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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Pastors

I have spent the past several days at a Worship Symposium at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is one of the highlights of my year. We spend three days immersed in doing worship and talking about the various aspects of worship, always centered around a particular theme.

This year the theme was the psalms.

The psalms are probably my favorite part of the Bible. I am in the habit of reading the entire psalter through every ten to fourteen days, depending on circumstances. I love this book, studied it in seminary, and have built my devotional life around it in some ways.

In addition, it has been my passion over the past several years to bring the psalms into my teaching, particularly the psalms of lament. What better answer to the problem of evil than the psalms of lament?

In case you don’t know about these little gems, the lament psalms are those in which a suffering person cries out to God for relief. Lines like, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” and “Out of the depths I cry to you; Lord hear my voice” are commonplace in these poems. They are often cries of desolation and despair.

Yesterday morning, the opening worship service focused on lament. The service centered particularly on Psalm 13 with an especially brilliant sermon by Frank Thomas.

Due to a variety of circumstances, the service moved me deeply and I spent a good part of my time crying.

Now comes the interesting part.

Here I am, in the assembly of those united with Christ, surrounded by pastors and worship leaders, and at the end of the service, not one of them asked me if I was ok or if I wanted to talk.

Of course, if you knew me you would know that I would have said “I’m fine” and “no I don’t want to talk.”

But I did find it curious as I thought about it last night, that no one even asked.

Maybe its simply that we don’t want to invade someone’s personal space, this is the Midwest after all. Or maybe we just don’t want to take the time to hear someone’s issues.

And I’m not saying I would do any better. I am introverted and would have felt very awkward sitting next to someone like me yesterday.

But doesn’t it seem odd that in the assembly of God’s people, theoretically the safest place we can be, that we can’t even reach out to someone who is quite obviously in distress? I think, perhaps, that should give us pause.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The 9th Commandment

I don’t generally watch much television but this morning, because the weather was looking rather uncertain outside, I decided to turn on the morning news and weather report while I was getting ready for work. The news and weather were helpful. The advertising was not.

In fact, I found the advertising disturbing. It seemed to alternate between someone slamming the current President of the United States, Barak Obama, to someone slamming a person from another party hoping to win that office in the next election.

Because I don’t watch TV, this sort of obnoxious advertising is not something I normally have to endure. Of course I have heard about these political ads. But I have not seen them that often.

As the fourth ad in a row came on this morning, I turned the TV off.

Contrary to popular understanding, the 9th commandment is less about lying in general than it is about slander. The 9th commandment reads: “You shall not give false testimony about your neighbor.” It seemed to me as I listened to the political ads this morning that the purpose of these soundbites is to do exactly what the 9th commandment forbids – give false testimony about your neighbor. And if the testimony is not blatantly false, it certainly bends the truth so that those listening will come to pre-determined false conclusions about the person in question.

That seems like a pretty fine line of moral distinction to me. And it seems wrong.

The Christian church to which I belong happens to use a particular 16th century document to help us understand and explain a variety of biblical truths. One part of this document goes through the meaning of each of the Ten Commandments.

Here’s what it says about the 9th: “God’s will is that I never give false testimony against anyone, twist no one’s words, not gossip or slander, nor join in condemning anyone without a hearing or without a just cause. . . And I should do what I can to guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.”

Did you notice both the negative and positive force of this explanation? I should not twist someone’s words or slander them. I should guard and advance my neighbor’s good name.

From my limited exposure to political advertisements, it appears that they violate both the negative and positive force of this commandment. And even if one thinks that this explanation of the 9th commandment pushes the boundaries too far, there is always the summary of the law given by Christ. There, after love for God, the second great commandment is to “love you neighbor as yourself.”

In what possible world could those sorts of advertisements be construed as loving one’s neighbor?

So what’s a Christian to do.

Well, at the very least, it seems that we could ignore the ads, mute the TV, or not watch it at all. But perhaps we should also take care to find out, to the best of our ability, what the truth of any given topic is. With that in hand, we could make sure that any discussions we are involved in do not allow for the slander or defaming of persons from ANY political party, not just our party of choice. By so doing, we show honor both to God, and to our neighbor, his image.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Light in the Darkness

It is the season of Epiphany. For those of you who are not familiar with that word, it is the period after Advent in the liturgical year of the church. The word itself means something like “appearance.” The season spends time on various aspects of Christ’s appearance on earth prior to Lent, the season where we focus on his passion.

Epiphany is often associated with light. Christ is the light of the world. And one of the texts, sometimes read or referred to at this time of year is John 1.

John 1 happens to be one of my favorite texts about Jesus. In an incredibly poetic way, John tells us, in a nutshell, everything we need to know about Jesus. It is nearly impossible to read it without an overwhelming sense of awe.

And also a sense of wonder.

John writes, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The darkness did not overcome it.

I know that the darkness of sin and evil did not ultimately overcome the power of God on Easter. I get that.

I also know that the darkness of this world will not ultimately triumph. The final victory is assured.

But doesn’t it sometimes seem like the darkness is, in fact, overcoming the light? Don’t you ever feel that way? Like ‘this little light of mine’ makes no eternal difference at all?

I know that I feel that way at times.

Nearly everything around me tells me that what I am doing is ridiculous. People don’t care about things like doctrine or even right living any more. People care about what makes them feel good. And much of what I have to say doesn’t make anyone feel good.

At least not right away…

But the great thing about Epiphany is that it tells us not about the Light that came into the world and then left. It reminds us of the Light who came into the world and lived with us. This Light understands our weaknesses and our discouragement. And this Light did not leave us alone.

God sent the Holy Spirit to be with us, to guide us and encourage us when the darkness seems ready to overcome us.

And the Holy Spirit also inwardly assures us that Christ was not the last word. He is the first word of redemption. A word that allows us to glimpse a future where the darkness is dispelled forever.

“The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not”….and will not….“overcome it.”

Monday, January 2, 2012

Mary

During Advent, I often wonder about Mary, the mother of Jesus. Perhaps it is because Protestants don’t pay much attention to her that she intrigues me.

This year, we went to our congregation’s late night Christmas Eve service (11pm) which also ushers in Christmas day. At one point, as we were sitting there enjoying the music, singing carols, and listening to the Christmas meditation, my daughter leaned over to me and said, “if this were the first Christmas, Mary would be in that stable, with all the animals, in labor.” I nodded, unwilling at that moment to destroy my pristine service with that rather uncomfortable thought.

But after church, my daughter brought the subject up again. She noted how ironic it is that we spend Christmas Eve thinking about the birth of Jesus, our Savior, and say nearly nothing about the one who painfully gave him birth that night.

Of course we don’t talk much about her the rest of the season either. She may get a nod on one of the Sundays in Advent depending on the gospel reading for the day. Or maybe, some astute preacher will spend a little extra time one week on Mary’s song. Personally, I have heard very few sermons that focus on Mary. And I have never been in a church where the season of Advent brought in Mary as anything other than an afterthought or part of the “holy family.”

But having carried and given birth to three children, it is striking to me what Mary sacrificed for the sake of our salvation. Did she have morning sickness? Swelling ankles? And what about that walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem? I am told it was about a four day journey. Nine months pregnant and walking for four days, about 20 miles a day??? That does not sound like an insignificant thing to me. I bet she did not bargain for that when she replied to the angel’s announcement, “May it be to me as you have said.”

And then, forty days after giving birth in a stable, that ominous announcement from Simeon, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Did she wonder what sort of blessing that was? Did she think the old man had lost his mind temporarily? Did she remember those strange words some thirty years later as she stood in pain again at the foot of the cross?

I don’t, of course, know the answers to any of these questions. But I do ponder them. And as a woman, who not infrequently wonders what a Godly life looks like, I find Mary a poignant  example of self-sacrificial love and submissive service to God. In fact, for me, the question “what would Mary do,” that is, what would a woman who is merely human and not divine do, is a much more helpful question than “what would Jesus do.” Her suffering and sacrifices I can truly relate to.