Spiritual Rebirth

I’m willing to bet that you weren’t born alone. When you came into this world, there was at least one other person in the room. None of us gets born alone. Your birth was work for your mother, that’s why we call it labor. You merely allowed yourself to be pushed. All of this doubly applies to our spiritual birth. God labors to bring us to new life. This may be why Jesus speaks about being born again, instead of using an eastern turn of phrase like, coming to enlightenment.

We often forget this mystery when speak about faith. Some people make a memorial out of the moment they came to believe. They remember the evangelists, music, scriptures, teachers, and books that influenced them. In all these little details, it is easy to forget the wind of God incompressible spirit. It blows where it wills without any dependence upon human communicators. We were not saved by being in that particular church on the night so and so spoke. We are saved by God, who in His prevenient grace stacks the dominoes so that they all fall in the right sequence for us and we get pushed into new life.

Consider Nicodemus. This man had become so thoroughly enmeshed in the brotherhood of the Pharisees that his thoughts rarely returned to the singular relationship he had with God. Ask him about his faith and he will speak for hours about his teachers and the respected elders of his religious order. Jesus silences him with one phrase, “You must be born again.”

This is not a command, but a statement of fact. Nicodemus isn’t being told to adopt a new set of beliefs. Instead, he is being called to return to the place where the only other person in the room is God. There is a purity and mystery to John 3:1-17. It deserves its place as one of the most quoted passages of the Bible.

Sunday, May 27, 2018
Pentecost 2
Trinity Sunday

Why Pentecost Matters

In every parish that I served, I encouraged people to think of Pentecost as one of the three great holidays of the church. There is Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. They are of equal importance and should be celebrated with the same degree of serious preparation. Christmas allows us to speak of the Trinity and the uniqueness of Jesus among men. Our systematic theology goes into high gear as we try to speak about God’s mission to save all of humanity. In Easter we rediscover the passion of God and the wretchedness of humanity. Our theology goes low, as we identify with the people who stood by his cross and then carried our Lord to the grave. Easter is a story filled with transition, the greatest example being the resurrection.

    In Pentecost, we realized that both Christmas and Easter occurred, not simply that individuals might be saved, but that a religious community might be formed. We push people towards the end of the second chapter of acts, when we realized that all this fire and wind resulted in the birth of the church as an organization. The spiritual birth of the church, I believe, was when Jesus gathered people on a hillside and told them that they were already blessed by God (Matthew 5:1-9). Three years later, the day of Pentecost takes this awareness that we are a blessed people, and empowers us to organize to share that blessing. On Pentecost, our theology goes wide.

Sunday, May 20, 2018
Pentecost Sunday

Jesus prays for your Small Group

I have been thinking a lot about small groups lately. Jesus begins with a small group — twelve disciples. At the end of the Last Supper, before he leads his disciples out to the garden where he will be betrayed and taken to his passion, Jesus dedicates this small group to God. The way John remembers that prayer (John 17:1-26), it was filled with references to the importance of this small group. Jesus prays that the spiritual truths that has imparted in the course of his work with this little fellowship might be established. He presents these eleven before God (Judas had left), as if they were a trust, that he has been a steward responsible for. When we join a small group for Bible study today, we are entering into a spiritual trust. We pray for each other as Jesus prayed for his disciples and the Holy Spirit used the group to protect and nurture our souls.

I think that even today, Christians who participate in small groups for spiritual study and prayer, enter into a deeper covenant with God, than those who simply come to worship. Why? How about the following:

  • Character is not learned from lectures or sermons. Discipleship formation happens in small groups.
  • Real physical, psychological, and spiritual Healing happens in small groups
  • Small groups are often the incubators for leadership development and transforming change in the community.

Through small groups, Jesus continues to engage the world today. He says that we are to be in the world, even if we are not to be of it (John 17:15-18). How can we negotiate this narrow path without the support of other Christians who know us well and speak about faith in an intimate context.

Sunday, May 13, 2018
Easter 7

Defined by Love

Scholars may argue about whether the same man wrote the Gospel of John and the Letters of John, but John 15 and 1 John 5 sound like two peas in a pod. John is trying to simplify the relationship with have with each other and with Jesus into two words. The words Abide and Love. I want to go one step further and simplify the whole church experience into this concept of Abiding Love. Church is where people support each other in abiding in the love of God, and where God’s spirit supports us in abiding in love with those close to us. 

 

Did you know that the dictionary definition for church doesn’t contain the word love. It goes as follows: “Church is a particular Christian organization, typically one with its own clergy, buildings, and distinctive doctrines.” (Apple dictionary)

 

Sunday, May 6, 2018
Easter 6

Perfectly Loving

I always get a chuckle when someone asks me for my home email and I say bill at not-perfect-yet dot com" and they respond “perfect.” They don’t even hear themselves doing it. “Perfect” has entered into our modern vocabulary to replace “okay.”  This is truly ironic. Now putting aside this odd ambiguity, what does the Bible mean when it says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us (1 John 4:12). We live in a world that is desperate for real love. When we engage, even momentarily, in an authentic, selfless, other-honoring relationship with another person, we allow them to see God in us. This is real perfection.

We live today in a world where our coffee is ground to perfectly identical grains, where our computer perfectly transmits our ill-conceived emails, and where our phones can perfectly tell us the time the sun will rise on this date in the year 2525 (if humankind survives that long). “Perfect” is possible for any product that doesn’t depend upon human input. We mortals regularly mess up coffee making, misspell emails, and often fail to rise in time to see the sun do its thing, perfectly. We also mess up love; the one thing we flawed creatures can do well which machines will never do at all.

Sunday, April 29, 2018
Easter 5

Abide

John asks a tough question: “how can the love of God abide in us, if we have in our hands the things someone else needs to survive, and we don’t offer what we have to help them” (I John 3:17). The context of John’s question is a call for Christians to help other Christians. This verse follows his command, “we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (v16). Obviously, he is writing to people adjacent to people experiencing persecution. In the first three centuries of the church, the sharp focus of physical persecution (imprisonments and executions) was always surrounded by a broader circle of people losing their jobs and homes because of social prejudice, and these sufferers are surrounded in turn by people like you and I who are doing okay, but not sacrificing to help. Could such a thing happen today?

 

John’s question goes hand in hand with the way another John, John the Baptist described the kingdom of heaven, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11). Jesus said many similar things and he intentionally broadened this command to say that we must even share our coats with our enemies (Luke 6:29). Jesus calls us to be compassionate on both Christians and strangers, and never permitted the kind of circle drawing that we see in today’s church. Many congregations have a rule that they won’t directly help someone who not a member, or at least, a Christian. How can we abide with God and hold onto such narrow minded behavior?

 

Sunday, April 22, 2018
Easter 4

Why Believing is Important

Jesus has to do some pretty silly stuff to get people to believe that he’s alive. In John 20, he lets Thomas poke him in the side. In Luke 24:36-48 he eats a bit of fish. Don’t think of a nice salmon broiled with butter. No. The disciples are poor folk in Jerusalem during the height of the tourist season. The city is three days away from the sea. The fish is likely to be boney. Think a pounded piece of perch from Galilee, dried on the dock, packed in salt — the bottom of the barrel. Jesus has a resurrected body. He’s not hungry. He does it so that they will believe.

So believing is really important. We need to believe that God so loved the world that he sent Jesus. That believing in Jesus has the power to change our lives. And that Jesus died, intentionally, to save us from our sins. And that Jesus is alive again, and promises to make us alive again when we die.

Yet believing seems to be something that we can’t control. God knows that real spirituality has to be cultivated slowly and diligently in our lives. He doesn’t overwhelm us with obvious “that’s got to be God” moments. He scatters a few spiritual ah-has over the years. Yet, we are commanded to believe.

While the moment of belief seems to be out of our control, we are responsible for putting ourselves in the right place. Most of the disciples hung together, even though it was difficult, after Jesus was crucified. The came back to the upper room, swimming upstream against their doubts. They put themselves in a place, and with a fellowship, where faith was possible.

And Jesus rewarded them.

Sunday, April 15, 2018
Easter 3

Looking for Unity

Where were you on April 4, 1968? Those of you who were not born yet may be wondering why I ask the question. I was 14 and growing into social, political, and spiritual awareness —the three are woven together — in an all-white suburb of Pittsburgh. Shortly after Dr.Martin Luther King was assassinated, the Hill District erupted in a week-long riot. The clash of police and protestors was the lead story on every news channel across the country. It was my introduction to the racial divide that still plagues our country. In that formative moment, I was prone to accept the views of my all-white friends. I don’t remember what my teachers said, but I suspect they accepted the segregated high school and community they worked in to be part of the natural order. But in a few years, I would begin to notice that the pastor and youth leaders of my church spoke of a different order; a kingdom of God where there was a hard-fought unity among all people, and a respect for diversity.

Scholars are divided about Psalm 133, which says, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” They are in agreement that this is a beautiful psalm describing the joys of worship and fellowship. They disagree about whether it was written at the end of David’s life when the country was at peace, or if it was in the turbulent time after the exile, when the nation had been broken into dozens of little ethnic groups by its wars and needed to rebuild its sense of community.

Sunday, April 8, 2018
Easter 2
Martin Luther King Assassination 50th

Hearing and Believing

There are two punchlines in John’s story of the first Easter: 1) John enters the tomb, sees and believes (John 20: 8) and 2) Mary Magdalene, after thinking that Jesus is the gardener, hears him call her name, and she believes (John 20:16).  In each of these, a person who is a faithful friend of Jesus, makes a quantum leap. They believe — but this is not the same thing as being saved! — in a way that moves them to a deeper spiritual state. As we celebrate Easter, those in worship are not all in the same place. Part of the duty of the story is to help move each person one step deeper. See John 20:31, where the author tells us that the reason for writing this gospel is so that we might believe in a deeper way.

 

I am indebted to father Felix Just, SJ, for his clear outline of the five stages of believing that John describes in his gospel. These remind me of Fowler, Piaget, and Kolhberg, who talk about stages of moral and spiritual development. What if we keep the five audiences below in our minds as we develop our sermons and try to help people who may be stuck at each level:

 

Sunday, March 27, 2016
Easter Day

I didn't vote for him either

The story of Jesus falls into two halves; the part before Palm Sunday and the week after it. Before Palm Sunday, Jesus very rarely says or does anything overtly political. He doesn’t seem to have any ambition other than to teach and heal people. Then suddenly he comes to Holy Week and everything he does is political. Before Palm Sunday, Jesus deals with us on the level playing field of interpersonal relationships and the fair exchange of ideas. He teaches in open fields where people can interrupt him and ask him questions. He forms an intimate circle of disciples where everyday life — how are you today, Peter?—is valued. He heals by touching and his favorite miracle is having a few loaves of bread multiply as they are passed from one hungry person to another.

On Palm Sunday he exits the egalitarian world and enters politics as we know it today. As he transitions into the walled and gated city of our newsfeed world, he does three symbolic acts to ask for our vote: 1) He accepts the nomination of his followers who shout that he is Messiah or King of Jews, 2) He rides a donkey through the Eastern Gate, fulfilling prophesies relating to a new political age, 3) He has people wave palm branches, which are symbolic reminders of an earlier revolution when the Maccabeans kicked the Seleucids out of Jerusalem.

In doing this Jesus challenges our hierarchal world. In a world where Caesar is over Pontius Pilate, who is over the people of Judea, Jesus says, “You would have no authority if God hadn’t given it to you.” In the religious world where the High Priest rules over lesser priests who rule over laity, Jesus announces his own unique relationship as the son of God. His very presence in Jerusalem, the capital, circumvents the established authority.

Sunday, March 25, 2018
Palm Sunday
Lent 7

TIIMSA Annual Gathering (UMC Interim & Transitional Ministers)

Tuesday, May 1, 2018 - 6:00pm to Thursday, May 3, 2018 - 1:00pm

May 1-3 at the UMC Conference Center  in Des Moines, Iowa

Keynote: Dr Eric Law will present his "Holy Currencies" assessment & empowerment tool

Conference with workshops

Unless You Die

I almost didn't do my blog today. As I awoke, my phone's text screen said that Francis, a family member, had passed. She was a woman of faith. As she lay in Hospice, I was working on the death scene of the novel I am doing. I found myself revisiting about Jesus' words, a seed has to die to being a seed in order to be alive as a plant. Good way to think about death. 

 

In John 12, Jesus gives a profound explanation for our lives: We are seeds. We get planted on this earth as seedy-self-centered beings. What we were before is unknown, and who we have to thank seems an irrelevant question. We live seed-illy, bumping up against other seeds, facing rejection, misunderstandings, and a general shared ignorance about life. Then the hour comes when we are cracked open and transformed. The new life, the miracle, casts our seed-shell aside. Jesus asks, “Shall I say No to this hour?”

 

Sunday, March 22, 2015
Lent 5

Hair of the Dog

Back before we had a treatment for rabies, you had to catch the dog that bit you and put a bit of its hair into a potion. The thinking was that having a little hair of what caused you pain could magically cure you, kind of like a day-after flu vaccine. Magical thinking prevails in the advice that a shot of alcohol in the morning will cure a hangover (Carrie Fisher’s alcohol soaked memoir is titled, “Magical Drinking”). Hence we say, “hair of the dog” when we repeat an action in miniature that got us in trouble the night before. In actuality a heavy drinker would be better off drinking water (they are usually dehydrated), and seeing a counselor (any hangover is a sign of a toxic relationship with booze), rather than taking something that delays their reentry to reality.

Moses might well have said, “hair of the dog,” or its yiddish equivalent, when the people of the Exodus were faced with snakes in the dessert. Moses had them cast a snake in bronze wrapped around a pole. People who were bit by poisonous snakes were told to look upon this snake, lifted up, and they would be cured (Numbers 21:4-9). In an unrelated bit of mythology, the Greek/Roman god of healing, Asclepius, had a pole with a snake around it, which today is the symbol for medicine. The truth behind the magical thinking is that the prayers of Moses brought forgiveness and healing to the people. In looking to the snake and pole, the people were meant to focus on their dependance upon God, and repent from the sins that had broken their faith.

Sunday, March 11, 2018
Lent 4

A Good Beginning

A good beginning is needed to carry you to the end. This is true of competitive things, stock car races and swimming. It is true of education, especially in mathematics and science. It is true of marriage and all intimate relationships. It is also true of ethics and our struggle to live as godly people. Ten commandments make a good start. Sincere believers are led from these ten commandments to the great simplification, stated by Jesus as, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.”  Because I need things even simpler, I try to follow the mantra, “Always be compassionate.” But, I need to be careful here, the starting point, or good beginning, is to have no gods or idols before the one Holy God.

The small group I was leading got into a side conversation about the sad state of the world. One of the folk summed it up by saying that the last of the Ten Commandments — the one about not coveting — was the hardest, and that our failure to rid our politics, our workplaces, and our personal lives of coveting was ruining everything. To covet means to yearn to possess something that you don’t, or can’t legitimately, own. It is based on the word for greed. We all have something or someone that we covet. Spirituality involves discipling our illegitimate impulses. If we don’t begin by choosing to hold the Holy God above all other idols — oh, the things we think will give our life meaning! — we will gladly exchange a little bit of heavenly mindedness for a chance to acquire what we want today. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018
Lent 3

About that Cross Ahead

Jesus once called Peter, Satan — as in, “Get behind me, Satan.” I’ve come to think of Peter as a mother hen. He wants to protect Jesus. Keep him from any harm. I tell the people I love to be careful when they go out into icy weather. I have not yet resorted to hiding my wife’s keys when she plans to drive in the snow. That would be silly. Jesus is telling Peter that he is more than being silly. Peter’s urge to protect Jesus borders on being traitorous. He is, in this moment, Satan. For Jesus’ mission involves going to the cross. He plans on being harmed. Jesus plans on dying. That is why he reacts to Peter’s concern so dramatically.

Jesus goes on to say that each of us will go to the cross, in our own way. We must plan it into our lives. We must not let our urge to protect ourselves cause us to back away from our mission. We must not let the concerns of our loved ones keep us from doing what we are called to do. If a mother hen stands between us and doing God’s will, we call him or her Satan.

I think of Martin Luther King. As the fight for civil rights intensified, he knew it would cost him his life. He said, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will” (“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” Montgomery, April 3, 1963).  I imagine his wife had a hard time listening to that speach. Jesus says that each of us will go on to the cross in our own way.

What does Jesus mean when he says, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”?

Sunday, February 25, 2018
Lent 2

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