Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Not a Leap Year Baby

My wife Beth's birthday is tomorrow, February 28th....

Were you thinking, "Almost a Leap Year baby!" If so, gotcha!

This is a running joke in our family. Beth was not born during a Leap Year, but SO many people say that about her birthday. And yet when we tell them that she wasn't born during a Leap Year, they look at us uncomprehendingly.

This is not difficult. This is not a Zen koan where, if you asked me "What is Truth" and I could respond, "Go wash your bowls." The only chance you have being a Leap Year baby is if you were born during a leap year! If you were born on February 28th during the other years, you've no chance in hell of being born on February 29th----because that day doesn't exist in non-leap years. Everyone knows that... and yet everyone who says "Almost a Leap Year baby!" are sincerely and cheerfully impressed that Beth missed by one day being born on February 29th.

Interestingly, if her birthday had been March 1, NO ONE would ever say "Almost a Leap Year baby!"

I think I've only met one person who was born on February 29. He seemed to have fun with it. Upon turning 72, he said that now he was 18 and could vote, but he'd have to wait twelve more years till he could drink...

Part of all this is the way cliches and expressions get lodged into people's thinking. I used to read articles where the author would say something like "It's only X-number of years till 1984," as if, because of Orwell's novel, that year was set in stone as the year totalitarianism would become the norm. "Fifteen minutes of fame" is another cliche routinely used by media writers; you'd swear that someone has a stop watch and is counting how many minutes certain people are occupying within the public's attention.

Church-growth discussions get cliche-ridden sometimes. "Core constituencies," "vital congregations," "the mission field," "the seven-day-a-week church," "changing the way we think about 'church'": phrases and sayings like these can become signs that pastors and lay leaders are impressed with trends. But awareness of trends needs to be combined with serious, unsentimental thinking about the specific congregation's health, strengths, and weaknesses.

Speaking of churches: Was it the play Greater Tuna that featured a funeral sermon laced with cliches and expressions? So funny!

We don't have special plans for Beth's birthday but we'll probably go out to eat this coming weekend, and I'll have a treat ready when she gets home from work. We've already purchased her gifts, of course.  If any of your family or Facebook friends have March 1st birthdays, try saying to them, "Oh, you were almost a Leap Year baby!" and see what they say. We might start a new trend....

SCOTUS and the Voting Rights Act

Here is a good article about what is at stake as the US Supreme Court considers the Voting Rights Act:

Here is a good piece about the possible outcomes of the case:

And just as an aside, here is an interesting article about the case Bush v. Gore, to which that first article provided a link.

Monday, February 25, 2013

"Walk This Way"

Yesterday, our pastor preached on Philippians 3:17-20:

Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us. For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. 

She began with a reference to the funny scene in Young Frankenstein, when Igor entreats Dr. Frankenstein to “Walk this way,” a classic comedy shtik* ( She connected this shtik to Paul’s admonition in 3:17, "join in imitating me." Paul sounds a little conceited in this and similar verses---it sounds like, ”I’m a wonderful example for you to follow!” But think about times when you talked to someone you loved and shared your own wisdom in the spirit of helpfulness and care rather than self-centeredness: “This is what I’ve found to be true, this is how I’ve lived my life and it’s been wonderful....” Along with the epistolary rhetorical devices of the time, I interpret Paul as sharing his wisdom in that sense.

Our pastor went on to connect the idea of “walking this way” (i.e., like Christ) with the love and care that Jesus showed to people. Jesus showed us how to be more human, in this sense, how to be more kind and generous to other people. She discussed Jesus’ concern in an accompanying scripture, Luke 13:34: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Jesus regrets that many of his hearers do not respond to his generous love---but he still loves them!  Paul, too, regrets that people he knows are not responding.

Our situation is a little different in that many of us have responded to the message of Christ but, somehow, we're not living in Christ's generous love as fully as we could, nor showing it to others. We become fussy and angry in our politics and expectations; we feel badly about ourselves for whatever reason; we feel badly about something in particular. As a result, we come across as harsh or cold rather than kind and loving. But then, if we were to admonish someone to “walk this way”, as if we were as Christlike as Paul, our walk would indeed seem comically awkward.

If I were an entrepreneur, I might try my hand at marketing “Walk This Way” bracelets akin to “WWJD” jewelry, as a reminder to allow the Lord to guide us in our growth in love, kindness and generosity. (But then I'd have to be more Christlike myself.... Fortunately, Christ himself helps us with that.)


* Of course, "Walk This Way" is also a classic song by Aerosmith, later covered by Run-D.M.C. It was stuck in my head the rest of Sunday, LOL.

Waiting on the Lord

"Waiting for God” was a British sitcom (1990-1994) about a two rebellious residents of a retirement home. It has been shown on American PBS stations over the years.

The title is a comically bleak reference to death, all the residents have to look forward to, so the two of them (Tom, whose dementia seems partly feigned, and the gruff Diana) decide to raise some hell. After yesterday's post, I was still thinking about the scriptural subject of “waiting for (or on) the Lord.” There are numerous Bible passages that concern this subject: Psalm 27:14, 39:7, 52:8-9, 62:1-12, Lamentations 3:25, Isaiah 40:29-31 (that one is quite well known and affirming), Isaiah 51:1, Galatians 6:9, and numerous others. In the New Testament, the theme of waiting connects not only to God’s providential care for our lives but also the Christ’s second coming.

I don’t wait well. Being stuck in traffic or a slow line, etc., make me anxious, although I think I’m more patient today than I used to be, thanks to self-calming strategies that are helpful. My family might dispute that, LOL, but I see my own slow progress. Nevertheless, impatience is a common trait, and a sermon I preached on this subject years ago became a real connection among several of us who fail to have inner peace while waiting.

Waiting on the Lord is difficult because we don’t know God’s timing or all God’s purposes. Just because we’ve “claimed a promise” about God’s provision, doesn’t mean that God is obligated to act in that way, or according to our timing. In my experience, I’ve felt both very let down by God and thankful for God’s care, within a “big picture” context of God’s ongoing and faithful provision for me and my family.

It’s a tricky balance to live one’s life conscious of the importance of waiting for God. On one hand, God wants us to “be still” and trust in God (Ps. 46:10), and not always take matters in our own hands. For instance, some of us try to browbeat others to believe or behave like we do. But we need to trust the Lord to work in those persons’ lives, according to the Spirit’s timing, not ours---and, after all, maybe the Spirit wants us to see things in ourselves to change.  

On the other hand, Gal. 6:9 and other verses indicate that we’re going to be active in our faith, and we might grow weary and discouraged in our efforts to serve the Lord. If I’m waiting on the Lord to the extent that I’m doing nothing, that’s the wrong approach, too. (Remember that corny joke about the person who refused the help rescuers in a flood, because he was trusting the Lord's help. When he was killed in the flood and went to heaven, he protested that he’d prayed for God’s help, and St. Peter tells him, “We sent two boats and a helicopter!”)

Waiting on the Lord is a balance: neither absolute stillness and inactivity, nor frantic productivity that tacitly indicates we don’t really trust God to work unless we cover all the bases ourselves beforehand. My own struggle is definitely the latter.

Waiting on the Lord is also important to keep in mind when we face disappointments in life: people who got promoted instead of us, illness that struck, opportunities that never opened up, prayers that we can’t perceive were ever answered, people's coldness. We become insecure about many things. We can’t always turn off our painful feelings and the strategies we use to feel better and cover ourselves. But we can address those feelings and strategies by focusing upon the Lord, who does not disdain our human struggles.

“Waiting on the Lord” is a matter of dependency on God, and many of us don’t like to be dependent on anyone, including God. But that Isaiah 40:29-31 passage indicates that waiting is a source of great strength and renewal.

He gives power to the faint,
   and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
   and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
   they shall walk and not faint.

That’s a wonderful promise for those of us for whom waiting just upsets us and freaks us out.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lent as a Place

A post from a previous season: A few years ago I wrote a book, You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives, published by Upper Room Books (2006). Unfortunately the book is going out of print, so buy several copies for yourself now and more for your friends, LOL. The following is a paraphrase of some material in chapters 1 and 4 and also new thoughts that have to do with Lent. I was thinking about Lent, and also the theme of “place,“ which is one of my favorite subjects. I wondered: Lent is a period of time, but can you think of Lent as a place?

We can connect the temporal season of Lent to particular places in our lives, and also we can think metaphorically about the place of Lent.

One place is the wilderness. As I wrote in my little book, we tend to have a positive feeling about natural wilderness in our own time, more so than the Bible in which wilderness is either neutral or threatening: for instance, the different kinds of geographical regions, or specially the area of the Dead Sea, or the Sinai region that was the scene of the Israelite wondering.

“Wilderness” is an apt spiritual metaphor. In Exodus 15-17, for instance, the Israelites moved among dry places where no drinkable water was available, and they grumbled with sufficient seriousness that Moses sought God’s help. Many of us can think of times when we felt discouraged and tested; we couldn’t see the nature of God’s provision and wondered what was going on. Perhaps other people had let us down; perhaps we messed up our own lives; perhaps life was filled with stress through no one’s particular fault. Anxiety, distress, “what if” thoughts, difficult periods of waiting, and other things fill wilderness times. In turn, we associate particular places in our lives with feeling lost and discouraged. What are the places of your own life that you connect with "wilderness" and an apparent lack of fulfillment of God’s promises?

Waiting on God is actually a positive thing, though it may not feel very positive! Read scriptures like Isaiah 40:31, Psalm 25:5, and Psalm 33:20-21. But even Bible people struggle with a sense of God’s absence, for instance, the author of Psalm 42 and 43 which expresses emptiness and disappointment. The psalmist wants God, wants to be with God, and knows that he will eventually praise God again, but for now, God seems missing. I love this psalm because here, in God’s Word, are words about a person who is having a faith crisis! The psalm’s sick bed is, because of its immobility, also a place of “wandering” amid a feeling of God’s absence. What are some of your places of waiting on God?

Along those same lines, another place of Lent is the familiar place that has been changed in such a way that our comfort is disrupted. As I wrote in my little book, the telephone or the mailbox are innocuous places--until we are waiting on news of, for instance, medical results, or the safety of a loved one. In those times, everyday places can become foci of fervent prayer, waiting, and dependence upon God.

I'm also thinking about how our worship experiences can become focused during the Lenten season. For instance, a pastor might change the nature of the congregation’s worship space in order to help people understand God and faith in different ways. I found a blog,, that describes ways this congregation has experimenting with worship space and styles.

How wonderful! I pray fervently for any pastor who attempts such a thing. It’s not good when a pastor takes a “This is good for you” attitude with the congregation. On the other hand, a pastor needs to find helpful ways to challenge people that does not elicit so much frustration from the congregation that the purpose is defeated. Some church folks become stuck in their ways--and punitive if you upset them--so the pastor has to use patience, discernment, and prayer in order to challenge folk in their worship. A pastor can make Lent-oriented worship changes that are both interesting and spiritually helpful (like our pastor is doing during this 2013 Lenten season) so that people can experience God in fresh ways that, in turn, can build upon their previous experiences of God.

The main “place” of Lent is God! You can think of God as a place! It’s a venerable tradition. I noted in my book that the Bible sometimes “localizes” God’s presence, as on the mountains of Exodus 19 and 1 Kings 19, and verses like Deut. 16:16 and Isaiah 8:18. But these have to do with God’s desire to be present in certain places rather than a limitation to which God is obliged. Even the holy Temple is not the special place of God apart from his will (e.g., Jer. 7:1-7; 22:16, Isaiah 66:1-2, Acts 7:48-50).

The Bible refers metaphorically to God in place-terms. God is our machseh, that is, “dwelling place” (Deut. 33:27, RSV), or “refuge” (KJV and NIV). Psalm 46:1 calls God “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In Genesis 28:17, God is maqom, “How awesome is this place!” During the rabbinical period the word maqom became a metaphorical name for God, as in Philo writes, “God … is called place, for He encompasses all things, but is not encompassed by anything.” Also, a midrash refers to God as "place" because God is “the place of the world.”A scripture like Psalm 139:7-10 shows how God comes to every place where we are and is not limited to our circumstances.

As I write in my book (p. 26): “Christians, like Jews, honored God who is unbounded by time and space, the God who is a dwelling and refuge for all who call upon him. Jesus becomes the “place to go” to know God in spirit and truth (Matt. 7:25, John 4:21-24), the “new thing” that God has done by which we might know God (Isa. 43:19, Heb. 1:1-2). Jesus is the place that encompasses all places, because in and through him all things came to be (Col 1:15-20). Not only that, but through Jesus Christ God has broken down all barriers and has accomplished all that is necessary for peace, reconciliation, and salvation (Eph. 1:5-14, 3:8-14). He is present for us in whatever place we are, until the close of time (Matt. 28:20, Rev. 22:13).”

I’ve written in my other Lenten posts that we need to be careful: we need to center Lent around God and let our practices clarify God's providence and will. If we think of God our maqom and machseh, our Lenten observance is focused upon our true place and true home.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Lent and Friendships

A strong biblical theme is the kinds of friends we choose and the people with whom we associate. Just a few examples:

Listen to advice and accept instruction [from a trusted companion]
that you may gain wisdom for the future (Prov. 19:20)

Happy are those
who do not follow the advice of the wicked,

or take the path that sinners tread,
or sit in the seat of scoffers (Ps. 1:1)

Make no friends with those given to anger,
and do not associate with hotheads (Prov. 22:24)

But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. "Drive out the wicked person from among you." (1 Cor. 5:11-13)

Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever? (2 Cor. 6:14-15)

This is one of those truths that we find among religious traditions. For instance, the Qur’an (4:69) teaches:

And whoever obeys Allah and the Messenger [the prophet Muhammad]---those will be with the ones upon whom Allah has bestowed favor of the prophets, the steadfast affirmers of truth, the martyrs and the righteous. And excellent are those as companions. 

A Buddhist scripture, the Dhammapada (6:78), teaches this: One should not associate with bad friends, nor with the vile. One should associate with good friends, and with those who are noble.

I don’t seek the council of these kinds of teachings so often these days, but I certainly agree with them! Your friends may not be leading you to manufacture meth or to cheat on your spouse or take money or other awful things, but your life can really be shaped by people with whom you associate.

Not only do people lead you the wrong way in life, becoming trusted confidantes who turned out to be untrustworthy and harmful. People also shape your life depending on how they support you, build you up, and help you in your time of need. We all have held onto people in our lives who were not that way, or who were that way but inconsistently. Hindsight is always clearer than our situation at the time.

As you grow, you realize that certain personalities are not compatible with yours. I try not to have acquaintances who are very strong willed, nor people who are fault-finding and critical, who scrutinize my words and actions, nor folks who engage in put-down humor. Certain people are “on” all the time, and I find that tiring. It's not that I dislike such folks (though sometimes I do!). It's just that I've learned from experience that friendships with these kinds of persons tend to be less "successful" friends compared to folks with other kinds of personalities.

(On the other hand----to contradict myself, I guess----the dynamics of friendship don't necessarily follow compatibility. I've lots of friends with whom I don't share certain common interests and personality traits, and many of them are great friends! If you love each other, respect each other's interests, and are "there" for each other, then compatibility doesn't necessarily matter much. You have a connection and rapport, you trust each other; you have a mutual desire to make time to be in contact, no matter how busy "life" is otherwise. Plus, compatible friends can disappoint! I had a good, very compatible friend once, who said she'd invite us over for dinner soon then I never heard from her again, and she never responded to my calls. Later, someone told me that she was terrible at returning calls, so I just gave up.)

I once had an acquaintance who liked to tease people then covered the down-puting things he said with remarks like, “Oh, you’re so sensitive!” I realized (again, in 20/20 hindsight) that he really lowered my self-esteem and I should’ve figured out ways at the time to deal with my feelings, instead of being buffaloed by his retorts. Your life can really be shaped by people with whom you associate, more than you realize at the time, because they change your feelings about yourself and that effects many other aspects of your life.

Paul talks about associating with ‘believers,” but not all Christian people are folks you may have anything in common with, and some of them may be difficult people, too. They’re human, after all. Think of all the Christians you've known who are "hotheads" (to use the Proverbs 22:24 word), for instance. None of us are perfect and we’re not all compatible with each other. So just because someone is Christian doesn’t mean you're going to be friends with them.

As a younger Christian I tried to find friendships among other Christians, and I thought there was something wrong with me that I didn’t have many friends, and some of those friendships weren’t very happy. I was naive and thought that “Christian” meant friendship-compatibility, which it doesn’t! What I needed (and did find as time went on) were Christian friends (any kind of friend, really: some of my best friends over the years have not been Christians) who believed in me and built me up, and vice versa.

Something I’ve noticed is that when you have one or two “complainers” in a friendship group or collegial group, then the whole group can become very negative. Bitchiness is contagious! This is a very bad situation in a church (or any organization, really) because the negativity, the identification and and nurturing of grudges and complaints, begins to have a poisoning effect on everybody. It’s a real hazard of certain kinds of church small groups. The strong, contagious effects of negativity is one of the reasons the scriptures teach us to select our companions well.

Since Lent is a time of self-assessment and introspection, it’s a good time to think about the relationships in your life, and the kind of balance your life has. I have no good advice on how to deal with difficult folks; I’ve struggled with that, too, and I’ve been a trying friend to others in addition to having trying friends myself. Sometimes the person is a close relative or an employer---not someone whom you can just unfriend on Facebook or otherwise stop being in touch. It’s something about which to seek the Lord’s guidance---and it might take a long time before you see, in hindsight, how the Lord guided you.

There is a Swedish saying that describes the best kind of friend and, in fact, unintentionally describes God’s love, too:    

“Love me when I least deserve it, because that's when I really need it.”

But remember: if you want that kind of friendship, you have to be that kind of friend, too!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Psalm 51 Needs More

Psalm 51 was one of the Ash Wednesday scriptures. I wouldn’t want to say that you haven’t fully experienced the amazing peace of forgiveness if you haven’t first felt in your heart the ache of sin—the sin that has hurt people, made a mess of things, and made you afraid for your relationship with God. Nor would I, for obvious reasons, recommend sin and error as a prelude for a relationship to God (Romans 6:1-2). But Psalm 51 is a wonderful assurance when you’ve stumbled (or, perhaps more commonly, that you just feel very inadequate and "beat up on yourself" a lot). Sometimes we stumble publicly, as did David, more often our failures are comparatively private but our consciences dog us.

What the psalm may lack, though, is a very strong assurance of God’s forgiveness, which, after all, hard to see if you’re troubled. It's a prayer from the perspective of the sinner, but there are scriptural assurances that should be read along with the prayer, for instance Romans 7:24-25, where the assurances of Christ's salvation of lost, broken people is affirmed. If you’re in (what I call) a “Psalm 51 state of mind,” you need to simultaneously keep firmly in mind that we have forgiveness and restoration already through Christ. You need to remember that just because you feel very badly, that God doesn't feel the same way about you as you do about yourself.

In fact, recently I read a book that made an interesting point from a different angle. The author noted how afraid he had once felt concerning Matthew 25:46 and its promise of eternal punishment. What a terrible fate lay in store for people who denied Jesus unwittingly! But the author realized … by the criteria of Matthew 25:46, Jesus’ disciples were all heading to Hell! Soon after this passage, they all denied and forsook him, not by failing to help the needy, but in the literal sense: they abandoned him in his most desperate time. But what happens?  Jesus appears to them, loves them, and promises his eternal companionship (Matt. 28:20).(1) Passages like this are also great assurances that God never ever gives up on us, no matter how badly we've messed up.

1.  Matthew Linn, Sheila Fabnicant Linn, and Dennis Linn, Understanding Difficult Scriptures in a Healing Way (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2001), chapter 2.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ash Wednesday and Lent

A post from a couple years ago.... Many of us will spend part of Wednesday with an ash cross upon our foreheads. Many of us will practice some kind of Lenten discipline, whether giving something up or adding something to our devotion. My question is: How can we prevent these practices from becoming self-centered rather than Christ-centered? To put it another way, how can our Lenten practices point to Christ rather than to ourselves?

To help answer these questions, I thought about a couple interesting passages from Paul, 1 Cor. 9:24-27 and Galatians 6:12-15. The first passage alludes to the original Greek sports. Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable garland, but we an imperishable one. So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

Someday I may make a list of Paul passages that I wish he had expressed better or differently; this is one. Obviously Paul would never teach salvation by works, but a person unfamiliar with Galatians and other letters might use this 1 Cor. 9 passage as a proof-text for "earning" God’s love. We never ever ever earn God's love; it's simply ours in abundance. That's why Paul is so grateful for the empowering cross of Christ, as discussed below.

Understood in context with the whole letter, 1 Cor. 9:24-27 refers to the self-discipline we need to love. We can certainly be very disciplined Christians--evidenced at Lent--but we’re wasting our time unless our spiritual practices lead to love, kindness, gentleness, and other gifts sketched by Paul in Galatians 5. (This, by the way, applies not just to Lent but to spiritual retreats like Emmaus, service ministries at your church, small groups, and other ways.) So the aim of spiritual practices is to curb our selfish inclinations so that we can display the lovingkindness and compassion that will definitely "show Christ" and not just proclaim Christ.

This point is depicted even more startlingly in the second Paul passage. Several years ago I wrote a short study book, Paul and the Galatians, for Abingdon Press. Paul’s hope that the pro-circumcision teachers at Galatia would “castrate themselves” (Gal. 5:12) is a notorious text. I think an equally startling text is just a few sentences down.

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Gal. 6:12-15).

The explicit bitterness of Gal. 5:12 makes it a more obvious put-down than here in Gal. 6:12-13 which, you might notice, contains a double entendre. “Flesh” (sarx) means the sphere of human existence--a word usually used by Paul in distinction to God’s Spirit---but “flesh” here can mean the circumcision itself. To restate Paul more crudely, the pro-circumcision teachers are boasting about their penises (i.e., their circumcision), and they want to boast about the Galatian men's penises, too (i.e., to boast about converts to their belief that circumcision is necessary for Gentile Christians)!

Expressed so rudely and absurdly, the whole issue is clearer: boasting about our own righteousness is foolish. Only the amazing gifts of God--the cross of God and the consequent gift of the new creation through the Holy Spirit--are properly boasted about, according to Paul.

I’m very aware how regrettable is Paul’s language for contemporary Jewish-Christian fellowship. Paul faced different issues and a different circumstance than our own time, when many of us are seeking to help heal centuries of Christian anti-Judaism. Paul is upset here, not because he is prejudiced against Jews and their religion, but because he believes God has opened up amazing possibilities for Gentiles via God’s faithfulness to the Jews. Jews had always had (male) circumcision, but the Galatians were Gentiles and had never been required to adopt this Jewish sign of the covenant. And yet the Holy Spirit had been given to the Galatians--thus including Gentiles within God's covenant-faithfulness--without them doing anything to earn or deserve such a gift! God had already given them freedom and equal standing as heirs and children (Gal. 4:7). For Paul, this was an amazing, wonderful blessing for the Galatians (and others).

That's why Paul was so angry; the pro-circumcision teachers convinced the Galatians that they had to “make sure” they were truly within God’s will. For Paul, that was tantamount to saying that God’s gifts of freedom and favor were unsatisfactory: just in case the Holy Spirit is not enough, we need to “cover our bases" by adding a traditional rite. But how could the Holy Spirit be not enough?

As we study the Bible, we discover numerous gifts of transformation that the Holy Spirit provides as we’re touched by God’s love.

· Humility: a willingness (hypothetically, at least) to wash the feet of someone who has not “earned” your love but whom you love, nevertheless, as Christ loved his very imperfect disciples.
· Peacefulness: a kind of understanding of God that surpasses a purely cognitive agreement of doctrines about God
· Suffering: a condition we’d prefer to avoid, but which is biblically attested to be potentially a sharing in Christ’s own life.
· Loving-kindness and compassion: a desire to ease the suffering of others (certainly not to inflict it) because—to use a cliché—you feel the other’s pain. (Etymologically, compassion means “to suffer with.”)
· Knowledge of God: you can see God in the needs of the other person
· Love for enemies: you feel no hatred or anger for someone who has mistreated you (or, at least, you regularly turn to God for healing of your hatred).
· Contentment: a tranquility independent of your circumstances
· Joy: not just happiness and mirth (wonderful as those are) but a confidence that you understand the meaning and direction of life.
· Avoidance of certain circumstances: those wherein you might succumb to a temptation to which you’re prone, and you know yourself well enough to know your weaknesses.

To connect these gifts to our Lenten disciplines: we must keep in mind that these gifts are not characteristics that we’re supposed to achieve through will-power and discipline. Nor are our disciplines add-on rites about which to boast as if they, in themselves, make us righteous. [T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things (Gal. 5:22-23). Paul is being sarcastic again--of course no law (including laws stipulating circumcision) would define these qualities. They are gifts of the Spirit’s “new creation”. We, in turn, can open ourselves to the Spirit's love as we seek to understand more fully the depth of God's love.

Paul’s affirmation in Galatians 6 can be an excellent guide and focus during the upcoming season. Everything relies upon the power of God through the cross of Christ and the transforming Holy Spirit, and whatever personal righteousness I might bring to the table counts as nothing. How wonderfully freeing is that! And yet our Lenten disciplines are not worthless because God can use them--and, indeed, God can lead us into undertaking them. 1 Cor. 9:24-27 alerts us that the power of God can tragically elude us if we're not careful. And so, aware of how easily we can become unloving, we strive to focus on seeking the Spirit's gifts of love, kindness, and gentleness which, in turn, show Christ.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Lincoln and Darwin

Interesting article about Lincoln and Darwin, both both 204 years ago today.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Popes in the News

Today's announcement of the upcoming resignation of Pope Benedict XVI made me think back to one of the very first news stories I remember: the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963, when I was six. We weren't Roman Catholic, and I didn't know what a pope was, but I was intrigued by what I thought was his last name: XXIII. I asked my mother about it and she explained it was Roman numerals.

Mom was more forthcoming about Roman numerals than she was, the previous summer, when the TV news reported the death of Marilyn Monroe. The reporter described her as a "sex symbol," and I asked Mom about that, too, but she thought that was something a five year old shouldn't know about!

No Pancakes For Me

Typically I observe Lent through adding something---especially increased and more regular devotional reading---rather than abstaining from something. That always felt a little more helpful to me. But this year I got a head start in abstaining from certain foods because, honestly, I’m too chubby, and I’ve gotten that way through letting anxiety get the best of me and relieving the stress through noshing. So I’m not even having pancakes and goodies on Fat Tuesday tomorrow for fear I'll get off track again.

I’ve had good reasons to be anxious, especially my mother’s death back in September which, although expected for a long time, was pretty devastating. Also, I’ve been working very hard to create a niche here in a still-fairly-new location. For me that has a lot to do with actively seeking opportunities and then trusting in and waiting for God. Waiting for God, though, isn't always easy!

Judging professional developments is a different kind of stress than the loss of a parent. I felt like I worked through quite a bit of grief last fall, but I’ve been avoiding a visit to my parents’ graves, and not just because it's a three-hour round trip. In some ways, I’m still sad about the sale of my childhood home in 2007, so this season is a good time to introspect. Lent is a spiritual time but for me (and surely for a lot of us) the spiritual isn’t inseparable from one’s physical and emotional wellbeing, too.

Even amid the grieving process, I do feel more “in balance,” however, than I did last year. I had too much on my plate because one of my responsibilities turned out to be more time-consuming and difficult than anticipated. I thought I was going to be all right as long as I didn’t volunteer for anything else. I’m pretty good at saying “no” if I need to. But sure enough, some extra responsibilities that I couldn’t avoid fell on my shoulders. What a frantic time; I'm still a little resentful about it.

When life gets out of balance, you feel like you’re in a car that is teetering off a cliff. If anything more is added, you’re going to be in trouble! (In cartoons and comedies, a tiny bird lands on the hood and that’s all it takes for the car to plummet.) You think you can get through the day, but something unexpected causes you to change your plans.

Even daily difficulties can become that “tiny bird on the hood.” When I was a kid, family and friends sometimes dropped by to chat with my folks. One afternoon a cousin visited Mom, with her kids in tow.  But the cousin was a very talkative person, the kind who scarcely pauses for a breath. Mom offered them snacks, and unfortunately they stayed quite a long time. The little boy used the bathroom and left it a smelly mess. After they left a couple hours later, my mom was stressed and tearful. All her goals for the day seemed sabotaged.

I think I’ll try to post a few thoughts this Lent concerning balance: for me, an essential aspect of wellbeing.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Alan Hovhaness' Music

San Francisco Peaks and US 66 at Flagstaff
This winter I’ve been turning frequently to the music of Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000), more so lately than some of my usual “standbys” like Ralph Vaughan Williams and Joseph Haydn. "Mysterious Mountain" (Symphony #2), for instance, is a favorite piece.

Hovhaness was of Armenian and Scottish families, a native of the Boston area who studied at the New England Conservatory and also Tanglewood. He was born Alan Vaness Chakmakjian but took the name Hovanes (his paternal grandfather’s surname) which he later spelled Hovhaness. His daughter attributed the change partly to the fact that people couldn’t pronounce Chakmakjian. Hovhaness was a precocious composer but apparently destroyed many of his earlier compositions, following criticism from Copland and others. But still he was quite prolific, with over 400 opus numbers, including 67 symphonies.

I discovered his works in a round-about way. I heard Thomas Picker’s lovely, melancholy piece, “Old and Lost Rivers” on the radio and immediately ordered the CD, which included John Williams’ “Five Sacred Trees” and Hovhaness’ “Mysterious Mountain” (Symphony #2). Taken with that symphony, which I'd never heard before, I subsequently found Hovhaness' “Shepherd of Israel” and “Psalm and Fugue for String Orchestra” on another CD, and went from there. And I also love “Alleluia and Fugue,” “The Prayer of St. Gregory,” his “Celestial Fantasy” and “Magnificat,” and other symphonies.

At the website, Robert Clements writes that Hovhaness was “stylistically a maverick, whose music reflects a love of Western counterpoint and a personal fascination with by Indian, East Asian and Armenian music more obviously than any contemporary musical thought.”

He continues: “Hovhaness's mature style was first revealed in a work for piano and string orchestra entitled "Lousadzak" ("Dawn of Light"; 1944); which introduced Hovhaness's quasi-aleatoric Senza Misura technique (often called "Spirit Murmur") to a wider audience. In this technique, individual sections of the orchestra are instructed to continuously repeat a cycle of melody without temporal reference to other members of the ensemble. Most obviously, this technique (one of the most common components of the "Hovhaness style"), creates a gorgeous sense of rhythmic mystery from which (in "Lousadzak") the solo piano slowly emerges… at other times, the technique clearly foreshadows the work not just of modern minimalists such as Terry Riley and John Adams but also the entire Ambient/New Age school of composition…. Extensive travel throughout India and Asia casts an obvious shadow over much of his music from the fifties and sixties, coloring but not disguising the composer's distinctive palette … while the works of his ‘retirement’ (from the early seventies onwards) have tended to return more to Western models…

“The basic characteristics of the ‘Hovhaness sound’ are easier to recognise than define; but one of the most obvious ‘markers’ is the strong mystic/religious ‘feel’ to all his works. Another is Hovhaness's distinctly ‘vocal’ style (rather like Chopin, oddly) – even his orchestral work tends to sound as if it's being "sung"… an effect accentuated by Hovhaness's regular use of exposed solo lines over transparent string continuo….Hovhaness' music uses consonant harmonies, organised modally or chromatically rather than tonally; and balances out the rhythmless sound of Senza Misura …with an almost riotous love of counterpoint. …”

Here's the double fugue from "Mysterious Mountain":

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

"Plans for your welfare and not for harm"

For the umpteenth time, I’ve gone through a period of uncertainty about some difficulty, which eventually became clearer as time when on and things fell into place. Although I’ve always had a sense (hopefully a humble sense) of being led by God, that has never prevented me from expending tremendous emotional energy worrying and feeling bad about myself during times of uncertainty. I’m surprised God puts up with me; his patience with the Israelites at Messah and Meribah (Exodus 17) was tentative. My anxieties are---I hope----more in the category of “help me in my lack of faith” rather than the Israelites' outraged murmuring. (But they were, after all, out of water.)

I wish I’d bookmarked a blog post I read, about a man who was counting on the promise of Jeremiah 29:11-14: For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. But after counting upon this verse for over a year, the writer was still unemployed, and he was still thinking about ways God provides for us, even amid apparent absence.

This is a wonderful passage. We often neglect the context. There is actually a very large biblical context. God is speaking to the people of Judah as they face years of exile in Babylon. But the horror of that reversal will not last forever; God is, in fact, already planning to restore God’s people in the land. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell of the people’s return and their reestablishment in the land. Christians also believe that Jesus Christ is part of that overall plan, for the promises of God to the people in Jeremiah, Isaiah, and elsewhere gain new meaning in the life and work of Christ.

So in an important way, that Jeremiah passage holds wonderful promise for Christians even if our lives are full of difficulty and God seems slow to help (or if God seems not to be helping at all, or is working in your life in ways you may not recognize for years). All the “everyday” miracles of God---access to God in prayer, reconciliation between God and us and between us and other people, the strength and grace we receive in fellowship and the sacraments and the preached Word, the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives and through the scriptures, God’s continual closeness in spite of our struggles and doubts and failures---are always available to us, even if the “special” miracles we hope for don't seem to be (or are not) forthcoming.

There are numerous New Testament encouragements to “hold fast” to one’s faith, and I think the idea is not so much that God will always solve problems right away if only our faith was strong enough. We do have to take care that we don’t become disappointed and doubtful about God if our problems are ongoing. Rather, the truth of God and the blessings of Christ outweigh life’s difficulties----so we shouldn’t let those difficulties diminish our affirmation of those truths, which (unlike our troubles and struggles) are permanent and eternal. Those truths are the greatest part of "our hope and our future."

But.... in spite of what I just said, I do believe that God works in our lives for good and brings blessings out of difficulty! These are affirmations and truths that we must balance a little, so that we don't rest our whole faith upon outcomes we anticipate from God, and yet we can and do trust upon God's goodness and provision. Remember that “faith” not only has to do with agreeing with certain doctrines; it also means “trust,” and God knows that our feelings of trust may falter because of things, great and small, that happen to us.

After I finished this, a Facebook friend posted this Oswald Chambers quotation: "The meaning of prayer is that we get hold of God, not of the answer."

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Kindness and Support

I just “joined” a Facebook group that is going to honor February 8 as a “random act of kindness day.” Sounds like a great idea. Any day is a good day for that, but it's also good to be intentional.

A couple weeks ago, I checked Facebook in the morning. I discovered I’d been tagged in a post on the University of Akron Alumni Association’s page. A former student wrote that I was his favorite teacher at UAkron, that he liked the way I let students get to know me, that he incorporated some of my teaching practices in his own teaching, and that I had sent him and his wife a wedding gift, even though I no longer live in Ohio. Some other students included their own positive comments beneath the post.

I sat and cried for a while, because although I don’t teach in order to get praise, I also don’t give myself much credit for the things I do and, in fact, I’d allowed some (unusually for me) negative course evaluations a few semesters ago to make me feel discouraged. (Isn’t that a silly thing that many of us do, we neglect the praise we get and focus upon the criticism?) When a dear friend called that morning toward noon for another reason, I was still verklempt, and she told me the same thing: I don’t give myself enough credit. Nevertheless, it’s wonderful---a wonderful act of kindness---when someone confirms that our work has, indeed, influenced other people.

All of us do fail many, many times to influence others in positive ways, and my own failures have spurred me to do better. Years ago, I attended a small Christian college. My positive experiences there influenced me to seek a deeper religious faith and become a professor of undergrads, among other wonderful things. But I did have three or four professors who I thought were very arrogant; one yelled at me in front of a large group, and another prof was witheringly critical of the work I submitted. My wife’s first husband, with whom I attended the same school, had a hurtful experience with another prof. For my own situation, I should’ve done two things at the time, which is to deal in some constructive, immediate way with the hurt I felt, and also to not let the hurt seep so deeply into my self-image. Again: sometimes we nurse hurts, as if we didn’t really want to accentuate the positive.

The benefit of that experience of mine was to become a certain kind of professor, one who tries to make some kind of appropriate, personal connection to students so that they know---within the professional relationship of student and teacher---that I care about their well being, as I felt that my primary professors at my college cared about me. When my wife Beth and I were still at UAkron, I got in the habit of sending graduation cards to students I’d had in class. One year the cost of cards and stamps was nearly $100, but that didn’t matter. Thanks to Facebook, I get to follow students careers and marriages, and I do send cards and gift cards to them on their special occasions.

I’ve used the first-person pronoun way too much in this post, because my main point is not about me but all of us: to whom can we show kindness and support to people? How can we “make time” amid our very busy schedules to be a potential blessing to others? Who might carry our harsh words in their hearts for many years, but who might carry our kind words and actions for years? Perhaps our words and actions could even be something they’d hold onto through rough times.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Rosa Parks Would Have Been 100 Today

The book "Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals," has this paragraph for today: "Rosa Parks was born February 4, 1913 [100 years ago today]. When she was forty-two, Parks refused to give up her seat on a city bus in Montgomery, Alabama, to a white passenger, which at the time, the law required of African-Americans. She was arrested for her act of civil disobedience and worked with others from the NAACP to start the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The resulting integration of city buses in Montgomery ignited the civil rights movement in the United States and inspired nonviolent movements for social change around the world."

Here's a piece from Time:

Parable of the Laborers

A book I’ve had since college is Joachim Jeremias’ The Parables of Jesus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1972). As I looked through it again recently, a section in the old paperback stood out.

Jeremias discusses the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, Matt. 20:1-16. About the surprising action of the vineyard owner, he writes, “He sees that [the servant who worked an hour] will have practically nothing to take home; the pay for an hour’s work will not keep a family; their children will go hungry if the father comes home empty-handed. It is because of his pity for their poverty that the owner allows them to be paid a full day’s wages. In this case the parable does not depict an arbitrary action, but the behavior of a large-hearted man who is compassionate and full of sympathy for the poor. This, says Jesus, is how God deals with me. This is what God is like merciful. Even to tax-farmers and sinners he grants an unmerited place in his Kingdom, such is the measure of his goodness” (37).

I wonder how many of us miss that aspect of the vineyard owner; we focus on the mercy of God, which is Jesus’ point, but we think that the owner is indeed being arbitrary in his goodness. We miss the owner’s compassion and sympathy. In addition to teaching God's goodness and open-heartedness---God comes to us and responds to us whether we come early or very late to faith----the parable also raises questions for us about our attitudes about the poor, about hard work, "getting what we deserve," need and wealth.

Here's the parable (NRSV): "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. 2After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. 3When he went out about nine o’clock, he saw others standing idle in the market-place; 4and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. 5When he went out again about noon and about three o’clock, he did the same. 6And about five o’clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' 7They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.' 8When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' 9When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' 13But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? 14Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' 16So the last will be first, and the first will be last."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Temples of God's Spirit

Leading up to Lent, and the prospect of fasting or giving up a particular thing (probably some kind of food), made me think of the relationship of bodies, identities, and God's Spirit. A classic passage in this regard is Paul's rhetorical question: “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Cor. 6:19). An earlier passage of Paul’s is 1 Cor. 3:16-17, reminding the people of the same thing.

The context is different from the usual church problems---members were visiting prostitutes, eating meat offered to idols, and so on. But in reworking the Jewish traditions about the Temple for his Gentile Christian church, Paul was helping the Corinthians realize they were disrespecting their bodies and therefore God.

How do you disrespect God by mistreating your body? Unlike eastern religious traditions, the Christian teaching about the Spirit is different from an idea of an inherent divine nature (like the doctrine of Brahman-Atman in Hinduism). Rather, the Spirit (in contrast to the soul) is a divine gift, a presence within us that God sends. To say that we are “temples” harkens back to the temples of Israel, like Solomon’s splendid temple, where the glory of God resided in a special way. When the glory departed because of the nation’s sinfulness, the results were catastrophic (Ezekiel 8-10). Ezekiel, though, envisioned an everlasting return of God’s Spirit (Ez. 37:26-27). Christians interpreted this passage as the giving of the Spirit to believers following Pentecost (Acts 2). So when Paul says the Spirit of God dwells in our bodies (that is, within our very selves), he’s talking not about a general spirituality, nor about the soul, but a very powerful and significant presence of God, now dwelling within us.  

We can take great comfort in Paul’s teaching here: God has chosen us as sacred places in which the Spirit resides. “God don’t make no junk,” as the saying goes, and each of us are precious to God.

In his teaching here, Paul alludes to slavery and the purchase of slaves for a master. That image is hard for us to accept today, given the horrible history of American slavery. But we can think of it in a related way: when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, God selected them as his own people and rescued them from slavery. In Christ, God has chosen us as his people as he chose the Israelites in Moses’ time.

There is also a familial image behind Paul’s words. People know us as individuals but also know us in connection to our commitments and relationships. My wife is president of a midwestern university. We get joking questions if my title is “first man” or “first husband.” Although my role as an adjunct instructor at the university is much more modest, I represent the university, too, as a teacher and as the president’s spouse. Although I have my own identity, it is closely connected to my identity with my family, my work place, as well as a Christian writer and generally as a Christian. Many of us have the same kind of set of mutual connections and mutual responsibilities. That's not to say we'll never fail or disappoint. Likewise, we still have to affirm  but still, we’re conscious of a sense of belonging to God and to one another, interconnected by the work of the Spirit.

I think of several questions about Paul's teaching. When we affirm ourselves as God's temple, how are we true to this saying today (without simplistically making physical fitness, wonderful as it is, a kind of religious obligation)? How do we affirm our individuality in connection to our commitments and mutual responsibilities (setting priorities, avoiding the trap of "groupthink," and so on)? How do we glorify God (helping others love and honor God, too) in our personal identities and our social contacts and commitments? How will we seek the Spirit's guidance during the upcoming Lenten season?

(These thoughts are an "outtake" from an earlier project.)