: “Truly, I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” 

———————

     Let’s be honest, shall we, and just get it out of the way. Let’s just admit what you’re all thinking:

If anyone, after having grown old, could reenter his mother’s womb and be born a second time, then that person would have to be Chuck Norris.

No? Well, then you were certainly thinking this: You don’t know what to do with this passage. Do you?

If you did know what to do with Jesus telling us we need to get born again, then you’d be someplace else this morning.

You’d be giving your utmost for his highest down at First Baptist, or you’d have your hands raised up in the air, singing some Jesus in My Pants song, at a non-denominational church. Or maybe you’d be out shopping for a gown to this week’s inauguration. After all, our thick-skinned, orange-hued President-Elect won born agains by over 80%.

But you’re not those kinds of Christians. If you were, then you wouldn’t be here.

If you knew what to do with this scripture, you’d be in some other church this morning or shopping for a tux for Friday or maybe you’d be at home watching Walker: Texas Ranger or Delta Force. According to the Daily Beast, Chuck Norris is the world’s most famous born again Christian.

Which begs an obvious question born of today’s text:

Does the wind blow where it chooses only because Chuck Norris gives it permission?

     It’s a good question. Don’t forget how, in the very beginning, when God said “Let there be light” Chuck Norris said: “Say please.”

We all know, don’t we, how after Jesus turned water into wine Chuck Norris turned that wine into beer.

And surely you already know how Jesus can walk on water but only Church Norris can swim through dry land, and how Jesus sweats blood but Chuck Norris’ tears can cure cancer, which is unfortunate (for me) because Chuck Norris has never shed any tears. You know, don’t you- how even Jesus on his way to save humanity on the cross was overheard to have said: “Well, I’m no Chuck Norris but I’ll do the best I can.”

So it’s worth wondering if the wind blows where it chooses only because Chuck Norris allows it.

But I wouldn’t want to distract from my point, which is this:

You’re not like Chuck Norris. You’re not that kind of Christian. 

    If you took Jesus that seriously, then you wouldn’t be here this morning. Most of you chose a church like this one because you never have to worry we’re going to exhort you to get born again.

You chose a church like this one because here you can feel safe that we’re not going to invite you to close your eyes, raise your hand, and welcome Jesus into your heart.

According to our last church-wide survey, nearly half of you came here from a Roman Catholic background. If I asked you to say “Jesus” out loud as something other than a four-letter word, your sphincter would twist up tighter than a drum.

You don’t want a preacher who’s going to altar call you forward and compel you to commit your life to Jesus, to get born anothen.

If that’s what you wanted, you wouldn’t be here. That born again stuff- it isn’t us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.

Sure, we lust in our hearts (now that FX is on basic cable who hasn’t lusted in their heart?) but we’re not the same sort as those born again kind.

We may give Almighty God thanks that Born Again Christianity has given us Megan Fox as well as the South Park song “I Wasn’t Born Again Yesterday” but that doesn’t change the fact that those are not the kinds of Christians we are.

———————

     We’re the kind of Christians who don’t know what to do with what Jesus says to Nicodemus anymore than Nicodemus knows what to do with it.

Having stumbled upon Jesus here, curious and questioning, we’d like to slip away, under the cover of night, and pretend Jesus never said what Jesus so clearly said: ‘If you want to see the Kingdom of God, you must be born anothen.’

You must be born again.

Or-

You must be born from above.

Either way you translate it doesn’t really make it easier on people like us. We’re not those kinds of Christians.

But right there- there’s the question, right?

Not- Has Death ever had a near-Chuck Norris experience?

Not that question.

And not- Is Helen Keller’s favorite color Chuck Norris?

This question:

Can we really be Christian at all and not be the Chuck Norris kind? 

     Just taking Jesus’ red letter words straight up, can we really be Christian at all and not be born anothen?

———————-

    We could point out how Jesus only ever says “You must be born anothen” to Nicodemus. No one else.

When Jesus happens upon some fishermen, he doesn’t say “You must be born anothen.” He says: “Come. Follow me.”

And when a rich, brown-nosing son-of-helicopter-parents asks Jesus about eternal life, Jesus doesn’t talk about wind and water. He talks about camels and needles. Jesus doesn’t tell him to get born again; Jesus tells him to give up everything he’s got.

When Jesus encounters a woman caught in her sin- exactly the sort of situation where you’d expect him to whip out that word, anothen, Jesus instead keeps it in his pocket and just says to her: ‘I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.’

Jesus only says ‘You must be born anothen’ to Nicodemus.

So, we could argue, this applies only to Nicodemus, and to make being born again an over the counter prescription for everyone, is to make of it something Jesus does not do.

We could argue that Jesus is just talking to Nicodemus, not us.

Except-

That you in “You must be born again” is plural.

It’s “You all must be born again.”

Nicodemus comes to Jesus not as a seeker but as a representative. Of his people. Nicodemus approaches Jesus armed with the plural. “Teacher, we know…” he says.

And Jesus answers with “You all…”

Like it or not, we are in that you.

But-

Even if we do need to be born again, maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as so many make it.

After all, Jesus’ own preaching never ends with altar call invitations for his hearers to get born again.

Jesus doesn’t stand on the mountaintop and preach “Blessed are those are born anothen, only they will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.” No, Jesus preaches “Blessed are the peacemakers for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

And for his very first sermon, Jesus doesn’t choose to preach about anothen or eternal salvation. He preaches about good news to the poor and release to the captives.

When Jesus preaches about judgment even, he warns that one day, God will separate us as sheep from goats not on the basis of who’s been born again but on the basis of who has done for the least.

So maybe-

Even if we all are included in that you all directed at Nicodemus maybe it’s not as urgent and eternal a matter as those other Christians so often make it because Jesus doesn’t talk about our needing to be born again every time he speaks of the Kingdom.

Only-

Here with Nicodemus, it’s the only scene in all of John’s Gospel where Jesus mentions the Kingdom of God.

So maybe it’s every bit as urgent and eternal as we’ve been told. Which isn’t surprising, I suppose, because all know that the only time Chuck Norris was wrong about something the truth got so scared it reconsidered itself.

But where’s that leave us Nicodemus Christians?

What if-

Christians like us pushed back? Not on Chuck Norris but on this passage.

Take it back.

From those other kind of Christians.

Point out that to turn Jesus’ words to Nicodemus into an every Sunday altar call expectation, to make it the threshold every “genuine” Christian must cross contradicts Jesus’ entire point.

Being born anothen

It’s something God does; it’s not something we do.

Jesus couldn’t have put it plainer: “The wind- the Holy Spirit- blows where it chooses to blow. You can’t know where it comes from or where it goes.”

Being born anothen, Jesus says, it isn’t something we can control or manipulate or plan. It cannot be achieved by people like you or orchestrated by preachers like me.

You didn’t contribute anything to your first birth from your mother’s womb, so why would you think you could contribute anything to your new birth?

That’s what Jesus means by “What is born of flesh is flesh…”

Flesh in John’s Gospel is shorthand for our INCAPACITY for God.

What is flesh, i.e. you and me,  is incapable of coming to God. Only God can connect us with God. We’re not on a spiritual journey to God; God the Holy Spirit is always journeying to us. It’s always grace. It’s always a gift.

You can’t get born again; it’s something you’re given.

Being born again, it’s not something we do. It’s something God does.

We could push back.

And we’d be right.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus says it’s something that must happen to us. Even if God is responsible for our being born again, Jesus says it black and white in red letters: It’s required if we’re to see the Kingdom of God. 

So again- What do Christians like us do with what Jesus says about being born again?

———————

     Maybe the problem is that we pay too much attention to what Jesus says.

We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us.

We all know that Chuck Norris doesn’t read books he just stares them down until he gets the information he wants, but even a Christian like Chuck Norris misses what John tries to show us in his Gospel.

Just think about how John begins his Gospel, not with a nativity story but with an intentional echo of the Book of Genesis: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through him and not one thing came into being without him.”

In other words, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John, is about the arrival of a New Creation.

And next, right here in John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation too. You’re going to have to be born anothen. Again. From above. By water and the spirit.

Skip ahead.

To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares “Behold, mankind made in our image.”

And what does John show you?

Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate.

And what does Pilate say?

“Behold, the man.”

And later on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you?

Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his holy spirit.

And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side and what does John show you?

Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out- in other words- onto sinful humanity.

Water and the spirit, the sixth day.

And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you?

Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb.

Then Easter, the first day of the week.

And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what?

For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be.

Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave and like a mighty, rushing wind he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit” he says to them.

Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day.

He breathes on them.

Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life.

They’re made new again.

Anothen.

And on that same first day John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right.

The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit.

———————

     Chuck Norris is right.  What Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the night is true. You must be born again. You have to be born again. There’s no other way around it. You’re a creature, a sinner even. You’re flesh- you’re incapacitated from coming to God on your own. You could never see the Kingdom of God apart from being born again. It’s true.

But-

We get so hung up on what Jesus says in this part of John about being born again that we shut our eyes to what John shows us with his whole Gospel.

That we are.

Born again. Born from above.

All of us.

Every one of us.

Even you all.

It’s true that when Chuck Norris looks in the mirror he sees nothing because there can be only one Chuck Norris, but when it comes to God we’re all the same, even Chuck Norris.

There is no distinction.

     All of us, in our sin, were in Adam. 

     And all of us, in the Second Adam, have been restored.

     What God does in Christ through cradle and cross transforms all of humanity. Just as all fell through Adam’s trespass, much more surely has the grace of God through Jesus Christ abounded for all, Paul says.

In him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was was pleased to reconcile all things to himself, Paul says.

There is therefore now no condemnation because of Christ Jesus.

Because of him, nothing can separate us from the love of God, Paul says.

The death he died he died to Sin, once for all, so you all can consider yourselves dead to Sin and alive to God.

Consider yourselves anothened.

Being born again

     It’s not a hurdle you need to muster up enough faith in order to cross.

It’s a hurdle that in his faithfulness he already has crossed for you.

It’s not that you must believe to a certain degree in order to get born again.

It’s that you’ve already been born again through his belief for you.

It’s not that you need to make a personal decision for God and then get born again.

It’s that you’ve been born again through his personal decision in your place.

     Whether or not you accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior, in the person of Jesus Christ, our Lord, you have already been accepted by God. 

     It’s his work, not ours, that saves.

It’s his faith, not ours, that gives us life.

What Christ accomplishes for us is not what might be true one day if.

If we have enough faith. If we do enough good deeds.

If we get born again.

What Christ accomplishes for us is what’s true now and always, for us.

For all of us.

So the next time someone asks you- even Christians like you all-

The next time someone asks you if you’ve been born again, then next time you say YES.

Because we’re all Chuck Norris Christians. We’ve all been born again

And if that same someone asks you for a when-

When were you born again? When were you saved?

You just say sometime between Good Friday and Easter morning.

John’s title gives it away- that’s Good News.

———————

     It’s Good News.

But it’s not easy.

What Jesus says here to Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God is true. For us born agains, the Kingdom is mainly about sight.

Chuck Norris may be able to sneeze with his eyes open, but for us born agains and the Kingdom of God a different sort of seeing is required.

You’ve got to see the prodigals in your life, the people who’d just as soon use you up and turn their backs on you. You’ve got to see them and trust that they’ll never stop being worth throwing a party over.

You’ve got to see your spouse and trust that you can, in fact, love your enemy. You’ve got to look your children in their insolent eyes and trust that you’ve got to become more like them.

You’ve got to see the crooks on Capitol Hill and trust that they’ll be first into paradise. You’ve got to see the poor and see in them Jesus Christ.

You’ve got to see the people in your life who’ve hurt you one too many times, and you’ve got to trust that you can forgive them as many as 70 multiplied by 7.

You’ve got to see your anger and addiction, your impatience and bitterness, your cynicism and self-righteousness, your sadness and shame.

And you’ve got to trust that having been born again of water and spirit that same Spirit can sow in you joy and peace and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control.

You’ve got to see.

See yourself- whether you’re old, fat, or ugly; whether you’re a failure, a freak, a loser, a slut, a disappointment, a whatever- you’ve got to see yourself and trust that because of Jesus Christ you are as pure and perfect as a born again baby.

It’s about sight.

Seeing your doubts and your questions, your shaky faith and your crappy character- it’s about seeing and trusting that the only measure God takes of faith is Jesus Christ’s own.

To be born again is to be given new eyes.

Chuck Norris claims he can do the impossible- even cut a knife with hot butter.

He should know-

Even that’s easier than to be born again

To become who you already are in Jesus Christ

To see with new, anotheno-ed eyes.

 

Holy-Spirit-1024x682This weekend Christians celebrated Pentecost, a climactic Christian holy day rendered bland and uninteresting by the propensity to refer to it as the ‘Church’s Birthday.’

Pentecost marks the promised arrival outpouring of the Holy Spirit who in fact has been active throughout the disciples’ time with Jesus.

 

 

Catholics and Protestants speak alternately of the Holy Spirit as the ‘bond of fellowship between the Father and of the Son’ and the Spirit being the ‘Spirit of Christ.’

That’s all the little Latin word, filioque, means ‘…and of the Son.’

A millennia ago the Son’s universal Church split in two (Western, i.e. Catholic and Eastern, i.e. Orthodox) over the rightness of that little Latin word. To this day the Orthodox insist that the Holy Spirit ‘proceeds’ from the Father just as the Son whereas Catholics and the Protestants they spawned argue the Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son.

The_Holy_Trinity

 

Were it not for this theological impasse the Catholic Church might today have married priests with thick beards and off the charts testosterone.

Celibacy seems a stiff (no pun intended) price to pay so it’s worth wondering: which perspective is the better one?

I use to think the Eastern- which is the original- view was soundest. After all, to confess that the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son has the effect of making the Spirit seem less God than the Son and the Father.

But lately I’ve been wondering if I and my Eastern brothers and sisters are correct, or rather I wonder if there’s not another worry on the other side, a danger to thinking the Spirit is sent by God the Father alone.

While the danger with the filioque clause is that it can, seemingly, demote the Holy Spirit to function rather than divine person of the Trinity, the danger of believing the Spirit is sent by God the Father and not also the Son is that it can demote the Spirit from the divine person of the Trinity to the idol of our own interior wants and desires.

mark-burnett-and-joel-osteen-an-epic-meeting

I don’t know which version of the Nicene Creed you recite on Sunday, but what the filioque clause aims to prevent is a trespass most of us commit all the time.

We appeal to the Holy Spirit as the source of our individual experience, which becomes but a way of granting authority to our own subjectivity.

Any ‘spirit’ we feel move us can then be chalked up to a movement of the Holy Spirit. Of course as the Old Testament ably and often demonstrates there are many ‘spirits’ in this world which can move us- frequently more powerfully than God- that have nothing to do with God the Holy Spirit (see: calf, golden).

When you do away with the filioque clause, when you untether the Holy Spirit from the Son I think you release the Spirit from the content and character by which our sinful selves can reliably discern a genuine work of the Spirit.

By ‘content and character’ I mean the words and witness of the Word, Jesus Christ.

That little Latin word, I think, gives us 4 Gospels worth of tools with which we can test the spirits to see if any truly of the Holy Spirit.

If the Spirit does NOT proceed from the Son too, then the Spirit’s work today no longer must conform to the Son’s work in the past. God the Son preached ‘Blessed are the poor and woe to you who are rich…’ but now the spirit can move us with the belief that God wants all of us to be wealthy and prosperous.

In other words, we’re free to baptize our own subjectivity with divinity regardless of whether or not the work we’re attributing to God bears any resemblance to the God we meet most decisively in Jesus Christ (see: Osteen, Joel).

JoelOsteen_FINAL_COLOR_ongrey

That little Latin word, I believe, keeps us- who are always in danger of doing so- from confusing the Spirit of the Father and the Son with the spirit of this world or ‘the human spirit’ whatever that may really mean.

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As Karl Barth wrote when the Holy Spirit becomes “the spirit that obviously lives in us all faith is enlisted in an alien service, that of Mammon and even nationalism.”

By professing that the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son, we profess that it’s the Spirit’s charge to make Jesus Christ known in the world today.

And in so professing we remind ourselves that we can know if it’s truly the Son that the Sprit is revealing by checking it against the Son, Jesus Christ, as he’s revealed to us in scripture.

That little word, filioque, makes sure that Jesus Christ is the grammar by which judge our speech about the Holy Spirit.

rp_lightstock_70038_small_user_2741517-1024x683111.jpgPentecost

My theological muse, Stanley Hauerwas, likes to say that ‘Methodist means mediocre.’ As an example of what might warrant such a woeful aesthetic assessment, one need only thumb through the United Methodist Hymnal.

Though my musical skill stops at appreciating how Ryan (not Bryan) Adams is a songwriter second only to Bob Dylan, even I can point out how many of the ditties on offer in the UMH are cringe-worthy on any number of levels.

For instance, there are the songs that sound, quite simply, crap-in-your-pants frightening to the uninitiated, who could never decipher (much less stomach) their minutiae of biblical allusions. Chief among these, in my estimation, is the communion hymn ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood.’

I remember first hearing this song as a teenager during those initial months when I was forced to attend church against my will. Back then I had no faith and I possessed precious little more of the faith’s story.

Listening to 300 suburbanites sing (with eyes as bright as their polo shirts) about being plunged into a tub of blood, the nascent theologian in me was struck with this crisp, cogent thought: ‘WTF?!’

Not incidentally, I should point out, the author of this Kubrickesque hymn, William Cowper did, at the time of its writing, suffer from, in the euphemism of his day, ‘madness.’ Making all us who persist in singing this ‘praise’ song a little like those vacant-eyed twins in The Shining.

Similar on this score is the hymn ‘O Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,’ a Methodist favorite. Though not as terrifying as ‘There’s a Fountain Filled with Blood’, ‘Fount’ does contain the so-cryptic-as-to-sound-silly verse: ‘…here I raise my Ebenezer…

Despite a 6-figure seminary education which informs me that the object in question is Samuel’s memorial stone between Mizpeh and Shen from 1 Samuel 7, this doesn’t prevent me, whenever I sing ‘Fount,’ from picturing a bearded, square-jawed, performance-enhanced Samson-type bench-pressing an old man who resembles the husband from American Gothic.

His name, I’ve always assumed, certainly must be Ebenezer.

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In addition to the cryptic, there are those songs that just sound plain creepy, such as my personal favorite, #367 ‘He Touched Me.’

If you haven’t heard it, ‘He Touched Me’ is a hymn which contains so many double entendres you’d be justified in glancing down at the bottom of the page to see if it was written by the artist formerly (and once again) known as Prince.

Though it was once covered by a 54-inch waisted Elvis Presley, who was no stranger to innuendo (‘Ain’t Nothing But a Hound Dog’), and though its allegedly about Jesus and Faith, ‘He Touched Me’ actually sounds, any impartial listener must agree, as though its narrating a slumber party at Jim Bob Duggar’s house:

‘Shackled by a heavy burden/’Neath a load of guilt and shame/His hand touched me,

And now I am no longer the same/He touched me, Oh He touched me,

Something happened and now I know…He touched me…’

We might as well wear Cosby sweaters while we sing it.

In this vein (no double entendre intended), ‘He Touched Me’ is a precursor to that genre of songs that are ubiquitous in Contemporary Christian Music.

I like to call them ‘Jesus-In-My-Pants’ songs.

Think I’m exaggerating?

Draw me close to You/Never let me go

I lay it all down again/To hear You say that I’m Your friend

You are my desire no one else will do/’Cause nothing else could take Your place

To feel the warmth of Your embrace/Help me find the way bring me back to You

You’re all I want/You’re all I’ve ever needed/You’re all I want/Help me know You are near

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Mediocre means, one can surmise, kitsch.

In the UMH there are the cryptic and the creepy songs, and then there are the clumsy ones, songs as shallow and obvious as an AM commercial jingle, hymns so literal and earnestly unsubtle you’re half-surprised when Tang and animal crackers aren’t served after you’re done singing them.

The absolute worst among this latter group is #558 ‘We are the Church.’

Though its second verse sounds like the Democratic Party platform with a treble cleft attached, hymn #558 merely makes the same point Mitt Romney made in the 2012 campaign:

corporations churches are people too, my friends.

Refrain:

I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!

All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we’re the church together!

1. The church is not a building; the church is not a steeple; the church is not a resting place; the church is a people.

(Refrain)

2. We’re many kinds of people, with many kinds of faces, all colours and all ages, too from all times and places.

The first time I was ever asked to sing #558 I was a new Christian and a newer undergraduate at UVA. I was worshipping at a small United Methodist church near campus. When we did a once-through the sing-songy music (to ‘refamiliarize’ ourselves) I glanced around to make sure I hadn’t accidentally stepped into Vacation Bible School.

Or ingested drugs.

When the school-marmy music director offered to demonstrate hand motions we could perform along with our singing, I laughed out loud. Guffawed.

I couldn’t stop myself.

And then I spent the rest of my college tenure worshipping at the Episcopal Church down the street where even if they no longer believed in God at least they did it with style.

Methodist means mediocre, Stanley Hauerwas says. Or, on second thought, maybe he doesn’t say it.

Maybe I said it and forgot I did. Maybe I’m just projecting my own smarty pants posture onto him.

One thing I’m sure of- Stanley Hauerwas likes to say

‘Ministry is like being nibbled to death by ducks.’

It is.

‘It’s just a bite here and a nibble there,’ Stanley says, ‘and, before you know it, you’re missing a leg.’

Not long after I became a Christian I disliked #558 for its tweenage verse and meter. Not long after I became a clergyman I objected to it on a deeper level; that is, if it’s possible for hymn, which makes the Spice Girls’Wannabe’ seem profound, to yield something like a second naïveté.

As a minister, I recoiled at what I took to be ‘We are the Church’’s romanticized ideals, for there’s nothing quite like ministry to make you wish, every now and then, that the Church was not the people.

There’s nothing like ministry in Jesus’ name to make you wish that the Church was made up of anything but Jesus’ people.

After all, a brick and mortar building was never known to leave anonymous notes about the pastor’s choice of clothes in the offering plate. A steeple has never drafted a complaint to the bishop nor has a stained glass window ever once challenged its pastor to a fistfight in the fellowship hall on Mother’s Day. That really happened.

An organ has yet to call or conduct a church council- a credit which should make you appreciate traditional music. Church mice might be a nuisance, but when it comes to turds they’ve never once forwarded their pastor emails from their favorite batshit crazy right wing organization.

It’s no secret in the United Methodist Church that every 4 years hymnal committees debate the appropriateness of a hymn like ‘Onward Christian Soldiers,’ given its violence-espousing imagery. But, considering how ministry is like being nibbled to death by (feral) ducks, it’s surprising how every quadrennium a song like ‘We are the Church’ escapes the red pen.

I suppose it’s because, like any song, no matter its musical merit, how you hear it depends on where you are. On your stage of life.

Now that I have cancer I can see how I’ve always hated ‘We are the Church’ not because it’s insipid (it still is) but because it’s sincere.

I’ve mocked and hated hymn #558, and others like it, for reasons that have nothing to do with musicology or theology and everything to do with…me.

With my heart.

I’m what you get when you mix together equal parts DNA, life experience and Gen-Y culture. Until now, I’ve pretended to be cool and detached, always ironic- always- and forever feigning self-sufficiency and self-reliance, which are just unofficial adjectives for ‘superiority.’

Me and many others in my generation are like Jane Austen characters.

We’re just keeping up a different pretense: cynicism.

The Church can’t be the people, I’ve never dared take to its logical conclusion, because I don’t need those people, and that would mean I don’t need the Church.  

Chemotherapy, it turns out, eradicates not only your marrow and all attendant health but pretenses too.

When your eyebrows have gotten as thin as the blue-haired lady that sits pulpit side in the 5th pew and when you passed out last night in the kitchen because your blood has no hemoglobin left in it and when there’s a distinct possibility your life expectancy will be short-changed by a couple of Andrew Jackson’s worth of years-

It’s hard to be cool and detached.

There’s nothing, really, to be ironic about.

And there’s no point in pretending to be self-sufficient. You, it’s obvious, ain’t.

Now that cancer has me back to being ‘just’ a Christian and (for a time anyway) no longer a clergyman, I realize how much, when you’re in ministry, you view Christianity like a referee. And referees aren’t paid to blow the whistle in the middle of play and point out what’s going right.

As a pastor, you’re captured, in a good way, by who the Church could be, what the Church could do, but the shadow side of that vision is to notice only who the Church is not, what the Church is not doing. Before long, you have pastors complaining how ‘their people’ (always a fraught construction) don’t pray enough, don’t give enough, or don’t serve enough.

To no exceptional degree, in one direction or the other, that was me, often wearing black or white on a Sunday but, really, acting as though I’d been ordained to wear both. And carry a whistle.

However occasional or, even, warranted, it’s hard for such complaining not to calcify into cynicism.

That was me.

I don’t mean to be hyperbolic. I’m not saying I’m a different person now, that cancer’s changed me. I can’t say that. I’m only now nearing the halfway point in my treatment, and if I have any complications- which my doctor tells me are more likely than not- then I’m still somewhere shy of the middle.

So I’m not implying I’m a completely different person; I’m only suggesting that, thanks to cancer and if only for a time, I’ve traded in my collar for my parishioners’ shoes.

I’m just an ordinary Christian. Like them.

And, standing in their shoes, I’ve discovered something like admiration for the people that make up the Church. My church.

Only now do I appreciate, for example, how hard it is- how much trust it requires- to answer truthfully and concretely when someone asks you what are your prayer requests.

Something pastors do all the time. Something I always took for granted before. That anyone does supply a prayer request is, I think now, a small miracle. Or, an act of faith of which I’ve been found wanting.

People outside the Church often criticize, with some justification, that the Church is filled with inauthentic chatter, people always talking about things that don’t mean anything. Of course there is a lot of that in the Church but there’s a good deal less of it, I believe, than there is everywhere else in our lives. Now that I have cancer and I’m no longer busy refereeing other people’s Christianity, I realize:

Church people are among the only people who genuinely want an answer- and wait for it- to the question ‘How are you?’

Now that I’m on the receiving end of the church’s ministry rather than its referee, I’m learning that the hardest part in accepting an offer of help, a gesture of support or an act of compassion is accepting it. Accepting that you need it. Accepting that you (I mean, me) need these people. The church.

All of which gets back to my problem with hymn #558, ‘We are the Church,’ and how my problem with it is really my problem.

Grace, in the jargon of the faith, isn’t just a gift you do not deserve.

It’s a gift you didn’t know you needed until you received it.

This is why the Gospel stories are all told from the hindsight of the Resurrection and necessarily so.

You don’t know how broken you are until after God’s made you Easter new. Sin has no meaning until after the Risen Jesus speaks ‘Peace’ on Easter morning.

Grace is a gift you didn’t know you needed until after you received it, and, in that sense, I suspect that what I’ve received these past 4 months (4 effing months!) is a gift my church gives to people all the time.

I just didn’t realize it. Or, appreciate it.

The same church about whom I would sometimes grouse for not praying enough or giving enough or serving enough is the same church (and by church, I think we’ve learned by now, I mean people) that texts me several times a week for prayer requests and leaves food at my door and offers to help with the medical bills and doesn’t bat an eye when I barf in their car and throws my boy around in the pool because my chest port cannot get wet and pretends not to notice (so as not to embarrass me) when I tear up  at a bit of bad news.

And that’s just this past week.

I mean-

One woman in my church has sent me handwritten, snail mail cards every day- every day- since I got sick, and another, just for shits and giggles- and giggles if not shits are in short supply these days- has persisted in posting cat pictures on my Facebook Page. I don’t even like cats.

I’ve been at this church for 10 years and I feel like I’m only now seeing who they’ve been all along.

And who they are, in large part, are better Christians than me.

Every year this time of year, the time between Easter and Pentecost, someone who’s recently taken to reading their bible always expresses surprise to me how much the New Testament’s few Easter stories are characterized by doubt and disbelief.

‘…but some (as in, not just Thomas) doubted…’ Matthew and Luke and John all anticlimactically testify.

But it has to be that way.

The Risen Christ’s wounded hands and feet can never be for the disciples proof of the Resurrection because the disciples themselves are the (only) proof of the Resurrection.

Our faith, the truth of it, is corroborated by its end.

By what it becomes in us.

And I suppose that’s a better problem to have with a hymn like #558 because the people do not just comprise the Church. They themselves are the proof of the Church’s faith by what that faith becomes in them.

They are, warts and all and despite my better judgment, the gospel.

lightstock_61665_small_user_2741517-2This weekend I concluded our ‘Life Togther’ sermon series by doing the sermon ‘together’ with those gathered for worship. Since Paul’s letter to the Corinthians generally and chapter 12 specifically concern what happens when Christians gather for worship, I thought it most ‘biblical’ for us to do the sermon together.

So I began by giving the congregation a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ series of options and let them choose the course we took:

1. What’s not on Paul’s list of spiritual gifts?

2. What’s right here in the passage that’s easy too miss but very important to see?

3. Share an anecdote that this passage calls to mind.

4. What is on this list that’s important?

5. If you had to condense this passage in to a Tweet, what would it be?

6. How is this list different from Paul’s other lists of gifts?

7. Show a video and explain how it relates to the text.

8. How do I find and use my spiritual gift?

9. Field a random question.

While I think this makes for good ‘in the moment’ preaching time, it’s probably a bit uneven to listen to afterwards.

To make it up to you, I offer you this ‘parable’ that occurred while I was preaching this Sunday. Names have been disguised to protect the guilty.

The Gifts of the Spirit – A Parable

Once a young, newly graduated Master of Divinity was in the critical care unit of the local hospital, visiting a member of his new congregation.

The patient was terribly bad-off with sores all over whose smell made the rookie Rev queasy and distracted. After a brief visit, the young minister stumbled and mumbled his way through a prayer and then left, leaving both he and the patient dissatisfied.

Outside in the hospital hallway, the pastor just happened into a middle-aged woman from his church. They exchanged pleasantries like you do and each explained that they were doing there in that hallway.

The pastor expressed his disappointment with his own discomfort when visiting the previous patient. In that moment, the pastor spontaneously asked the woman if she would go in and pray for the same patient. She agreed and they went to his bedside.

Startling her minister, the woman embraced the patient’s foul sores and uttered what sounded to the pastor as the most sincere, Spirit-filled prayer he’d heard up to then.

As they were leaving, the young pastor asked the woman:

‘Do you think perhaps you have the gift of healing?’

The woman began to cry.

‘Yes, I do think so’ she said.

‘You just never have asked me.’

 

 

I’m so, so afraid of appearing to be pillaging tragedy for traffic that I’ll keep this short and sweet.

Most of the regular traffic on this blog aren’t (my) church folk, but many are members of my church and my community.

Those unfortunate enough to be in the latter already know that Hannah Graham, the abducted UVA student whose remains were discovered late last week, was a member of our community.

Pastors will know what I mean when I say she’s one of those faces you know and have seen many times before: in church, introduced by a friend, out and about, at something like a baccalaureate…how do I know her?

I’ve since communicated with her friends many times and to her family just a few. Both those many and the few lead to this often on my mind: ‘Please, don’t make me do her service…’

The downside of being in one church for so long is that I’ve (and, let’s give credit where its due, my church) caught more than my fair share of shitty funerals. The car load of girls who die on graduation day. The 6th grade confirmand who haunts my dreams. The too-young addict Dad who dies, leaving his family in the lurch. The older folks I’ve grown to love (no hyperbole) in 10 years and don’t want to see gone.

But with Hannah this feels different. It is different. I knew it when we held a vigil for her and I found myself unable to participate in the very liturgy I’d composed. It’s different because…why?

Because Hannah inserts a giant ‘WTF are you talking about?’ comment into all my theology. I’ve got nice, tidy Thomistic (see: Aquinas, Thomas) definitions for evil and sin.

I’ve got scripture at the ready to buttress my argument. And I’m versed in all the competing views too.

Here’s the THING- I still think the Thomistic view of evil to be right.

But ‘right’ and sufficient are hardly the same thing.

So I received it as good news this past week when reading over 1 Corinthians 12 to prepare for my sermon. I’ve read over Paul’s list of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and his analogy to the parts of the body for the members of the Church so many times it barely registers anymore. ‘Boring’ doesn’t begin to describe my knee-jerk reaction to this text.

But with Hannah on mind and the giant ‘WTF?’ looming over my mind, I noticed something on Paul’s list 1 Corinthians 12 I’ve never noticed before:

Faith

Right there alongside wisdom and interpretation and the other gifts the Spirit brings to believers whenever they gather together in worship, Paul lists ‘faith.’

That is, these aren’t permanent, personality-trait gifts Paul lists. They’re ways the Spirit temporarily manifests among Christians during worship. In other words, on any given Sunday, in any given worship setting, the Spirit only gives ‘faith’ to some of those gathered to confess that Jesus is Lord.

So often we make faith the amorphous pre-req to count as a Christian and then we beat ourselves up when we (often rightly) feel like we don’t have enough of it.

But Paul doesn’t expect all of us to have it all of the time.

Paul, I think we can wager, expects us those other times to have more than our fair share of doubt and second-guessing and just raw, righteous anger at the God we may or may not believe in.

Faith is a gift, every time we have it, because every time we gather the gift is only given to ‘some.’

Admittedly, most days and weeks that may sound like bad news to me. But not lately. Not at all.

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x68211.jpgThis weekend I concluded our Holy Spirit series with a sermon on the fruit of the Spirit as Paul outlines it in Galatians 5. The fruit of the Spirit is, without question, my least favorite scripture.

You can listen to the sermon here below or download it in iTunes here.

Much of the text you see below was left unspoken, allowing the slides on the screen behind me to carry the message.

     

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ 

My first thought whenever I read this list of ingredients for a genuine Holy Spirit-made Christian: ‘Crap. I’m screwed.’

It’s true.

Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on the list because then I’d have to be honest with you. I’d have to own up to the fact that not even my own mother would use 8 of those 9 attributes to describe me.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? That’s not me. I’m not that person.

I’ve been a Christian- or at least I was thought I was- for 20 years. I have 2 theology degrees. I have thousands of books on Christianity in my office. I know several psalms by heart, and I can recite John 13 from memory- in Greek.

But if this is what a genuine, Holy Spirit-filled Christian looks like, I’m screwed.

 

I mean, I’ve got ‘love’ down, I guess.

I love my kids.

I tell my wife I love her, and sometimes I show her it’s true.

I tell myself I love God and that I even comprehend what that means.

I’m good at blogging about how we should love our enemies, but I’m not even sure if ‘Chase’ is my neighbor’s first name or last.

So, I’ve got ‘love’ down. 1 out of 9.

     But if this list is what the Spirit is supposed to yield in us, if this is the Holy Spirit harvest in someone who’s genuinely following Jesus, then I’m screwed.

The Holy Spirit’s work on me has been slower than beltway construction.

20 years and I’m 1 for 9.

I hate this list. I hate this scripture passage.

 

Paul, who wrote this scripture passage, had only been a Christian for about 10 years when he wrote it. Less than half the time I’ve been pretending to be a Christian.

 

Paul! A Pharisee who stood idly by while one of the apostles, Stephen, was tortured to death. I may be an SOB but I’ve never offered to hold the rocks for a lynch mob.

Paul did, but apparently the Holy Spirit’s work in him was just so awesome that in 10 years he scored 9 for 9 on this list.

I hate him too.

 

Maybe it’s just me.

Maybe I’m Holy Spirit resistant, Pentecost flame retardant.

Maybe you read this list of what the Spirit’s supposed to yield in you, and you think ‘Sure, I’ve got those. That’s me.’

 

If so, I hate you too.

It’s not as if I don’t try.

I wake up every morning with every intention of being patient and kind and all the rest. But then, after I wake up, I’ve got to deal with- you know- actual people. And a lot of those are church people so it’s doubly hard and it’s in no time that my love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control all deteriorate faster than a Roger Goodell press conference.

This list- it isn’t me.

If this, 1-9, is what a genuine Holy Spirit-filled person looks like, I don’t measure up.

pastedGraphic.pdf

Last Sunday night we took the boys to the Jack White concert at Merriweather Pavilion. And watching my kids dance and clap along to the blues filled me with joy, absolute joy. And knowing I had to preach on this text this coming Sunday I thought to myself ‘Alright, not bad, 2 out of 9, making progress.’

But then I remembered how we got in to the concert in the first place.

You see, I’d gotten the tickets back in May. When they arrived in the mail, I stuck them in the desk drawer with the bills and, like the bills, forgot all about them until Thursday when I couldn’t find them. Anywhere.

And so what did I do?

I called Ticketfly and I said to the customer service lady: ‘Yes, I ordered tickets for this Sunday’s Jack White concert back in May for my little boy’s birthday and I’d forgotten all about it but I just realized those tickets never came in the mail. They must’ve gotten lost. In the mail.’

So that night at the Jack White concert my Facebook status looked like this: #whitelieformysonshappiness.

But my list, my Holy Spirit inventory, looked like this: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

 

And that Monday I was at Safeway in the Express Line, the Express Line, the 10 Items or Less Line- 10 Items, or Less, Line.

I was in line behind this old blue-haired woman who had 28 items in her cart. 28. I know because she was moving so slow I had time to count the 28 items in her cart at least 28 times while we stood in the 10 items or less aisle.

But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t sigh out loud or point to the Express Line sign that she should’ve been able to see since it was nearly as big as her perm. I didn’t point out that calling hers an express purchase was like saying water-boarding is not torture.

No, I didn’t complain.

I didn’t gripe that I had places to go and people to see. And I didn’t complain when she pulled out a stack of wrinkled, mostly expired coupons to try to haggle the price down.

No, I did good. Jesusy good.

But then when it came time to pay, the old lady reached in to a purse the size of El Salvador and after searching in it for…oh, I don’t know…forever…what did she pull out?

That’s right: a checkbook.

It was big and fat and had like 8 rubber bands wrapped around it and old deposit slips sticking out everywhere.

And after she then searched for her ‘favorite pen’ she filled the check out like she was signing a Middle East Peace Treaty and then she carefully tore the check out of the checkbook and then she marked the transaction down in her checkbook register with crossword puzzle care and then- finally- she handed the check to the teenager working the cash register, the teenager who had clearly never seen nor processed a check in his life.

“Oh my God! You should just keep a goat in that purse because the barter system would be a quicker way to pay!”

I thought I’d said to myself.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And then on Tuesday some jerk pastor somewhere in the country left this comment about my last sermon on a clergy Facebook Page: ‘I hope you understand the Holy Spirit better than you [don’t] understand prayer…for your congregation’s sake.’

My thoughtful reply to this jerk pastor has since been removed by the webmaster, but suffice it to say:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

And on Wednesday my son Gabriel had his first baseball game of the season. I’m managing his team this year. This is the first time I’ve ever managed a little league team before so I didn’t know what that really means is that I’m managing the little leaguers’ parents. Especially the dads.

So there we were, playing our first game. It’s the first inning. We give up 4 runs and one of the dads decides to come up to me and ask when I’m going to make ‘defensive adjustments’ because, he says, his son’s ‘exceptional skills are being wasted in right field.’

I was about halfway through my measured reply to him before I realized all the players on the field and all the parents on the sidelines were staring at me. Or listening to me is more like it.

#blesshisheart

 Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control 

I hate this list.

 

On Thursday night, I led a prayer vigil in Aldersgate’s sanctuary for Hannah Graham, the missing UVA student who is/was a part of our Aldersgate community.

And during the service I led a long litany prayer emphasizing the goodness and sovereignty of God even as- in my head and in my heart- I was questioning those very things.

Questioning God’s goodness in a world like ours. Second-guessing God’s wisdom for making our world the way he made it.

And during the silent prayer time and the lighting of the candles I listened to the hundreds of people gathered there, crying and sniffling and pleading softly under their breath.

And I couldn’t utter a single prayer, silent or otherwise, because really what I wanted to say to God was ‘@#*& *&$ God! Where the #$%^ are you?!’

As Dennis offered the candle-lit benediction that night, I looked like this:

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

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Thank God ‘truthfulness’ isn’t on this list, because then I’d have to confess how much I hate this fruit of the Spirit passage.

Because if this is what a real Spirit-filled Christian looks like, then all this picture does is remind me of what I’m not, what I’m lacking, how inadequate and imperfect and incomplete I am.

This passage is like a glossy, air-brushed, cover-shoot picture of the Christian that Paul in advertising thinks I should be instead of the blotchy, blemished, and thoroughly ordinary Christian that I am.

I hate this passage.

 I hate this fruit of the Spirit passage because, intentionally or not, the message it conveys is no different than the message we see and hear 3,000 times a day:

 You’re not good enough.

This passage- it’s like that Ciallis commercial. You know, the one where the husband and wife are relaxing in separate claw-footed bathtubs- outdoors- enjoying a breath-taking view and then the woman suggestively brushes the man on his hand.

Because, you know, scenes like that unfold all the time.

Translation: Your marriage isn’t passionate enough.

This passage- it’s like those Dos Equis commericals featuring the world’s most interesting man and the gorgeous women who want to be with him and the men who want to be him, which of course is awesome until you pop the top on a bottle and no fawning beauties or admiring men appear.

Translation: You’re not really all that interesting.

Just as you already suspected.

 

This fruit of the Spirit passage- it’s like those iPhone 6 commercials that all but say the iPhone 5 you bought 4 weeks ago makes you an outdated, antiquated, hopelessly uncool loser.

I hate this passage because all I hear in it is the same message I hear everywhere else: I’m not good enough.

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

     When it comes to lists, I score a lot better on that other list, the one Paul gives just before this list of fruit:

  • Fornication: Game of Thrones, binge-watching, 5/14
  • Moral Corruption: Ordained in the UMC, 6/07
  • Doing Whatever Feels Good: ask grandmother, ‘you’ll go blind…’
  • Idolatry: M-F, Weekly
  • Drug Use: 2nd Hand, Jack White Concert, 9/14
  • Casting Spells: Renaissance Faire, 10/13
  • Hate: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Fighting: Bishop’s Cabinet re: Guatemala Toilet Project
  • Obsession: Baseball
  • Losing Temper: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Oppositional: see: personality, Jason
  • Selfishness: ask: Ali, wife of Jason
  • Jealousy: Joel Osteen Ministries
  • Conflict: Starbucks Barista who doesn’t know how to make an Americano, 9/26/14
  • Drunkenness: college, ’96-’00
  • Partying: see above (and graduate school ’00-’03… and last Saturday)

When it comes to this list, the life of the flesh list, I’m 16 for 16, 24/7, 365 days a year.

But I hate this fruit of the Spirit list.

20 years in and most days I’m just 1 for 9. It’s just another reminder of the same message we see and hear a thousand times a day. #youarenotgoodenough

Paul, here in Galatians, is like that Mom I’m friends with on Facebook. Every day- every day- she posts pictures of her kids’ perfect, healthy, nutritious, all-organic, bento-boxed school lunches.

     #perfectparent

Meanwhile I send my kids to school with leftover gambling money where they buy smiley fries and pancakes cooked in plastic bags.

     #baddad

Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

     #badchristian

#godsdisappointedinyou

 

If this list is an advertisement for what being a Christian is like, if it’s like a commercial for who you will be on Jesus, then like all advertisements it’s too good to be true.

Because, trust me, I know way more Christians than you and, most days, even the best ones are lucky to go 2 for 3. It’s too good to be true.

Actually, it’s worse than too good to be true.

Because where it says ‘there is no law against such things’ in verse 23, in the Greek it actually says ‘there is no shortage of such things.’

As in, the Holy Spirit’s cultivating kindness and patience and faithfulness and joy all over the place- there’s no shortage of such things- so what’s the problem with you? 1/9 faux Christian?

I hate to break it to you, but it’s even worse than that because the word Paul uses for ‘fruit’ in Greek is singular.

As in, it’s all one gift: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

It’s all one gift.

You either have all of them or you have none of them. And if you think you have one of them, you actually have not one of them.

They all go together.

Require one another.

The fruit of the Spirit- it’s singular.

But maybe that’s not bad news after all.

pastedGraphic_2.pdf

That Thursday night I led the long litany prayer affirming God’s goodness and wisdom even as the words stuck in my throat and rang false in my heart.

Sitting there in the pew, doubting God’s goodness and wisdom, my mind wandered to the one thing I could be certain of- my own kids and my love for them.

1. Love

After Dennis offered a candle-lit benediction, I stood in the sanctuary aisle and I noticed a man sitting in the middle of a pew behind me, an ordinarily gruff man just sitting there staring straight ahead as the people on either end of his pew leaned over and furiously whispered their prayers.

The man in the middle- he just sat there calmly.

He didn’t say excuse me. He didn’t try to scootch past them. He didn’t sigh like he was in a hurry. He just waited for them. For them. For as long as they needed.

2. Patience

And after the service as the crowd thinned out I watched as some of the youth, touched by Hannah’s disappearance in a way I can’t fathom, gathered around the altar rail together and got on their knees and prayed. Even as the guy in the collar *me* was having a hard time praying at all.

3. Faithfulness

And in the sanctuary aisle I saw our new youth director hug kids he barely knows and ask them as though he’d known them forever how they were doing.

4.Gentleness

And in the lobby I watched as a mom, whose own daughter is Hannah’s best friend, held back tears and anger as a nosy reporter peppered people with questions.

5. Self-Control

And after the reporter went her way, I stood next to the mom and listened as other parents, one by one, came up to her and asked her to relay a message to Hannah’s parents: ‘Tell them if there’s anything we can do for them…’

6. Kindness

7. Goodness

And eventually those offers of help turned to reminiscing of each other’s children and the friendships that bound them.

8. Joy

As I walked out to my car that night another mother, her car parked next to mine, spoke about ‘perspective’ and, as she fumbled for her keys, she mentioned to me that she felt like she should call her own daughter with whom she hadn’t spoken in a long, long time.

9. Peace

pastedGraphic_3.pdf

          “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ 

It’s singular.

It’s all one gift, there’s not one without the other.

It’s all one gift, and- Paul says- there’s no shortage of such things. The Spirit’s fruit is everywhere if you but look.

But where Paul wants you to look is not to the individual believer but to the Body.

 

You see if this list is a description of what a genuine Holy Spirit-filled believer looks like- if it’s like an advertisement for what being a Christian is like, then like all advertisements it’s too good to be true.

 

Because, let’s face it, even the best of you score barely better than 1/9 me.

Some of you are not patient or gentle. Some of us are not consistently kind or self-controlled. I know I’m not always faithful and I know some of you struggle with loving the people in your lives.

Some of you have no peace and for good reason. Ditto when it comes to joy.

 

If this list is meant to be a commercial for who you will be on Jesus then like all commercials it’s too good to be true.

     But this list, this letter- it’s not written to you.

It’s not a promise meant for you.

     It’s written to us. It’s a promise for us.

And that makes it completely different than the message we hear 3,000 times a day.

Because the promise, the incredibly good but still believable news- the gospel- behind this list is that the Holy Spirit can take all you impatient but good people and all you joyful but out of control people and all you people with great faith and kindness but little peace and all of you who love God but have a hard time loving others- the promise is that the Holy Spirit can take 1 for 9 people like you and put you into a community that we call Church and somehow, by the grace of God, you all together- we- can look like Jesus.

This list, this letter, it’s not written to you. It’s meant for us.

And that means the proper reaction to this fruit of the Spirt list is not:

         “Crap, I’m screwed.’

It’s:

     “Crap [turn to the person sitting next to you] I need you.”

And you won’t ever hear a message like that on TV.

rainbow-cross_aprilAnd it may not be one that you want to hear.

This weekend we conclude our September sermon series on the Holy Spirit.

Jesus calls the Spirit ‘the Comforter’ in John’s Gospel, but what Jesus has to say about the Holy Spirit in Mark’s Gospel is anything but comforting.

Mark 3.20 – 4.1 contains this little stick of theological dynamite:

28 ‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— 30for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

For his spare artistry, pregnant irony and subversive Jesus Mark’s Gospel is far and away my favorite of the four narratives.

Needless to say, though, the idea of loving, compassionate Jesus categorizing a particular sin as ‘unforgivable’ less than a quarter of the way into the Gospel didn’t sit too well even with me.

‘He doesn’t really mean unforgivable, does he?’

‘Jesus is just being rhetorical right? Exaggerating?’

‘I thought God forgives everything?’

I recall an adult Sunday School I taught in which we methodically made our way through Mark, and, asking them what they thought Jesus meant by ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit,’ I found little variance in the responses:

‘Cursing God’

‘Rejecting that Jesus is the Messiah.’

‘Refusing to believe that Jesus is the Son of God.’

‘Resisting the Spirit’s work to make us confess that Jesus is God.’

All told their responses didn’t deviate very much from the neanderthal Calvinist, John Piper, who defines the blasphemy thusly:

‘The unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is an act of resistance which belittles the Holy Spirit so grievously that he withdraws for ever with his convicting power so that we are never able to repent and be forgiven.’

My friend Morgan posted on this same topic, reflecting on how John MacArthur went off the rails and accused most of his Pentecostal brethren of ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ by attributing words and directions to the Spirit that the Spirit did not give.

Certainly I’m sure there’s a good deal of such attribution in Pentecostalism but that would be called idolatry- or anthropomorphism- not blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

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What John Piper and John MacArthur and even the folks in my class failed to do- what we almost always fail to do when thinking about the unforgivable sin- is read Jesus’ words within the context of Mark’s early chapters.

In chapter 1, right after Jesus speaks on stage for the first time about how the Kingdom of God has arrived, he casts out a demon in church. By doing so, Jesus usurps the authority of the temple priests, whom, Mark leads us to surmise, had previously turned the possessed man away.

Jesus leaves church that day telling people to keep hush- not in order to keep his ‘Messianic secret’ but to keep his wonder-working on the down low because now he’s a marked man.

And ritually impure to boot, which is why he retreats away.

Skip ahead to the end of chapter 2. Offstage the scribes apparently have been dispatched to follow Jesus, presumably for the purpose of finding a chargeable offense against him.

Jesus encounters a leper, who asks Jesus to make him clean.

[First!] Jesus touches him.

And then, only after touching him, does Jesus cleanse him.

In both instances Jesus explicitly violates the law.

The first renders Jesus ritually impure once again. He’s literally taking on the sin of the people, making himself an outcast.

Oh yeah, and Jesus applies to himself the divine-political title ‘Son of Man’ in the heated exchange that ensues with the scribes.

In chapter 2, Mark tells us that Jesus is reclining ‘on his left elbow’ with sinners and tax collectors. Chilling with them, in other words. He’s accused of carousing with them, eating and boozing with the oclos, the unclean masses. This is the first time the word ‘disciple’ to reference Jesus’ followers.

In chapter 3, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, violating the law and presuming to possess the authority to interpret the law in one fail swoop.

Starting in the initial chapter, each of these encounters elicits increasing hostility towards Jesus- from the temple priests, from the scribes and even from his family, who think Jesus has gone insane.

The scribes, keepers of the ancient texts and the interpretation of them, presume they’re on God’s side.

So they accuse Jesus of being demonic.

Those in power have the power to impugn the motives and character of those not in power.

Jesus turns it back on them with the little quip Abraham Lincoln made even more famous about a house divided against itself.

Jesus’ point is different from Abe’s:

If I’m demonic how is it I could exorcise demons?

Conclusion: only someone on God’s side could exorcise demons.

Implication:

Those who assume they’re on God’s side…aren’t.

‘Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ is the culminating, summary charge that erupts as the conclusion to the increasingly hostile encounters Jesus has with the keepers of the status quo.

As such, any interpretation of what constitutes such a blasphemy should be read in light of those exchanges.

The scribes for ideological reasons- and even Jesus’ own family- refuse to see the liberating work of God right before their eyes.

Refuse to see this new healing, liberating activity of Jesus as GOD’S WORK.

It’s not like they haven’t seen Jesus heal and exorcise and cast out. It’s just that their ideology, their interpretation of what God said or did in the past, in the Hebrew scripture, doesn’t conform to what Jesus is doing in the present.

And so they reject Jesus and attribute the demonic to him.

After all, it’s not like the scribes were wrong in their interpretation of scripture.

Jesus doesn’t have the authority to heal in the temple. He shouldn’t be touching lepers. Who told him he could heal on the Sabbath…not God’s word that’s for sure.

To make it plain, what so many interpretations of what constitutes ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ miss is why Jesus would specify the Holy Spirit.

What is it about the Holy Spirit Jesus wants us to take notice?

The_Holy_Trinity

This is where Trinitarian language always comes in handy. Because the Holy Spirit, we profess, is the revelation of God in our midst, in the present, in the here and now.

The Holy Spirit is what reminds us that God didn’t speak or work in the past.

God continues to speak and work in the present.

God can do a new thing.

And that new thing might even go against everything we’ve understood about what God did and said in the past.

God can affirm and welcome and ‘declare clean’ what God’s word once declared quite to the contrary.

If I have to connect the dots to make clear how this is a relevant issue today, I’ve not been nearly the writer my wife tells me I am.

Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit =

So reifying your understanding of how God willed and spoke in the past- in scripture- that you’re willfully blind to see the liberating, healing work of God in the present.

And if you’ve connect the dots and want to blow me off as a knee-jerk liberal then fine.

Except, be warned, Jesus says it’s unforgivable.

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x6821.jpgDennis Perry, my assistant pastor (pictured here below on the Daily Show), continued our sermon series on the Holy Spirit by spinning roulette wheel and tackling your questions at random. The first one was a good one: ‘Can the Spirit do anything the Son can’t?’

ImamPastor

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right,

or download it in iTunes here.

For those of you receiving this by email, you may have to click over to the blog directly to access the audio player.

 

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x6821.jpgFrom the button down mind of Rev. Jason Micheli…

We continued our sermon series on the Holy Spirit this past weekend with a look at Paul’s claim in Romans 8 that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought…but that the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings too deep for words.’

To bring Paul’s point home, I tried to imagine just what prayers prayed by people who know not how to pray sound like to God, who alone knows how to speak to God.

Here’s the sermon text: What Do Our Prayers Sound Like to God?

Here’s the audio from the middle service and the video from the (stoned-faced) early service. You can download the sermon in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic’ here. You can also listen to it on the sidebar widget to the right on the blog.

If you’re receiving this by email, you may need to go to www.tamedcynic.org to view the video of the sermon.

 

 

10 Tips on the Holy Spirit 

Jason Micheli —  September 10, 2014 — 2 Comments

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x682.jpgWe continue our sermon series on the Holy Spirit this weekend. The Holy Spirit is easily the most confused person of the Trinity.

Thus:

1. The Fruit of the Spirit

The fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience etc.) are not ideal personality attributes that are inherent to all people or achievable apart from discipleship.

The fruit of the Spirit describe the character and ministry of Jesus and are thus sown in us by the Spirit only as we follow after the Son.

 

2. Speaking in Tongues

Speaking in tongues is about mutual understanding amidst the differences of language and culture not ecstatic speech to exacerbate difference.

If your ‘gift’ of ecstatic speech does not lead to another’s understanding where before there was only misunderstanding- and thereby heal the fractures within creation- it’s not a gift from the Holy Spirit.

 

It’s about God undoing Babel. Just as Pentecost originally celebrated God’s revealing himself and creating the distinct People of Abraham in the world, the Holy Spirit arrives at Pentecost to begin making good on the promise to Abraham: that through his family all the peoples of the world would be blessed. (See: Acts, Book of)

 

3. The Holy Spirit is Not IN You

The Holy Spirit is God; therefore, the Holy Spirit is not a necessary, constitutive part of you. Otherwise you would be God.

But because the Holy Spirit is God, the Spirit is closer to you than you are to yourself.

The Holy Spirit is not the same thing as your conscience or your soul. The Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the imago dei, the part of you that is created in God’s image. The Holy Spirit is not the little voice in your head or your own private feelings of subjectivity.

 

The Holy Spirit is God and, as such, only comes to us from beyond us as sheer gift.

 

4. You Don’t HAVE the Holy Spirit

No person (or church!) has the Holy Spirit as though the Spirit were a possession or even a reliable guest. The Spirit’s presence cannot be predicted and, accordingly, the Spirit cannot be manipulated into appearing through prayer or liturgy.

 

The Spirit can only be invited to rest upon us.

 

Again, the Spirit is God. The Spirit blows where it wills, and often the Spirit blows in places and among people against our will, working outside the community of believers and beyond its comfort zone. (See: Acts, Book of)

 

5. The ‘Comforter’ is Seldom Comforting

Though called the ‘Comforter’ (paraclete) the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son, and, like the Father and the Son, the Spirit is seldom comforting.

The Spirit  works grace in us and grace- growing into ever greater Christlikeness, which we call ‘true humanity’- is always disruptive and even painful, for ours is world that responds to love with crosses. (See: Acts, Book of)

 

6. The Real Gift of the Spirit

The primary gift of the Spirit from which all over gifts properly flow is the gift of God’s own self. The Spirit gives us the same delight that God is God which God has for God. The Spirit catches us up into the never-ending mutual and reciprocal love shared between Father and Son.

 

7. The Spirit Does What the Son Cannot Do

Again, the primary gift of the Spirit is to raise us up into the love shared between the Father and the Son. The Spirit has a gift to give that the Son cannot offer. The Spirit gives us a share in God’s own life, the Son’s eternal friendship with the Father.

 

8. The Spirit is Not Found

The Holy Spirit reveals the Son. Any inclination or desire we have towards Christ, any hunger or curiosity we feel for God, any half-mumbled prayer or half-hearted stab at faithfulness is the Spirit’s work not our own. (See: Acts, Book of)

As such the Spirit reminds us that ours is a revealed, mediated faith. The only way to get to God is not through our own initiative, spiritual introspection or self-discovery but through God.

 

9. The Spirit is holy

The Spirit is holy, meaning, literally, ‘different.’ The Spirit is not a spirit, of which there are many. The Holy Spirit is not to be confused with the human spirit, team spirit or patriotic spirit. (See: Acts, Book of)

Our interior feelings are not fruit of the Spirit nor should the Spirit be confused with our own subjectivity.

This means, of course, that how one form of worship or music makes you feel has nothing to do with the Spirit.

 

 10. The Spirit is More than What the Spirit Does

The Spirit is the love expressed in and by the community we call Trinity. The Spirit is the dynamic movement, exchange of love between the Father and Son. The Spirit cannot be reduced then to a role, mode or function like ‘Sustainer.’ And because the Spirit cannot be reduced to a mode, what you can properly say about the Father or the Son you can likewise rightly say about the Spirit. Thus: the Spirit creates or the Spirit redeems.

 

rp_Holy-Spirit-1024x682.jpgTo kick off our September sermon series, I spun the wheel and tackled people’s questions about the Holy Spirit at random as well as fielding some questions from the congregation too. It’s something a bit more interactive than traditional preaching that I try to do on a fairly regular basis.

I call it ‘Midrash (the Hebrew word for commentary on scripture) in the Moment.’ photo-1

Thanks for everyone who submitted questions from all over the world! The ‘best’ question came from someone named Jason Campbell and it was a long thoughtful reflection that used Thomas Merton, Karl Barth, Flannery O’Connor and Mozart to ask if the reason why I don’t talk about the Spirit much is because I prefer to live in my head instead of in the moment/heart. If Jason will be so bold as to send me his address, I will- as promised- send him a free copy of Scot McKnight’s new book, The Kingdom Conspiracy.

Alright, so here’s the audio from Sunday’s sermon. It’s not great- I apologize. You can download it in iTunes as well here. You can also listen to it and old sermons in the sidebar to the right.

 

The_Holy_TrinityNext Sunday we kick-off our September sermon series which will be devoted exclusively to God, the Holy Spirit.

Even if you sleep through most of my sermons, pay no attention to anything I say and glaze over these blog posts, you’ve probably noticed an apparent absence of the Holy Spirit in my work and speech. Or, if not absence then, like my heroes Karl Barth and Stanley Hauerwas, I tend to be so Christo-centric (Jesus-centered) that I leave little room for the role of God the Spirit.

Some of that’s intentional while some of it no doubt says more about me and my prejudices than I realize.

I hardly alone though.

Non-charismatics; that is, Catholics and mainline Protestants, often have no idea how to speak or think of the Holy Spirit and do not understand what others mean when they talk about ‘experiencing’ the Spirit.

So I thought it would be best to begin a month-long sermon series on the Holy Spirit by finding out what questions you or your friends have about the Holy Spirit.

This is how it’ll go:

– Leave a question here below or email (jamicheli@mac.com)

– Submit ANY question about the Holy Spirit (who the Spirit is, what the Spirit does, how we can experience the Spirit etc). Doubt and skepticism welcome.

– I will tackle them at random, in the moment, during the sermon time on Sunday, 9/7 and post the audio here.

– The person who submits the most ‘challenging’ question will receive a free copy of Scot McKnight’s forthcoming book, ‘The Kingdom Conspiracy.’

Props to Andrew DiAntonio for the art.

rainbow-cross_aprilMy modest cranny of Methodism recently tabled a motion to ameliorate the denomination’s official language on homosexuality.

Rather than call what surely would have been a divisive and possibly rancorous vote, a counter-motion proposed that Methodist churches in Virginia instead spend the next year engaged in ‘conversation’ over the issue.

I’ve taken initial stabs at the conversation here and here in case you’re late to the party.

Probably not unlike working at Pontiac or Radio Shack, it’s discomfiting to be part of an organization where a bleak and battered future is both a live possibility and largely out of your hands.

A discombobulating experience, yes.

But an unbiblical experience? No.

Those who wring their hands with fright that the Church must face thorny, divisive questions of faith and experience forget that the New Testament itself was written in such a climate.

What we unthinkingly call ‘scripture’ was formed-largely- in the midst of churches arguing over how to read their scriptures (Old Testament) in the presence of the Spirit (potentially doing a new thing in the inclusion of Gentiles in to the People of God).

In arguing over how we should read our scriptures, Old and New, in the presence of the Spirit possibly doing an extraordinary thing in the inclusion of gay Christians, the Church merely mimics an ancient acesis.

So we shouldn’t shy away from the conversation debate.

One of the most prominent parts of this debate has nothing to do with those icky stone folks for who-lies-with-who passages in Leviticus.

No, the grown-up part of this debate has to do with scripture’s positing the male-female complement as the created norm.

What do gay Christians do with that?

The creation story wherein Adam and Eve are made for each other has been understood in the Christian tradition as the foundational text for the normativity of the male-female union.

RogersDr. Eugene Rogers, the teacher with whom I cut my theological teeth, observes how neither Jesus nor Paul ever quote the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ of the creation story when they quote Genesis. Children, then, are not requisite or constitutive of any understanding of marriage for Paul or Jesus.

Not only is a ‘natural’ law understanding of marriage not primary for Jesus or Paul, Rogers notes, how when Paul does quote the creation story (in Galatians 3) he maintains its precise wording in telling fashion:

“…Paul preserves it just when parallelism might prompt him to change Genesis’ wording. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no ‘male and female:’ for you are all one in Christ Jesus (v. 28).’ 

The first two pairs have ‘neither…nor’ (ouk…oude); the last pair correctly quotes the Septuagint to read ‘no male and female’ (ouk…kai).

Paul denies that the gender of the believer can hinder Christ. Male and female, Christ can draw them: Christ can be all to all.

Christ is bridegroom for women and men; the Church is Christ’s bride regardless of gender. Precisely because Christ is all -the omega- there can also be ‘no male and female.’ 

Christ attracts or orients all desire to God.

‘No male and female’ denies, therefore, strong forms of the complementarity theory (where the male-female relationship is inherent to God’s creative design).

Such a theory of complementarity effectively denies the Christ in whom all things are summed up. 

Thus Paul, when he does quote Genesis 1 at Galatians 3.28 subordinates it to Christ and blocks the implication that complementarity of ‘male and female’ is exclusive.”

Those who oppose the inclusion of gays into the Church and into the covenant of marriage are quick to cite St. Paul and Genesis 1 respectively. Not only does Paul list homosexuality as a vice worthy of God’s wrath (it’s supposed), same-sex unions violate the clear (it’s supposed) creative intent of God (it’s supposed).

As much as Paul becomes the rallying point for the traditionalist perspective, it’s odd- or revealing- that it’s seldom pointed out how Paul minimizes the very categories so crucial to the conservative argument.

If the Jew-Gentile distinction has been obliterated by Christ much more surely has a lesser distinction like gender or sexuality been  transcended.

The normatively of the male-female union may have been biblical in Genesis 1 and onward, but because of Christ it is no longer.

So to speak.

Of course, that Paul makes such a rhetorical move shouldn’t surprise us.

If the male-female union, if being fruitful and multiplying is God’s ironclad intent for human creatures both he and Jesus were in clear violation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A sermon for Pentecost.

The texts for this Sunday were Genesis 11.1-9 and Acts 2.1-18. You can listen to the sermon below or on the sidebar to the right. You can also download it in iTunes if you wish by clicking here.

I studied five years of Latin in high school and four years of German. I can still decline the word for ‘farmer:’ acricola, agricolae, agricolam.

And I can recall enough German to appreciate Indiana Jones on a deeper level.

indy

     I studied Greek and Hebrew in seminary, and I still know them well enough to venture into the Old and New Testaments like a treasure hunter armed with a few well-chosen tools.

     But when it comes to speaking, when it comes to listening, I’ve never been very good at languages.

I’ve always heard how languages come easier for babies than they do for adults- their minds are like sponges, so goes the cliche. But, really, I think the difference is that no one hands out little treats when an adult finally gets the right word for ‘potty’ or ‘hungry.’

Despite my relative ambivalence about languages, on my second day of my first semester of college I decided to enroll in French class. My roommate and I were sitting in a boring Intro to English Literature course, listening to a beer-bellied, gray-haired professor recite Beowulf in Old English.

And across the hall, in the classroom opposite ours, we both noticed a twenty-something, red-haired woman standing in front of a chalk board wearing a tight leather skirt, teaching French.

We changed our schedules that afternoon.

The French teacher’s name was Isabelle, but, because of the siren-like spell she cast over my friend and I, to this day my wife refers to her as ‘Jezebel.’

My interest in French more or less began and ended with Isabelle but, once I’d enrolled, the college required me to stick it out for three additional semesters.

The good thing about French is that you can get by by approximating an accented mumble. My own accent slash mumble was a hybrid of Charles Aznavour and Detective Briscoe from Casablanca.

claude-rains-casablanca

     I passed the written exams by rote memorization, and I survived the listening comprehension tests by correctly assuming that most French conversations were about Miles Davis or American Imperialism.

After four semesters, I ended up with an A average but the memory of Isabelle lingered longer.

Today I can recall a few French words, but when it comes to understanding, it’s all confusion for me.

And the Lord said, ‘Look, the people all have one language;

this is only the beginning of what they will do.

   I traveled to France a while ago to spend a week at Taize, an ecumenical monastery in the Burgundy countryside. Taize is a destination for thousands of Christian pilgrims from places scattered all over the globe.

taize_reconciliation

     And ‘pilgrimage’ seems an appropriate descriptor when you consider how long and trying and confusing the journey there can prove.

At the beginning of the pilgrimage I was wandering around CDG airport in Paris, trying to locate my connecting flight. The gate number printed on my boarding pass didn’t match the listings on the terminal television screen.

I made the mistake of walking up to the desk at what should’ve been my gate and asking for help.

‘I’m just wondering if I’m at the right gate’ I said. The frenchman behind the counter stared at me blankly and said ‘Oui.’

Not satisfied he’d understood me, I handed him my boarding pass and decided to speak every traveling American’s second language. I just spoke louder: I’M JUST WONDERING IF I’M AT THE RIGHT GATE.’

Gary-Bembridge

He looked down at my boarding pass without moving his head- sort of like those haunted house portraits where only the eyes move- and again he said ‘Oui’ even though the sign directly behind him said that particular flight would be landing in Budapest.

I sighed, feeling confused, and as I walked away and he said ‘Thank you. Have a nice day’ in rehearsed non-comprehension.

Not trusting his reassurances, I walked up to Air France’s euphemistically titled Customer Service desk and pressed my dilemma to a young frenchwoman who wore her hair in a matronly bun.

‘You’re American?’ she said in textbook English.

‘And you don’t speak French?’

When I said no she said ‘Oh’ like she was a doctor examining my MRI and had found a suspicious mass.

Then she spoke rapid French to her customer service colleagues and set them all to tittering with laughter. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I was pretty sure I knew who they were talking about.

Not understanding, I walked away confused.

And God said: Come, let us go down, and confuse their language…

The next leg of my journey was by train.

For what seemed like an eternity, I vainly searched around the train station for a men’s room. When I finally found one, there was an old woman standing in front of the stall doors with a mop, absently wiping at the same spot on the floor.

From the cobwebs of my memory, I pulled some of the French Isabelle had taught me. ‘I need to use the restroom’ I told the old woman.

At least I’d thought that was what I’d said. In hindsight, having later consulted my French book, I think what I actually said was: ‘I need to drive your toilet.’

The old woman with the mop looked confused so I repeated it, louder: ‘I NEED TO DRIVE YOUR TOILET.’

 

And she held out her palm and said: ‘You need to be 25 years old.’

At least, that’s what I thought she’d said.

I nodded and said ‘Don’t worry I’m well past 25’ and I walked over to the bathroom stall. But she kept talking, faster this time, her words lashing at my ankles.

When I turned around to close the stall door, the old woman was standing in the middle of it, holding out her hand and telling me I needed to be 25 years old.

I was about to pull out my passport to prove I was old enough when a tall, blond man with hipster glasses said in a Swedish accent: ‘It costs 25 cents. You need to pay her 25 cents.’

‘Oh’ I said and fished around in my pockets.

‘Sorry for the confusion’ I muttered to her, but she did not understand a word I spoke.

   tower-of-babelAnd the Lord said: Come, let us confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another…

For the final leg of my journey, I had to take a bus from Macon to Taize.

I had my fare counted out in my sweaty hand. For the entire train ride I’d practiced how to ask for a bus ticket. When it was my turn, I stepped up to the driver, an elderly, tough-looking frenchman.

I laid my euros down on the tray and spit out the one sentence I’d been playing in my head like a broken record: ‘A ticket to Taize, please.’

But then the driver asked me a question and, just like that, it was like my homework had blown away with the wind. I had no idea what he was asking me.

‘Lociento, no seh Francais’ I babbled….in Spanish.

 

The driver clenched his wrinkled jaw and asked his question again, and I just smiled, feeling confused.

‘He is asking if you want the roundtrip ticket’ the skinny man behind me explained with a German accent.

‘Oh, yes. Yes, please’ I said.

The bus driver tore off my receipt and slapped it down in my palm and began shouting at me: ‘SPEAK THE LANGUAGE. YOU COME TO FRANCE…SPEAK FRENCH!’

The skinny German behind me continued his translating duties: ‘He’s saying that when you come to France you should speak French.’

‘Yeah, I got that part. Danke’ I said and sat down, confused and red-faced.

BabelBar

Therefore the place was called Babel, because there the Lord confusedthe language of all the earth.

The story of Babel belongs to what is known as the Primeval History.

The Primeval History narrates God’s dealings with creation before God ever called Abraham or commissioned Israel to be a light to the nations. The Primeval History is not, like the rest of scripture, a particular history of a chosen People. It’s a general history of all humanity. The Primeval History is Israel’s attempt to project backwards in time and answer some of the questions we still ask:

Where did we come from?

Who made us and how?

Why is there Sin in the world?

Babel is the climax of the Primeval History. But the story isn’t just meant to answer the obvious question:

Why are there so many languages in the world?

      The story of Babel is also the bible’s attempt to pinpoint the origination of:

War

Our Fear of the Stranger and Hatred of the Other

Our Suspicion of

And Hostility towards

and Distrust of

Difference

Because even though the confusing and scattering God does at Babel is meant as a grace to save us from our own hubris, we don’t receive it as gift.

    At Babel God creates tribes with different languages and customs and complexions. Different, diverse tribes.

    And we respond by creating tribalism.

The energies and ingenuities we’d spent on baking bricks and cutting stone we soon turn to making weapons.

     The Sin of Cain and the Sin of Babel mix and, as the Primeval History draws to a close, war is born. taize2

 

For much of the time, my time at the monastery was as confusing as my journey there.

Going through the dinner line one evening and seeing they were serving a gruel that resembled the porridge from Oliver Twist, I said: ‘No thank you, I’ll just have the bread and the apple.’

The volunteer server, a teenage girl who’d colored the Hungarian flag onto her name tag, she just smiled at me and said ‘Yah’ and then plopped a heaping spoonful on my plate.

 

One afternoon I asked another pilgrim for the time- I even gestured to my wrist- but I was instead pointed the way to the bathroom.

In the group bible study, I tried in vain to discuss Paul’s Letter to the Romans with folks for whom English was a second language.

It was confusing all round. And I couldn’t help but think that everything would be so much easier if we all spoke the same language.

Taize2_candlelight_service

That’s pretty much how I felt the Thursday evening I ventured into the monastery sanctuary for the fixed-hour worship.

I grabbed a wrinkled blue paper songbook at the door and found an empty spot among the couple thousand pilgrims. All of us sat on the sloped cement floor facing a terra cotta altar table, above which hung red-orange sheets of canvas arranged to resemble a fiery dove.

Taize-2008-016

The worship that Thursday night followed the same pattern as all the other nights. Scripture was read. Prayers were spoken and sung. Silence was stretched out longer than any sermon.

Towards the end of the worship, before we took communion, a song number flashed on the digital screen that hung on either side of the altar.

Everyone flipped in their books, a 12 string guitar struck the right note and we started to sing: ‘Da pacem in diebus.’ Give Peace in our Days. It’s a chant, only a couple of phrases. We sang it maybe two dozen times at first, in Latin. But then I noticed the pilgrims in front of me, a youth group it looked like, they’d started to sing it in German.

da_pacem_cordium

We kept singing and after a few more repetitions I could make out French being sung behind me by a husband and wife and their three little children. And after that I could hear French starting to pop out in the crowd from other places in the sanctuary.

We were still singing the same song; it was the same tune. They’d just started to sing it in their own language.

It took me a few times more through the song before I worked up the courage to sing in English, but when I did I heard British accents joining me.

And to my left I could make out the hard consonants of what sounded like Russian and to my right I could hear Italian that reminded me of my grandparents.

And maybe it’s the tune or the words but together, the thousands of us, all singing each in our own language, it kind of sounded like the roll of an ocean wave.

Or like a mighty rushing wind.

     And even though there were other sounds I couldn’t make out, other languages I couldn’t identify, I understood everyone of them.

lightstock_87727_small_user_2741517

     And after we sang we passed the Peace of Christ and a teenage girl with stonewashed jeans and dyed green hair embraced me and said something in my ear. And I didn’t know what language she was speaking, but I understood.

     And when I filed up through the line and held my hands out to receive the Body of Christ, the dark-skinned monk looked down upon me, smiling and softly spoke a few words. I didn’t know what he’d said, but I’d understood perfectly.

And after the worship service ended and a small crowd of us lingered behind to gather around the Cross, I couldn’t have translated all the whispered prayers I heard but I understood everyone of them.

pentecosti-kosmos

God doesn’t undo what God did at Babel until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends upon a crowd of thousands of scattered tribes: “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and parts of Libya, and visitors all the way from Rome.” 

Just as God comes down at Babel to confuse their speech, the Holy Spirit comes down at Pentecost to fill with them with praise. And though each of them speaks their own language, each of them is understood.

No more confusion.

     God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a common language, but by creating a People.

A people who, despite their differences, despite their diversities, understand one another because they remember what was forgotten at Babel: that you were made to praise God not make towers to the heavens.

     You were made to embody God’s love to the world not wall yourself off from the world.

You were made to serve in God’s name not worry about making a name for yourself.

You were made to point towards God’s future not try to secure your own. .

God heals the wounds of Babel not by creating a new language.

God heals the wounds of the world by creating a People who are God’s new language.

You.

 

St Denis 09_15This is from my friend, Janet Laisch:
This Sunday is Pentecost– a feast day as important as Christmas and Easter though less widely celebrated.  It marks the day the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles and the birthday of the Church, which means it also celebrates us and our place in the world as icons of the Trinity. The story of Pentecost became a popular image in Christian art starting in the fourth century– as icons, grand refectory and altarpieces. Of these Pentecost paintings, Jean Restout II, a French Baroque painter, captured most energetically and dramatically the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Mary and the Apostles through use of chiaroscuro or strong contrasts of light and dark.  His Pentecost,an oil on canvas from 1732 now housed in the Louvre in Paris once adorned the refectory or monk’s dining room (see image below)  of the Abbey of Saint-Denis (see image above) just outside Paris. The refectory became one of the most prevalent places to display these images as it duplicated the communal space where the Apostles and Mary received the Holy Spirit on that historical day as told in the book of Acts.
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With its chiaroscuro, exaggerated view from below, grand size, and the extreme perspective of the rows of columns to the left and right, Jean Restout II’s painting is reminiscent of Baroque ceiling paintings.  In this image, columns delineate the space of grand cathedrals and separate holy space from pagan space. Viewing it in person, the medium of oil paint enables actual light to reflect from this painting, so the painted light and cloud representingGod glows as a light source in this painting. The cloud and bright white rays of light descending from the upper third of the painting represent God both through the cloud as mentioned in Exodus and the uncreated light so common in Byzantine icons. Light rays emit the Holy Spirit as flames which hover above the heads of Mary, the Apostles and other believers. Some individuals turn away from the light overwhelmed by it; others kneel and pray while others exit and presumably begin the work of spreading the message of the Church through words and acts. 
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Mary stands majestically following apotheosis iconography paintings of her (see image by Titian below); she appears deified as she lays her hands across her chest in reverence to the one true God. The deification of humanity happens because Jesus came down to us. The Eastern Orthodox belief that “God became man so that man could become god” reigns true in Mary. Mary who stands in the center represents the eventual theosis of humanity. God will restore humanity as icons of the Trinity as originally intended at creation.
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The gestures and actions of the other figures represent our varied places in this story. As stated in Acts, Apostles go out into the world to communicate the message of God– in any foreign language to all the world- —a dramatic overturn of the language barrier that the Tower of Babylon created in the Old Testament.  The Apostles began to speak and preach the Gospel in a multitude of tongues which were the languages of the nations of the earth.
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Unlike earlier static Byzantine icons, Jean Restout’s is kinetic. The painting’s message is the action and emotional reaction of each person to the Holy Spirit’s descent.

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Though the painting has been moved from the refectory at Abbey Saint-Denis to the Louvre, it still imparts a powerful message to each of us: heaven and earth should not be understood as a dichotomy.  “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is not a prayer that we might escape from the earth, but rather that earth and heaven might come together.  This prayer describes how the Ascension and Pentecost are linked: in the Ascension, part of earth “moves” into the “heavenly sphere” since Christ is no longer visible to us, and at Pentecost, part of heaven — the Holy Spirit — invades the earth. We must not forget: the Holy Spirit resides here permanently. Therefore Pentecost is not only an historical event but a changed world and an invitation to all of God’s people. Pentecost occurs during the Jewish Shevout or harvest festival so we might understand that theanointed disciples are about to harvest the world. We are pulled into this story and have a direct role to play in the work of the church and our relationship with others.

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An icon of the Pentecost helps explain this point.  A standardized Byzantine Pentecost icon (above) represents the Apostles sometimes without Mary seated around a table; one seat, the head of the table is intentionally left empty. This empty seat is Christ “invisible” to humankind though eternal; God is represented as the blue and silver circular mandorla or uncreated light and the Holy Spirit is embodied in the rays of light descending from the uncreated light and the flames hovering above each of the Apostles’ heads.  The semi-circular wooden table is intentionally left open so that viewer can join the group. The table is a direct reference to a meal both Eucharistic –this world and a meal for the end of time–eschatological. “King Cosmos” stands below the table holding a scroll surrounded by the darkness the world must overcome. King Cosmos represents the world, which the anointed disciples are about to harvest, and he and several Apostles hold scrolls intended to represent the word of God translated for all to know.

RubilevTrinityAt Pentecost, the Trinity has now been revealed to us; thus our theosis and salvation begins now, here on earth because of this revelation. Abraham was given the privilege of seeing a living image of the Triune God as told in Genesis 18: 1-3.  The Byzantine Old Testament Trinity icon (above) captures part of the mystery of the trinity– the relationship between three persons of the Godhead—Father, Son and Holy Spirit (above). Made by God in the image of the Trinity, we too are intended to be in relationship to each other–created with the ability and need to love beyond ourselves. Rather than a limited love, the Trinity teaches this love is infinite.  Becoming a Trinity icon means we become fully human. 

 

 

 

 

holy-spirit-the_tThis Sunday is Pentecost, the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus’ remaining post-Cross disciples. As it’s the Spirit that prays through us whenever we pray- as opposed to being our own action- it seems timely to reflect on prayer.

Perhaps the strongest evidence that the Church in the west has capitulated to Enlightenment-bound rationalism and its consequent skepticism is our reluctance to pray. Our neglect of prayer as a central and life-giving discipline reveals the extent to which many self-professed Christians are actually functional atheists. I realize that sounds harsh, but, at the very least, our reticence to pray reveals just how badly the Church has equipped contemporary disciples to practice the one and only thing the first disciples ever asked Jesus how to do.

I think prayer is the most difficult thing we do as Christians, especially given the secular, post-Christian culture in which we live.

Because to the naked eye, prayer is when Christians converse with someone who appears not to be there.

To the skeptic, to the unbeliever, prayer isn’t any different than the crazy guy at Starbucks who talks to himself over a cup of coffee (actually he’s sitting next to me at the bar right now). More so than anything else we do as Christians, prayer- every time we do it- is a blatant, uncompromising test of our faith. Are we willing to appear crazy for this God? Are we willing to be mocked? Are we willing to be written off as quaint or self-deluded?

Prayer challenges us to ante up when it comes to what we say we believe. Do we sufficiently believe in what we cannot see that we’re willing to speak, whisper and plead to what others will only say is not there.

After all, to most people- believers and non- prayer is a waste of time.

They’re right.

It is a waste of time.

Thank God.

Were it not a waste of time, there’d be little reason for us to pray for the god to whom we prayed would not be God, would not be Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

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Diito from Herbert McCabe:

“…For real absolute waste of time you have to go to prayer. I reckon that more than 80 percent of our reluctance to pray consists precisely in our dim recognition of this and our neurotic fear of wasting time, of spending part of our life in something that in the end gets you nowhere, something that is not merely non-productive, non-money-making, but is even non-creative, it doesn’t even have the justification of art and poetry.

It is an absolute waste of time, it is a sharing into the waste of time which is the interior life of the Godhead.

God is not in himself productive or creative. Sure he takes time to throw off a creation, to make something, to achieve something, but the real interior life of the Godhead is not in creation, it is in the life of love which is in the Trinity, the procession of Son from Father and of the Spirit from this exchange.

God is not first of all our creator or any kind of maker, he is love, and his life is not like the life of the worker or artist but of lovers wasting time with each other uselessly.

It is into this worthless activity that we enter in prayer. This, in the end, is what makes sense of it…”

lightstock_98305_xsmall_user_2741517A folktale about worship goes thusly:

Once there was a rich man who fell in love with a maiden, who was beautiful in form and more beautiful still in character. The sight of her brought him much joy but also much grief, for unlike the maiden he was ugly outwardly and even more unsightly within.

Being so repulsive, he knew he would never win her heart so he struck upon a plan. He approached a mask-maker and requested a mask that would make him appear handsome to the beautiful maiden. The mask-maker did as he was asked. The mask transformed the rich man into a handsome man. In love with the maiden, the masked man did his best to summon the character to match his new outward beauty. He asked the maiden to marry him and ten years of happiness ensued.

But the masked man knew he was carrying a secret. Every day it weighed on him more. He wanted to know if his wife loved him. What’s more, he knew marriage should not be founded on deceit.

One day, filled with fear over what his decision would bring, the husband returned to the mask-maker’s door and made yet another request: this time to the remove the mask.

The mask-maker did as he was asked and the husband returned home fearful.

To his surprise, when his wife saw his unmasked face she showed no reaction whatsoever. No shock. No revulsion. No disgust.

Not understanding, the husband grabbed a mirror and looked only to discover that his face was handsome, not at all like he had once been.

He returned a third time to the mask-maker, looking for an explanation.

The mask-maker told him: you’ve changed.

You’ve loved a beautiful person and become beautiful too by loving her.

You’ve become like the one you’ve loved.

For Augustine, worship is the most important thing we do as Christians because it’s in worship that we adore God and through worship that we become more like the One we adore.

Thomas Aquinas always pointed out Paul’s teaching that when we pray it’s not something we do. We can’t comprehend God.

No, when we pray and worship it’s God the Holy Spirit do so in and through us.

We become what we love, what is loved through us.

This stress is woven into the very terms we use.
The word ‘worship’ is a combination of the words ‘worthy’ and ‘-ship.’ Worship is the practice of attributing ‘worthyship’ whereby we become more worthy.

The word ‘service’ that we use today to refer to the Sunday liturgy comes from the word ‘Gottesdienst’ meaning ‘God’s service to us and our service to God.’

Worship doesn’t name something we do.

Something’s done to us too.

Already beloved, we’re made beautiful.

taize1This is from my friend, Elaine Woods:

Last Tuesday, my divorce became final.

On Saturday (4 days later), my son was accepted to West Point.

Talk about drama in one week!

Although these two events may seem at opposite ends of the spectrum, I like to think of them as a continuation.  New beginnings leading to renewed hope.

Tuesday marked the end of a 23 year marriage (although in reality it ended years ago). Nevertheless, its finality closed the book on my marriage and thrust me into a new chapter in my life.

I approach this new phase with excitement, hope, uncertainty, and melancholy.  I fondly recall memories with the bittersweet taste of gratitude for their existence, and yet, disappointment at their endings.  I look at photos and smile.  Then cry.  Then smile again.  The pictures are reminiscent of times past.

And yet, love never ends; it just transcends into different perspectives.

I’m hopeful for the future.  I couldn’t have done this if I wasn’t.  I believe I’ve been gently led in this direction, where growth and joy will flourish and manifest in ways untapped before.  It will require inner strength and perseverance.

I know my faith will guide me.  I believe in the Holy Spirit and its power.

Although many people are uncomfortable talking about the Holy Spirit (and may consider it a bit suspect), the Holy Spirit has been a part of the Christian faith for centuries.

stainedglass247lIn the Old Testament, there are numerous times when we are told that the Holy Spirit was specifically made available to certain people.  Moses was guided by the Holy Spirit.  Gideon, Joshua, Saul, David, Isaiah, Zechariah, and many others are said to have had the Spirit of the Lord upon them.

In the New Testament, the early Christians told the story of Jesus and referenced the Holy Spirit in many important events.  The birth of Jesus is due in part to the Holy Spirit.  At Jesus baptism, the Holy Spirit descends on him.  Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit and later, returned to Galilee “in the power of the spirit” to begin his ministry.

Listening to and discerning the voice of the Holy Spirit can come all at once or over time.  When you keep coming back to a certain thought; when doors open that were once closed; or when options become possibilities, you know the Holy Spirit is busy at work in your life.  This happens through earnest prayer.  Praying to our Lord and Savior will help to discern the voice of the Spirit. Even just inquiring about the Holy Spirit in your life is a first step.

If you’ve never heard God speak to you through the Holy Spirit, don’t worry. I believe you’ll begin to discern the leading of the Holy Spirit as your prayer life becomes more active and powerful. It’s easier to look back on your life and see the fruits of the Holy Spirit afterwards, rather than day in and day out.  Just remember, the Holy Spirit will never endorse anything that separates you from God.

Even if you don’t feel a “gentle nudge,” the Holy Spirit is still busy at work in your life.

My son applied to West Point during his senior year of high school.  Although he was a stellar student, participated in many extracurricular activities, and had glowing recommendations and a congressional nomination, he didn’t make the cut.  His dream of attending the United States Military Academy at West Point was over.

He was crushed.

He didn’t give up, however, but instead enrolled at another university.  He continued to pursue activities and academics with dedication and hard work. He became a member of the elite Corps of Cadets, and embraced his college experience with enthusiasm. During the fall, he applied again to West Point.

When the news came of his acceptance, we were all thrilled.  Thrilled that through faith and hard work, my son learned not to give up on his dreams.  He learned to redirect, to venture out into uncharted territory, and to find new avenues to discover.

As I continue on my journey, I hope to be as brave as my son.  Major life changes tend to make us feel vulnerable, fragile, and even raw.  We may not feel anything for a while, let alone the Holy Spirit. Take comfort in God.  Know that the Holy Spirit is at work bringing relief, joy and peace to our lives.

Christ promised to his disciples before leaving them that he would pray to God and ask for another Comforter (meaning the Spirit) who would love and guide them forever, just as he did with his disciples.

I believe him.

I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever.     John 14:16

 

 

 

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‘The Word of God for the People of God’

‘Thanks be to God.’

That’s the usual response after the reading of scripture in my church’s worship as it is most congregations.

And whenever I read scripture during the liturgy, I preface the reading with the invitation ‘Listen for the Word of the Lord’ rather than the imperative, common in many churches: ‘Hear the Word of the Lord.’

I prefer the invitation over the imperative because, as we all know, not everyone within hearing of the scripture reading has actually heard the Word of God.

To hear the Bible read is not to have heard the Living God speak.

It’s not so simple or so easy. I like to invite people to listen for God’s Word in much the same manner as I’ll shush my boys while we’re hiking in the mountains. Be quiet, still yourselves, the scripture reader is telling the congregation. Listen for God’s Word because it might just pass you by.

When it comes to God’s Word, active discernment not passive reception is required.

One of the old confessions of the Church acknowledges as much by professing:

‘The preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.’

That is, the word of God (scripture) is not a living, active witness to the one Word of God (Christ) until it’s been faithfully read, faithfully proclaimed and faithfully received by its hearers.

(That’s how you can disqualify preachers who use the Bible for other ends, i.e. Joel Osteen)

The scripture reading then is as mysterious as any other part of the liturgy, eucharist included, because to hear the Word of God is not merely to hear God’s previous revelation read it’s to participate in God’s ongoing revelation in the present.

This the mystery Barth tackles in §16.1 of the Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s already wrapped together as diverse topics as Christology, Pneumatology and the Trinity under his Volume 1 heading ‘The Word of God.’ Now Barth applies the doctrine of revelation to God’s revealing of himself to humanity.

As Barth points out relentlessly, Jesus, the God-Man, is the singular revelation around which all Christian speech of God must cohere. Nevertheless God’s revelation also comes to people who receive and respond to it.

Just how is it that people hear the Word of God (Christ) in the word of God (scripture)?

How is it that some hear God speak?

Which begs another question: Why is it that others do not?

To answer the former question, Barth turns to the Holy Spirit. Barth is often accused of being so radically Christo-centric that he has no place for the Holy Spirit in his theology, but here in §16.1 Barth points to the Holy Spirit as the agent through whom God reveals today.

Not only is it a deep mystery that God speaks; it’s as deep a mystery that we hear.

For Barth the human response ignited by the Holy Spirit is part of the same “revelation” as Christ himself. Every worship service in a sense is still a part of the very first Christmas Eve. It’s part of the same unfolding of God’s Word taking flesh.

This is not unlike what Paul tells the Corinthians: that God was in Christ reconciling the world and now this ministry of reconciliation has been given to us. We’re the extension of Christ, God’s revelation, to the world.

Anyone who accepts the invitation to listen for the Word of God is accepting a summons.