I am not going to relate this blog to a specific scripture, but instead will worry a bit with the idea of living in the gray areas of our faith. The study group in which I participate had a lively discussion about why Jesus seems so often to answer the questions he is asked with another question or with a parable.
Doesn't this just cause problems, some asked. Doesn't it add a great potential for misdirection, asked another. And then the opposing view - that this approach just adds to the beautiful mystery and spirituality of our faith. I fall somewhere between the two extremes of responses.
I truly believe that Jesus answered us in parables not to be confusing but to enable and encourage us to use our brains in our faith lives. Rather than just giving cut and dried answers, God expects us to grow through mature reflection, study and wrestling with faith questions.
For me the givens are God's grace and love for all. Beyond that, I take comfort that my faith can change and grow with me. I can be wrong but move on later when I figure it out. I am assured by the grace and forgiveness of God. It is also comfortable to not be expected to be perfect. Cut and dried laws left humans in a lurch because we are incapable of living up to them. Gray area leaves room for change and learning from our errors.
A God that can fit in a box and be defined with a ruler and measures of human ability to communicate is a limited God. A God that so desires to be in relationship with us that the discussion remains open can be frustrating but is so much more. More than the parent who always says "Because I said so..." in answer to the every query.
God demands of us to work it out - and to work it out together. We muddle along, but I think that we learn so much more by the experience. And, we grow closer to one another at the same time as growing closer to God.
If instead of parables, we had been given a list, would the list have been the amazing reading that we have today in the collection of stories that is the Bible? Would it have been relevant across the years to the depth that we find in the many stories and parables Jesus shared?
So how do we live faithfully into the gray? We constantly challenge ourselves with 'why?' and, we hold one another accountable to the 'why?' And, if we ever think that we have it figured out to such a degree that I am right and you are wrong about faith - we need to take a really hard look at our answers. The biggest error of all is imagining that we have it all figured out. And it is a red flag if we are adamant more about another being wrong than the tenets we hold dear.
God is beyond our full comprehension, and I take comfort in that. But I take comfort that God is with us in scripture, through one another and through the Holy Spirit helping us maneuver in the gray of our lives. Each moment is enriched if it is valued and explored with integrity, love and grace for all.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Why was Paul writing to the Romans? The Pauline letters make up a large portion of the New Testament. They are letters that Paul wrote to the various communities he had visited offering advice, correction and greetings to the churches he had formed in those locations. This letter to the Romans is thought to have been written from Corinth when he thought he was going to visit Rome and use it as a new base for expanding his ministry into Spain.
Paul was offering advice regarding how a Christian should live. To Paul, a new time had come after Jesus’ resurrection. In this messianic time, The Kingdom of God was begun among us, being worked out by us and was to come. That this had started therefore called upon us to respond by leading changed lives. The old righteousness and wisdom should be completely thrown out – replaced with that of God, the wisdom and righteousness that are given to us not earned. The old ways are the ones where we trust what we have been taught and how we know things are supposed to work. With our own sweat and effort, we can make the changes needed, we can solve the problems. We are to replace that thinking, replace what we think we know with the ways of Christ. True change and wisdom is only found through God not our own efforts at independence and self sufficiency.
We are to be a living sacrifice – instead of dedicating all our efforts for self gain, we to serve and put our efforts toward God. The letter continues that this is our spiritual worship. We are to be transformed so we can discern what is God’s will – what is good, acceptable and perfect. Whoa, a living sacrifice, transformed with a renewed mind and now figuring out what is perfect. Paul has some steep expectations.
Where do we even start with how to follow the guidance of this letter? A huge challenge, but I think as Presbyterians, some of the words here are very comforting. We are not to leave our minds at the door but to renew our minds, discern – or think about what God wants. In the next sentence of this scripture, some form of the word think is used four times with nuances that are tricky to carry from Greek to English. Suffice it to say that Paul is not going to spoon feed us what we should specifically do but expects us to know how to work together as the body of Chris for a transformed community.
How do we begin to do this in society today? I think that there are special gifts in the art of transformation. It often seems easier for them to influence other to action and change. So often these are politicians, movie stars and musicians. But not always.
Does anybody know who Chris Kennedy is? He is a professional golfer in Sarasota Florida. Ring any bells? His wife’s cousin has Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS – he accepted the first ice bucket challenge from his golf swing coach and created a video to encourage his relative. This was around July 27 - by Aug 22 the challenge had raised more than $53.3 million! (Editorial note - by Sept 8 had raised over $100 million and climbing) This wasn’t the first challenge relating to cold water – polar bear challenges have been issued for years. What is it about this person’s actions that were different? Chris’ wife’s youtube video meant to encourage a sick relative went crazy – beyond their wildest imaginings. The Muscular Dystrophy Association has its annual fundraiser coming up labor day – last year they raised about 61 million yet they have seen almost that same amount for ALS with ice buckets.
How did this come about? Is it all social media? I think that a big part of it is intention. Chris Kennedy didn’t call it the Kennedy Challenge, nor did he have expectations of his own popularity or gain. What does it mean in modern vernacular for something to go ‘viral’? It means that like a virus, the particular news, story or trend can’t seem to be stopped. Wherever people are connected, it is being passed along. That is what transformation is all about. People use their brains to do something in service of others. Then, through our interconnectedness. Through that unique web of relationships, the transformation becomes possible.
It is no coincidence that Paul continues in the following verses about the importance of the gifts – each person having something to contribute to the whole with none standing any higher or lower in a scale of importance. By ourselves, we are nothing – we are what we are in relation to Christ and we are defined by that relationship and the relationship we have to the body of Christ – to one another.
So here we sit in relationship together and we might conclude that worship is adequate with the liturgy, preaching and music we do together in this room. While that is not wrong, Paul meant so much more. Worship is what happens in community as we live out faith by serving one another outside these walls. It is what we do with the rest of our week. It is all about community as we live out our faith by serving one another to build up the body of Christ. Our worship is not measured by what happens on only Sunday mornings.
It is things like we did yesterday – coming together with our neighbors. Pooling the resources around us, calling upon friends, raising awareness. Improving the lives of the children and families next door – with a vaccination or with just a smile. The Health Fair is definitely one way St. Barnabas worships together.
The challenge is to not just stop there and develop an apathy for what we think we can’t change. When we start to get overwhelmed – and all you have to do these days is pick up a newspaper or watch an update – the solution isn’t to allow ourselves to become numbed. The solution is not to think our voices aren’t important or large enough. I’m only human – what can I do. That is a poor excuse. We are humans created in God’s image and gifted in amazing ways to work together for transformation of the world around us to grow ever into God’s Kingdom exhibited here on earth in our midst.
I am always amazed what happens in churches when push comes to shove. Somehow the impossible often seems to shrink and become manageable. The trick to being a change management expert is to find your strengths – your gifts. Offer them to the whole. You will be amazed at the results. After all – who would have thought that a game of pouring a bucket of ice over your head would result in millions of dollars raised to battle a devastating disease.
In researching texts for a study with young adults, I ran across a book that encourages us to each embrace our quirks, own our weirdness. In the interconnectedness with the world, part of us being open and able to be transformed is that the very things we might belittle or not value are gifts from God and may turn out to be the talent that is needed for the next important change. Being a living sacrifice and transforming our minds means we become the change agents for the world. Each agent tied together in a complex web – through our relations in this group or through our connections at home, or even through the internet. The ALS challenge has gone viral, part of the catch is much like the chain letters of old. Once taken, the person who is facing the challenge doesn’t do so alone but brings in two or three others to join the effort – I challenge you – oh don’t worry, I am not bringing out the ice in the sanctuary, but I am calling us to remember the welcoming waters of our baptisms and to whom we belong. I challenge you to accept with me Paul’s call for us to be transformed and explore where our gifts meet the world’s need today to bring God’s justice to all. Amen.