Category Archives: Church Community

“Removable” Ash

There’s a widely held opinion among my friends who are clergy that Ash Wednesday ashes should be removed rather promptly following imposition to avoid presenting oneself has haughty for being “more faithful” than those who do not have their ashes (at all or yet). While I certainly understand the sentiment, especially after hearing stories of those affected by such haughty stare-downs of the ashed faithful when their Ash Wednesday service was in the evening, I wonder if so quickly removing our ashes keeps us from recognizing, or focusing upon, their significance.

Today, a full 24 hours from our Ash Wednesday service, I happened to look down at my right hand and noticed a faint tinge of black under my right thumbnail. After probably 10-20 hand washes, this little bit of ash persisted in the deepest recesses of my nail bed. Annoyed, my first reaction was to grab the nail cleaner and attempt to remove the lingering evidence of my participation in the service, but right as I picked up the basket of nail supplies, I paused. Not more than a day before, my pastor and colleague Daniel Glaze had read part of a book to our Ash Wednesday congregants, reminding us that ashes are sticky things for a reason – they remind us of something important:

“In her book Traveling Mercies, the author Anne Lamott tells the story of scattering the ashes of a loved one. ‘When I opened the box of ashes, I thought they would be nice and soft and well, ashy, like the ones with which they anoint your forehead on Ash Wednesday. But they’re gritty, as if they’re bones or something.’

She continues … ‘I tossed a handful of my friend’s ashes into the water way out past the Golden Gate Bridge during the day. They’re impossible to let go of entirely. They stick to things, to your fingers, your sweater… And they blow every which way. We tried to strew them off the side of the boat romantically, with seals barking from the rocks on shore, under a true-blue sky, but the ashes would not cooperate.

‘They rarely do,’ she says. ‘It’s frustrating if you are hoping to have a happy ending, or at least a little closure, a made-for-tv moment when you toss them into the air and they flutter and disperse. They don’t. They cling, they haunt. They get in your hair, in your eyes, in your clothes.’ Reality is often grungy, isn’t it?

…Lent is anything but reverent and tidy. ”

I resolved to leave the black smudge under my nail until some future, final hand washing removed it. I cannot remove my humanity no matter how hard I try, and neither should I! Christ himself chose to don the ashes of humanity to come live among us. How much more should I appreciate my ashy existence in this world!

I figure there’s probably a happy medium to be struck between how long we wear our ashes to remember who we are, versus how long we wear them to remind others we’ve been to church. But, for the immediate washers of their ashes and those who wear their ashes from morning until their pillowcases are grimy, perhaps we shouldn’t worry about when we (or any one else) wipes it off. Instead, we should simply use those smudgy, ashy crosses (or nail grime) to remind ourselves in this season of Lent that we are indeed dust, ashes that stick around and are messy and imperfect – and that sometimes no matter how many washes we undertake, we’ll have it stuck under a nail for hours and hours. Yet God remains faithful to God’s children, mess, ash, and all.

I am eternally grateful for divine mercy for all of God’s ash-covered children, my dingy thumb and self included.

Living Through Powerlessness: Acceptance, Grace, and Hope

I spent more than two days this week without access to the internet at home. Now, for most folks, this is a mere annoyance. But for me, it was overwhelming. You see, my “day job” is working for a law firm as a paralegal – from home. Meaning, a day without internet at my house means searching out a WiFi signal on my laptop somewhere else so I can earn a living. It means transferring my phone extension to my cell phone, uprooting my laptop and a second computer monitor, and finding a place to perch that has reliable internet. (Thankfully, I do have a second job that does have reliable internet and an extra desk for me in Dan’s office!)

This whole process has made me feel powerless. I was working along, minding my own business, when the connection stopped working. Nothing was wrong with our “box” and no amount of restarting all the devices could make it work again. And no matter how many times we called the internet provider, they still had techs only available to come out two days later. They kept telling us there was nothing they could do.

And so, I sat, powerless to change my situation at home. But the thing about powerlessness over situations is that we are in fact empowered then to do something else.

I was empowered to shut down the laptop and take the night off. Empowered to go on an impromptu date night with my husband that turned out to be extremely fun. Empowered to find a new place to sit and work the following day, which turned out to be nice because I was able to work face-to-face more with my coworkers here at church. I got out of my work-at-home doldrums and got to dress up and say hi to other humans (and not just my happy, but non-human doggies).

We have all heard/read the serenity prayer at some point:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

My role this week was acceptance. I couldn’t convince others to do things on my schedule. I couldn’t change my internet connection situation. I had lots of courage to try, but the internet company had no appointments. And so, I had to accept my fate of being an internet nomad in search of a WiFi singal so I could work.

But where the serenity prayer stops, we should not. Acceptance doesn’t mean stopping. Once we accept, we can then do something with that knowledge. In my case, I could try something new, get out of my routine, and keep a positive attitude. I could find new ways to approach the unchangeable that were life-giving. I didn’t have to sit in pained, silent acceptance and do nothing in my disconnected apartment.

Life is a series of things we cannot change. No matter the amount of courage we have to change things we can, some are impossible to change (at least on the schedule we would like to). These could be nuisances like a lack of internet or a locked car door, or they could be major life circumstances like cancer, sudden death, the struggles of aging, or illness in innocent children.

We just cannot change things sometimes. No matter how much we try, these things simply are. And we are left with knowing that we cannot change them, and then finding ways to live in them, through them, and make the best of our lives as we accept them.

As we face life’s challenges, we are going to overcome many things by having courage to change them. But when we cannot change things, I pray that we instead find ways to integrate them into our lives in positive ways. For the “small stuff,” it can simply take a positive attitude and some ingenuity; for the bigger things, it may take days, months, or even years to find ways to live into God’s meaning in our lives as we face these hardships.

But we can experience the grace of God in our healing and acceptance of the unchangeable, and maybe change up our prayer a bit:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
The wisdom to know the difference,
And the grace to find new ways to live in spite of the things I cannot change.

[Cross-posted from River Road Church, Baptist Pastor’s Blog:]

Religious, But Not Spiritual

We’ve probably all had someone tell us they are a spiritual person, but not very religious. Oftentimes, for me, this is after the mention of my chosen profession. “Oh, you’re a minister – yeah, I used to go to church many years ago, but it just didn’t agree with me. It’s just so…[fill-in-the-blank: hypocritical, boring, etc.].  But I am still very spiritual. I believe in God. I’m just not very religious…” [awkward pause] “Oh, but I’m sure your church is really great!”

Why yes, it is. RRCB has one of the most beautiful and meaningful worship service structures I have ever attended or been a part of. It has the depth of meaning, the story-in-song, the aesthetics of a cathedral, all with a Baptist, soul- and Bible-affirming twist. And when we’re not worshiping, we’re doing the work of the Body of Christ. We are feeding the hungry, creating community, visiting the sick, affirming one another.

And yet – do you ever feel like you or someone you know involved in so many activities suddenly realizes that doing this, while it is philanthropic and good, no longer touches your soul in ways that God becomes more present?

Perhaps it is because you’re too busy to see Jesus (e.g., Martha). Perhaps you just never “got” the whole life-as-prayer or devotional time; it feels awkward. Perhaps there is still some doubt as to the veracity of God, but you definitely see good people and want to be a part of their good work in the name of this God you haven’t really gotten to know yet.

We are all somewhere on this faith journey.

I think it can be easy for us to fall into the trap of good works. Not in the self-righteous sense, but in the sense that we are doing a lot of good work with good hearts but never finding the “God moments,” missing the connection to the Divine in our work.

In his sermon this past Sunday, Mike Clingenpeel told us how very connected we are with technology and yet how very disconnected we can become from our Source, the Vine to our branches.

So, what are we busy Christians to do about this disconnect? How do we stop being religious but not spiritual?

I think the answer lies in our recognition that our spirit needs the same hard work as the missions we endeavor to pursue as a congregation.  One theologian, Baron von Hügel said that we have three dimensions: the intellectual, the institutional, and the mystical. We must nourish all three to be well-rounded People of the Book.

That mystical, or spiritual, part of us is often lost in our very logic-laden, post-Enlightenment, exuberantly busy world. We want neat, tidy ways of doing life. But mysticism seems to “waste time” and requires a lot of sitting alone and cultivating personal disciplines that will interfere with our daily lives, force us to face our deepest fears and longings, and drive us to see everything we do in a new Light.

Learning Spiritual Practices is a lot like learning to manage your time to study in school. It requires some persistence, some mess ups, and some ongoing changes of pace as we grow and learn. I would encourage you in the coming weeks to join me in a journey to beingreligious AND spiritual. Here are a few steps to help us get started (adapted from Thirsty for God by Bradley P. Holt):

  • Learn to sit attentively in silence. Sit up straight, spine perpendicular to the floor and with both feet on the floor. Close your eyes. Relax. Find a comfortable place for your arms and hands.  Let your muscles relax, moving from feet to head. Become aware of your breathing. Take deep breaths, in through the mouth, and our through the nose. Now you are in a state of relaxed alertness. As your mind wanders, it can be helpful to mentally move those thoughts away. If you have a candle, you may wish to symbolically view those distracting thoughts burning in the flame and disappearing. Silence is not easy and you should not blame yourself if it takes a while to settle into this kind of activity. Start small. Do 5 minutes of silence then 10, 15, 20 as you become more comfortable. You will likely find a kind of disruptive peace in these periods of still. You will find God’s still, small voice. [Note: if you cannot find quiet in your homes – I hear you moms and dads of young ones! – Remember that our chapel is open every day during business hours for meditation and prayer. It’s made for it – drop by on your way into work or whenever you have a break!]
  • Take a walk. Focus on your body’s rhythm – heartbeat, breathing, muscle tensions. Breathe in the freedom of being outside of a box (room). Imagine yourself on a walk with God. Look up at the sky or tall trees – see the vastness of creation.
  • Pray. Many of us are quick to offer a prayer of thanks for a meal or a request for something specific, but perhaps extend your “praying as talking to God” (mostly asking for things) to include praying in other ways that inform communication with God: Gratitude, Praise, Wonder, Confession, Complaint, and all the other ways we relate to other people. Prayer is not just one way of speaking, it is all communication we have with the Divine. It is our whole relation to God. Broaden your relationship with God but broadening your practice of prayer.
  • Write about your life. You could start by placing your date of birth and today’s date on far ends of a sheet of paper. Revisit places, time periods, events in your life (whether spiritual or ordinary, as both affect us). Which of these major events or places or people in your life have most affected how you view Creation, God, Church, and good works? Which of these moved your soul? As Denise Bennett told us on Wednesday night at Telling Our Faith Stories, the process of telling our faith stories begins with outlining those parts of our lives that have meaning. When did you receive or give a particularly meaningful gift? What place in your life holds sacred value? How does your family celebrate, mourn? Do you have unconventional family members or friends? Who has shaped you? After you have written these down, begin to share with trusted friends your journey. Ask them the same questions. Christian friends walking this same spiritual journey with you will provide space to be accountable for disciplines and to share, laugh, and have community together as you experience God in deeper, more profound ways in this walk of faith.

[cross-posted from the Pastor’s Blog at ]

Practical Faith: Dealing with Stress

Stress Faith, Hope, and Love

The winter season. The new semester. The new financial year. We are firmly into 2015, and already it may seem to some of us that the year is out to get us. We have so much to do and so little time to do it. Combating stress and worry is rarely simple. Most of us struggle to “leave it to God” or remember that God’s “eye is on the sparrow, who neither reaps nor sows.” Are there ways to approach stress through our faith positively without simplifying a deep struggle? Yes, I think so. How can we begin the process of alleviating our worries?

  • First, seek help. The darkness of winter days and the end of a brightly-lit season can leave anyone feeling down. Add to that the stress of a new year and new responsibilities – well, you get the picture. There are pastors at your church, friends in your community, and professional health care members who are dedicated to supporting you. Don’t let that opportunity pass you by if things are tough.
  • Second, say “no.” There is no shame in saying “no” for your own health. Many times, those of us who are heavily involved, caring people often think that if something is to be done we must do it ourselves! But this is far from true. If a project or activity overburdens you, ask for help! Crashing and burning will prevent you from doing your best on the next project. Say “no” to the one now that induces more stress and trust those around you to handle things in your absence.
  • Third, understand that worry is not a character flaw. It is both a mental/physiological state (some of us struggle with more worry than others due to our neurotransmitters and life circumstances), as well as a spiritual/soul state (we all struggle to trust God and are friends of Nicodemus, who just could not understand how simple God’s grace is).

There will be many parts of life that create for us stresses we can hardly bear. And to be ready for those times, we must prepare beforehand or be ready to stop when necessary. Worry is certainly normal and understandable. It is also beatable, with work, time, and support. What are some spiritual ways to alleviate and/or prevent excessive worry?

  • Open space in your days for quiet. This will be difficult for many of us – we are overscheduled, overworked, and overtired. But space in one’s day leaves room for God’s Spirit to groan for you as you work out your stressors. This time of no connectivity (turn off that phone, email, TV, etc.!) will not only allow you to empty space into silence, but it will also create space for God to speak to you in that still, small voice.
  • Open space in your week for movement. God created us with whole bodies. We were never meant to sit at a desk and worry. God made us to move, interact, and be alive in so many other ways. Whether it’s a walk through the neighborhood with family or friends or dogs, or some roughhousing with the grandkids, or simply making sure to move around in some small way every day, it will make a difference in your stress level. The scientists tell us that sitting is no good for our body chemicals, but moreover, most of us feel the effects of a motionless life as we try to face our daily stresses with so little strength. Get up, get moving!
  • Whatever is true, noble…praiseworthy – think on such things. Our over-committed culture is also predominately negative. We only criticize ourselves; we don’t lift ourselves up. To stop worrying about one’s appearance or successes as a primary focus, one must first change the inner negative voice. This might require some professional help, or it might simply require a daily inner reminder about that voice. If there is space to hear God, listen to that voice, not your inner gremlin. Thoughts of the Spirit are true, noble, and praiseworthy – not negative or hurtful.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he said “Faith, Hope, and Love” are the backbone of Christianity. Faith, not worry. Faith that God will provide (Hope). And Love to conquer all Fear. May you find ways to move your Stress to Faith and thus embrace God’s Hope and Love. And may we all support each other as we work toward better balance in our lives – Mutual loving relationships are the only way we will all be able to make space for God among us and alleviate each other’s struggles even as God works in our inner selves.

(originally posted at Pastor’s Blog for River Road Church, Baptist:

An Advent Devotion

A devotion I wrote for FBC Chattanooga’s Advent Devotion book. Many thanks to Jeanie & David Gushee for their compliation of Christian prayers  (Yours Is the Day, Lord, Yours Is the Night), which added so much to this devotion.

Advent Devotion: Worship

John 1:1-5

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. 4 What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

There is much talk about light and hope during Advent season. We all try desperately to focus not on ourselves, but on the light that Jesus, the Word made Flesh, brought to earth when he was born. But in the midst of millions of tiny colored, sparkling lights, the days get shorter and colder…and darker. This time of year sees the most suicides and depression. This time of year can consume us with loneliness – whether through the loss of a loved one or simply a sense of loneliness when we feel alienated by bustle of the season.

What is so beautiful, I think, about the promise of the Light of the World is when it falls in our calendar – at the darkest time of year (and perhaps the darkest time of life). Holidays may bring loneliness or remind us of a bygone year of pain. We might have gotten divorced, lost a child, parent, or friend. We might have made poor decisions and be filled with regret. We might be spending our first Christmas alone. We might sob during the long, dark nights of December. Light and hope are the last things on our mind.

But this, I think, is when we can most find comfort in Advent worship. We don’t need to start out joyful – we come to the manger as we are: sad, lonely, hurting, depressed. And we find comfort, community, love, and acceptance. Jesus is the Prince of Peace because of the offering of love and community at his table. Christmas worship is as much about being joyful as it is offering the love of Christ to others to create joy in community and love during the darkest days of the year.

May this be our meditation and prayer during Advent’s dark days:

Come, true light. Come, life eternal.
Come, hidden mystery…Come, reality beyond all words.
Come, person beyond all understanding. Come, rejoicing without end.
Come, light that knows no evening.
Come, unfailing expectation of the saved.
Come, raising of the fallen. Come, resurrection of the dead.
Come, all-powerful, for unceasingly You create…
Come, for Your name fills our hearts with longing
and is ever on our lips…
Come, for You are Yourself the desire that is within me.
Come, the consolation of my humble soul.
Come, my joy, my endless delight.

– Symeon The New Theologian (949-1022)

St. Benedict, Faith, & Ordinary Folks

Epiphanies 7/18/2012

Calm amidst the storm(s). Looking at some ways we can practice faith when everything else in life runs counter to it.

Tonight we are going to look at the life of St. Benedict of Nursia, a monk who lived many centuries ago, and take a few minutes to think about how his Rule can help guide our faith in profound ways today. We’re no monks, but we are Jesus-followers, and tonight we’re going to explore some tools that might just make our spiritual lives a little more vibrant – in spite of the obstacles in our lives.

*First, let’s think about what we know about Benedict. (Examples: monk, popular Rule of St. Benedict, early Christianity, humility, obedience, silence)

St. Benedict lived from about 480-550CE. His teaching “upholds the highest ideals of Christian love and asceticism in an uncompromising yet humane spirit…his Rule for Monasteries has become the most popular and commonly used rule in the West. In this remarkable little document, Benedict describes the monastery as a ‘school for the Lord’s service’ and proceeds to outline the contours of life in a monastic community characterized by balance and simplicity…he teaches the three foundational virtues of the monk: obedience, silence, and humility…[His rule] was acclaimed for its moderation,” [but also was] “unbending in its expectation that each monk would be present at all community gatherings; and his emphasis on the exercises of prayer …illustrates Benedict’s conviction that the thoughts of the monk must at all times be occupied with God.” (Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, 65).

“Rather than extreme asceticism, what the Rule seeks is a wise ordering of the monastic life, with strict discipline, but without undue harshness.” Additionally, Benedict’s rule required stability – monks did not move or leave without being told to, and that commitment has made the institution greatly relevant in times of chaos. The Rule also had specific ways to deal with the errant monks, allowing for forgiveness and reconciliation. For, as Justo Gonzalez says, “the Rule is not written for venerable saints, such as the heroes of the desert, but for fallible human beings. This may have been the secret to its success.” (Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I, 279).

Now, we all know that most Christians are not called to be monastics. But, that’s not to say we can’t learn from, and even use, the practices of our monastic brothers and sisters (forefathers and foremothers). Benedict called for both spiritual and physical discipline. Discipline – not a word we often react well to.

*What does discipline mean to you? Are there disciplines (mental, physical, spiritual) you already practice?

Many of us do actually practice disciplines – whether it exercise in the form of gardening or walking dogs; whether it’s night time prayers or early morning Bible studies; whether it’s keeping a weekly Sabbath (rest day). The happiest and most well-adjusted people have disciplines in their lives. And our disciplines need not be unduly harsh (you don’t have to forever give up ice cream or wine – just do it in moderation. You don’t have to run marathons – just walk and jog enough to stay healthy. You don’t have to pray every Daily Office – just make time for God every day). And who knows, once you start a discipline, you might just like it enough to expand it. As our disciplines become part of our lives, they become higher priorities – maybe higher than, say, our favorite TV drama or that extra hour of sleep.

Now, to be fair to you all – I am coming to you as a fairly undisciplined learner myself. Tonight let’s learn together. I’ve brought you a few thoughts on Benedict from a mother and blogger who loves all things Benedict. Let’s make this guy modern and outside the monastery walls. What can “the rest of us” do when we don’t cloister? This mom has some thoughts.

First, let me read you a letter she wrote to Benedict just last week, on his feast day:

Now, I want you to break into 3-4 groups. Each group will get an article about Practicing Benedict. I want you to read through it, and when you’re done reading, I want you to list 5 ways you can incorporate this Benedictine idea into your daily lives. When we come back together, we will discuss some of what we all came up with.

What did you find most intriguing about this part of the Rule and Micha’s thoughts on it? How can you apply it in your daily life?

We’ll begin with Group 1, Nothing Harsh, There’s Enough Time. 2, Silence. 3, Prayer and Rising Immediately. 4, Hospitality.

Perhaps there is enough time – when our lives are centered properly. Perhaps we can not only fit in prayer, but make prayer central to our daily lives. Too often, I hear of Christians trying to do a 5AM Bible study every day when their job keeps them up until midnight. Or I hear of people struggling to find silence in their lives while scheduling themselves to death. But I think Benedict’s right: there is enough time. There always has been. We just have to find and use discipline to realize it.

Benedict was reasonable (okay, well, at least for a monk!). We need to also be reasonable. We need to know our limits, prioritize sleep, not overdo the scheduling, and make God and relationships the priorities in our life. We are not defined by what or how much we do. We are who we are because God loves us so much and puts such priority on God’s children.

There’s no need for undue harshness, but there is a need for discipline. I pray we take tools, like those Benedict provides for us, and begin to re-order our lives around what should already be central: God’s love for us and our response to it.

One of the reasons I’m Baptist…and happy about it

In a recent post about the competing op-ed pieces about Liberal Christianity and Conservative Christianity and whether either can be saved, Rachel Held Evans once again spoke my mind for me in so many ways. Her articulate piece outlines the good and the bad of both Christian “camps” in this nation, and outlines pretty well where I sit – right in between the two. Her truths about what both sides have and lacks were spot on. I  applaud her for seeing good on both sides.

I was raised in some very conservative churches, where I learned a heaping knowledge of scripture, studied my faith diligently, and became a Christian whose faith genuinely mattered to her whole life. But, I was also told women couldn’t be preachers or leaders or even deacons. I was confused about what I might do with my life when I felt called to ministry. I faced a LOT of guilt over the most normal of life’s happenings. I loved science and marveled at how much, and yet how little, we know about the magnificent creation we see – and I knew that the earth had to be more than 6,000 years old. Then, after much turmoil and leaving church for a spell (like, most of college), I found the progressive movement in the Baptist world – the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (and the American Baptists, who I knew existed, but wasn’t familiar enough with; and the Alliance of Baptists, which even in the middle of seminary struck me as very far from my Southern Baptist upbringing). I learned that women were welcome in many pulpits, my calling was fully embraced, and I was allowed to doubt and not be judged. I also learned that progressive Christianity lost much in Bible study to gain in social ministry, and lost much in personal piety to be replaced with philosophical debates and a lot of intellect. I believe in the movement of the Spirit, and sometimes (though luckily not often), this was quashed by the amount of thinking my classmates and I did. And I believe the Bible needs to be taken seriously – all the time. I believe in miracles, the bodily resurrection, the movement of God in personal lives through scripture study…things that are often challenged in the more intellectual “liberal” extreme. (Because, as Evans points out, we are describing the extremes, not the middle ground).

Neither extreme has a good mesh of the holy and the intelligent, of the ritual and the free Spirit. And both have lots to learn from each other and must meet those of us in the middle to do it. Evans’ exact words were “Missing from the whole dialog” [between the and conservative and the angry liberal Christians] “was any sense that we’re in this together, that, as followers of Jesus, we may need to put our heads together to re-imagine what it means to be the Church in a postmodern, American culture where confidence in organized religion is at an all-tie low.” She gets it, too, as she has left the church and been unable to consistently attend a church since. While I hope for nothing more than her resolution to the issues she faces in finding a church, I suddenly became aware that I already have that church…and have had that church for some time.

Now, to be fair, no church has it all figured out. The two churches where I have actively attended in the last five years (first church 2007-2011 & second 2011-now) have messed up, done horrible things, and been absolutely wrong on some things (both in the leadership and the lay persons). But, on the whole, at least while I have been a member of these churches, I have seen two groups of faithful Christians who differ widely on topics of theology to politics to the color of the sanctuary carpet, come together in fantastic ways to love and lead in their communities. And also to be clear, one church leans slightly right, the other slightly left. But I feel at home in both – because they hold in utmost importance the message of Jesus and the promise of God’s present and coming kingdom. They think through things, ask questions, and try their best not to assume. They forgive those who’ve really messed up. Neither church actively turns away or shuns the pregnant teenager, the divorced, the cohabitating partners, or the poor. There are a majority of members who would drop everything to come to the aid of anyone in the community. My “home” church is famous for their actions after major storms – they are first-responders who make a mission of helping others when all seems lost. They do the back-breaking labor of love to saw trees and pick up the pieces. My current and new “home” church gives up their space regularly to minister to the downtown homeless. They wrap their arms around the outcast and welcome them with open arms into the service and work of the church.

And in both churches, I see the face of the Living God at work in the middle of humanity’s local affairs. Yes, both churches support overseas missions through their respective denominations. Both churches send missionaries to foreign lands. (And those works are deeply important to both denominations and their members). But most importantly, as Baptists, they plant themselves in the middle of a local area and get to work with both feet on the ground. They brush off differences in order to work among those in need in their immediate midst. They give their all to active love and put theology to the side while they work – this is something to be commended for. Not all Baptists make this work so well.

Baptists are, by nature, a bunch of staunch individualists. We each read and interpret the Bible in our own way. We are holy priests and mediate our own relationship with God. And as churches, we are autonomous units designed to function in a specific locale. And the only way for a Baptist church to stay whole (yes, some do manage to stay whole…at least for a period of time!), we must hold together the dissenting opinions. We must give and take on all decisions. We must be willing to be wrong and humble even when we feel sure we’re right. We talk theology and politics in a way that helps us all to grow and not in ways that divide the house of God. And when we do that, and do it well, the Kingdom grows. God’s people learn, and we all become better disciples.

I pray more of our churches and those caught in between these ongoing left-right debates would find ways to work together to reach that many more people with the message of hope, promise, inclusion, and love that Jesus so freely offered us. My friends to my right and to my left, in my denomination and not, I pray we do this as a team – with humble hearts and forgiving spirits. The church at its best is a humble group of people seeking to live as Christ, continually uplifting one another, and finding ways to make our differences teach one another about the good and bad of our own theology and traditions. The Kingdom of God is so much bigger than our biggest differences, and it deserves our best effort at working together.

Loving God With Our Whole Selves

Epiphanies 6/20/2012

It’s summertime. People are wearing fewer clothes and feeling more and more aware of their bodies (and probably more aware than they want to be of others’ bodies!). In this place of awareness, we will take a moment to think about our bodies and how they relate to our faith and relationship with God and others.

In a recent discussion with Melissa Browning at the Sexuality & Covenant Conference in Atlanta, we were faced with what she called a “Theology of the Body.” Now, to be clear, this is no new theology. John Paul II had pages and pages of papal encyclical to discuss a theology of the body for the Catholic tradition. But hers was a bit more nuanced and definitely differed from JPII.

Here’s a question for you: What role does the body play in theology/faith for you? (Possible Answers: it causes us to sin, it is a mode of worshiping – using body parts like mouths and feet, it is imperfect and diseased and thus holds us back or teaches us new things about ourselves, etc.)

Relevant magazine recently discussed a similar topic this week in an opinion article. Let’s take a quick look at this author’s take on “How spiritual are our bodies?”:

How do we feel about our bodies being more a part of our faith and less a hindrance to it? This author seems to imply that scripture shows how reliant we are on our bodies to even practice worship…

What do you think about our bodies as intertwined with our souls, rather than apart from them? What did the Hebrews think about souls? The Greeks? What do we do with all of this? What about Jesus’ incarnation – his human body? Being full divine and fully human all at once – did that say something about God’s valuing the human body/condition?

Paul, who was famous for struggling against unnecessary desires, just like his Greek contemporaries, still saw the body as integral to the worship and love of God, just as his ancestors before him. For Paul, the body was a temple we should care for.

Melissa Browning says “We experience life from our bodies – it is a lived experience through senses. We are not just minds.” She emphasized what Margaret Farley described as “Getting past the dualism of inspirited bodies and becoming embodied spirits.” She says that really, our bodies and our spirits limit each other – in good ways. We must begin to trust our bodies…

And I might add: love & cherish our bodies, as we are made in the image of God.

But what does this mean – the image of God? I mean, weren’t we always taught that the image of God really was not an image at all – that is was some sort of spiritual likeness? Do we actually LOOK like God, FEEL like God to the touch – do we RESEMBLE God??

Some theologians say that maybe we do – they discuss a striking anthropomorphic depiction of God. There’s not a lot to that scripturally, but it has been thrown out there as humanity has tried to figure out what our bodies have to do with our faith.

Maybe we do look like God…but not exactly that God looks like a human being. Perhaps it’s bigger than that. One theologian who has actively studied centuries of theology and come to his own conclusions, says that “the image of God is not like an image permanently stamped on a coin; it is more like an image reflected in a mirror. That is, human beings are created for life in relationships that mirror or correspond to God’s own life in relationship.”

Hmm. So, we are to live in relationship like God does. I mean, God is Triune – God is in relationship with God the father, son, and spirit, along with humanity & creation, all in self-giving love all the time. Wow. That’s a lot to ask.

But ask is exactly what Jesus did when he commanded us to “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.” That’s a bold statement. It assumes we love ourselves – because we know our bodies are made in God’s image. It assumes we recognize that we have neighbors who are also created in God’s image. And it means we use our bodies to actively pursue relationships with these neighbors (friends and enemies alike) in order to become more like God-in-relationship.

No, I’m not going to give you a long list of things we should/shouldn’t do to our bodies. We have lots of scripture and modern science to help us sort through that, and it would simply take too long for a single lesson to go over it all. But based on what you know about our bodies and how they should be cared for and used, what are some ideas you have about what you can do this summer to better use and protect your body in service to the Kingdom?

Can you better love your neighbor by going to see them physically? Can you better serve your community by being the “hands & feet” of Christ doing hands-on ministry? (There’s that metaphor again!). What about caring for your body in such a way so that you physically CAN do things for/with Christ? (I’ve quit preaching and gone to meddling…sorry, guys).

Take your time this summer. Care for yourself and others. Yes, vacation weeks and summer camp weeks might be hectic. But most of us have a tad more down time during the summer. The days are long, and we have choices about how to spend our time. Make choices that honor God with your body. Try to integrate your faith and your body more mindfully – you might just be surprised at the grace it can offer both you and those you are called to serve.

Commitment, Covenant, & Community

Notes from our Epiphanies lesson: Wednesday, 5-2-12

What does it mean to be committed – to faith, to relationships, to community? How we are committed in our own faith community today? Or are we?

During a packed 3 days at the [Baptist] Sexuality & Covenant conference a couple of weeks ago, the idea of commitment and covenant formed a basis for thinking about Christianity, Community, and Relationships in ways I hadn’t even imagined before. We are continuing the conversation together in Epiphanies.

If you’re interested in viewing the conference sessions (and I wholeheartedly recommend them), you may find them here:

Question 1: What is covenant in scripture? Name a few.

Answers: Biblical covenants: agreements, contracts – or more/deeper, Hebrew berith, mostly God-contracts with God’s people – God kept the covenant, people didn’t always. A vow. A self-giving promise.

Examples: God’s covenant with Noah – rainbow. God’s covenant with Abraham – descendants: Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. God’s covenant with Moses – Ten Commandments. The priestly covenants – Aaron. Israel’s covenant to return to Mosaic law. God’s covenant with David – his family will be rightful kings. New covenant in Jesus – between God and all people – Jew and Gentile.

Question 2: How to commitment and covenant relate? Are we commited in our society? How/Why/Why not?

Read: Malachai 2:

13 Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.

15 Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring.[d] So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.

16 “The man who hates and divorces his wife, ” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,”[e] says the Lord Almighty.

So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

At the conference, Dr. David Gushee gave us some ideas about what covenant is, and should be, as God designed it. We looked at his thoughts:

Covenant should be a moral norm, a standard – not just an ideal.

Here are some thoughts about what interpersonal covenant in the Christian tradition should look like:

  • A voluntarily entered sacred pact between two persons and between those persons and the God to whom both are committed. Freely entered between two persons equal in power and who are under no coercion.
  • Once entered, the freedom of its participants is henceforth constrained. It is a FREE DECISION TO MAKE ONESELF NO LONGER FREE.
  • It is an exchange of promises. These are fully binding.
  • It is a transition in status and responsibility.
  • Promising a certain quality of interpersonal relating to each other: love, cherish, comfort, honor, and care.
  • Promising to offer this even when they don’t feel like it (richer or poorer).
  • Offer such relating only to each other and not to anyone else (forsaking all others). For a lifetime as well.
  • No conditions or time limits (unlike regular contracts).
  • Each person is making a covenant as an individual moral agent.

Coventalism corresponds with our nature and highest potential, as well as taking care of our sinful nature. We need sacred promises or we might not stay together when times are hard. This is a divine provision for sin. It is the best possible arrangement for binding human lives together. Our vows keep us; we don’t keep our vows. Covenants are better for both adults and children.

The main issue is not who is eligible for covenant. The main issue is whether the church is committed to rescuing the concept and practice of covenant in accountable community before it disappears all together – not just in society, but within our own congregations and homes.

THE PROBLEM: We live in a consumer society – no commitments are permanent. We are always trading what we have for something better. We do it in every context of life, including religion. Do we remember church covenants? People stayed in churches for life – “this is my church, I’m committed.”

How do we teach younger generations to make covenants when we’re not committed to much of anything? Churches should be better covenant communities. Not casual, drive-by consumer products. Covenant communities of brothers and sisters in Christ, there in good times and bad. Only such communities are in any position to talk to emerging adults about lifetime covenants.

How do we understand and live this, then? (i.e., How now shall we live?)

“The Lost Art of Commitment: Why we’re Afraid of it, and why we shouldn’t be” (Article in Christianity Today) Notes:

  • “A Christian without commitment is an oxymoron.”
  • “In 1979…a study using extensive interviews was conducted to understand what ‘habits of the heart’ defined average Americans. Many had no sense of community or social obligation. They saw the world as a fragmented place of choice and freedom that yielded little meaning or comfort. They even seemed to have lost the language to express commitment to anything besides themselves…Since then, we’ve seen an almost uninterrupted march toward self-focus, affecting all of our institutions but especially crippling work, marriage, and family” (and church!).
  • “How can you begin as a Christian without death to self and total commitment to Jesus Christ?”
  • “When we obsess over ourselves, we lose the meaning of life, which is to know and serve God and love and serve our neighbors.”
  • “By abandoning commitment, our narcissistic culture has lost the one thing it desperately seeks: happiness. Without commitment, our individual lives will be barren and sterile. Without commitment, our lives will lack meaning and purpose. After all, if nothing is worth dying for, then nothing is worth living for.”
  • “With commitment comes the flourishing of society – of calling, of marriage, of the church-and of our hearts. It’s the paradox Jesus so often shared when he bid us to come and die that we might truly live.”

From “Preaching the Life of Covenant and Commitment in a Time of Transition” by Rodney J. hunter, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA:

“Commitment understood broadly may be viewed as a social and psychological praxis that gives human life depth, definition, and stability of purpose over time, for both communities and individuals. It is commitment that gives us identity, creates and defines patterns of continuity and connectedness in the flux and conflict of events, and gives our lives whatever trust, security, meaning, and purpose they enjoy. So to whatever extend committing falters or fails, our lives and communities become disordered, insecure, and deprived of meaning and purpose. Theologically, commitment and covenant go to the core of our existence and reflect the very character of God and of God’s covenantal involvement with us and with the entire cosmos.”

Questions to leave you with:

  1. What is an expectation between a church member and a church? Is there a covenant community vow there?
  2. What is the expectation personally in interpersonal covenants?
  3. How does God covenant with us? Who is doing the work?
  4. How do commitment an covenant differ?