Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Evergreen Cross

As soon as we arrived in Sandwich, New Hampshire, for the holidays we started decorating the house … even before we unpacked our bags. The borrowed 3-foot Christmas tree, which we brought with us from Pennsylvania, went up in minutes.

I located the window candles in a box in the garage and placed them on the windowsills. My wife, Jude, set up the olive wood nativity set, which we had purchased years ago from a carpenter’s shop on Milk Grotto Street in Bethlehem.

While we were in the midst of festive festooning, some friends came by with a gift – a beautiful evergreen wreath to place on the front door. I have been meditating on this wreath ever since.

It is not your typical circle of green; it is even better. Don’t get me wrong; I love traditional wreaths. The symbolism of the endless evergreen circle is a powerful statement of everlasting life. It was a symbol connected with the winter solstice in northern Europe long before the gospel came to that cold climate. It adapted well into Christianity.

But the wreath that now hangs on our door is in the shape of a cross. I must have seen such cruciform wreaths before, but I can’t recall when. I know I have never owned one.

A Christmas cross wreath is a powerful symbol. It combines the life symbolism of the evergreen with the death symbolism of the cross. Christ was born to die. We all are. As soon as we are born, we begin dying. That is the nature of life. All that is born must die.

There is a painting by an anonymous artist that depicts Jesus as a toddler crawling on the floor of his father’s carpenter’s shop. The child is playing with one of three large spikes as his body casts an image of a cross on the workshop floor. It is entitled “Destiny.”

Death was the destiny of the Bethlehem babe. So is life – eternal life. Death is our destiny … and so is life. The evergreen cross brings these disparate realities together in one image. 

In Jesus the unborn is born. The immortal becomes mortal; the ageless ages. The all-knowing one “grows in wisdom and stature.” The impassive suffers, and the deathless dies. And death is swallowed up by life. 

That is the message that hangs on my front door for all to see this holiday.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Apocalyptic Advent

I have attended two churches during this Advent season. One was in Florida while visiting my in-laws in the Orlando area; the other was back home in Pennsylvania. In both locations the pastors were preaching a series of sermons on the Book of Revelation. Did I miss the memo? Is this the year when pastors are supposed to preach apocalyptic advent messages?

My hometown Presbyterian pastor was doing a series entitled “An Apocalyptic Advent.” on the symbolic account of Christ’s birth in the twelfth chapter of Revelation. It was an intriguing trilogy of sermons and thematically appropriate for the season.

The Southern Baptist pastor’s series in Florida was not so appropriate.  The Sunday I heard him, he was preaching on the end-times tribulation. Thankfully I missed the previous sermon on the pre-tribulation rapture. But I had the misfortune of singing Christmas carols and then hearing a sermon on the hatefulness of God.

I hesitate even to get into it … okay I will. He talked about God (or was it Satan? It was hard to tell the difference in his sermon) putting AIDS in the water supply (Yep, he actually said that HIV can be transmitted through drinking water!) and the MRSA bacteria in the air. (Yep!) He said that both were designed by God as horrible deaths to punish evildoers for their sin. A nice Christmas sentiment. Ho, ho, ho.

I was almost ready to walk out when he started to identify the mark of the Beast. I had to stay for that. Most pastors aren’t so audacious as to claim such inside knowledge.

Accompanied by digital images projected on the overhead screen, he demonstrated how the Hebrew letter waw was the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Waw is equivalent to the English W, therefore 666=WWW, the World Wide Web. Yep! The internet is evil. I was waiting for him to identify Mark Zuckerberg as the Antichrist!

I almost crunched up my bulletin and threw it at the preacher. I thought of rolling it into a tube to use it as a megaphone to boo this ridiculous exegesis. My wife, who had been eying my increasing restlessness throughout the sermon, gave me the eyeball and I relented.

Anyway, this has got me thinking about the relationship of Advent to apocalypse. Advent is a wonderful time to contemplate apocalyptic images. During Advent, the malls, homes and churches are filled with symbols and colors. Like in Revelation, the colors and symbols have spiritual meaning.

Furthermore, Advent comes at both the beginning and the end of the year. December is the end of the secular calendar year and the beginning of the Christian calendar. The annual celebration of Christ’s first coming reminds us that time is growing short for his second coming.

As the apostle wrote: “Wake up, for our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” He is coming soon. Come, Lord Jesus! Merry Maranatha!
Art is "The Crowned Virgin: A Vision of John" (Revelation 12:1-3), from the Bamberg Apocalypse, an 11th century richly illuminated manuscript.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Five Minutes With God

Last week I finished reading Mitch Albom’s book, Have a Little Faith. In the epilogue he records a conversation he had with his hometown rabbi.

He was talking about heaven and suddenly, for some reason, I had a notion. What if you only get five minutes with God? “Five minutes?” he said. Five minutes, I said. God is a busy God. Here’s your slice of heaven. Five minutes alone with the Lord and then, poof, on you go to whatever happens next. “And in those five minutes?” he asked, intrigued. In those five minutes, you can ask anything you want.

You will have to read the book for yourself to see how the rabbi answered the question. It is quite a good answer, by the way. The whole book is definitely worth reading; I recommend it. But for the last few days I have been pondering how I would answer the question.

Would I ask God the big theodical questions about suffering and evil? Would I intervene for loved ones? Would I pose the prayer of Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and say a prayer for world peace? What would I do with my five minutes with God?

After some thought I have decided that I would simply enjoy the company. If all I got were five minutes, I would not waste them on my own questions and concerns. I don’t need to understand how suffering and evil works into God’s plan for the universe. I trust that God knows how it all fits together; that is good enough for me.

I don’t have to worry about my loved ones. They are in God’s good hands. Neither do I have to intercede for world peace or plead for an end to world hunger. No one cares about these issues more than the Lord. To bring such concerns to God is a waste of precious minutes.

So how would I spend my five minutes? I would praise Him. I would express my love for Him. I would enjoy His undivided attention for five minutes. As the old gospel hymn says, “That would be glory …… be glory for me.” I would lose myself in God’s glory, love and grace. Five minutes spent like that would feel like an eternity.

I would spend my five minutes with God much like I spend most of my “quiet time” with God each day. I kneel in his presence and bow in awe. I also do my share of confession, petition and intercession. But as I pray those types of prayers, I always feel like they are somewhat unnecessary. God knows what I need - and what others need - before I ask.

God knows the concerns and thankfulness of my heart. It is still important to express my needs and thanks, but I do not have to use many words doing so. As Jesus taught, “When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”

Most of my prayer time with God is wordlessly opening my heart to joy, awe, and wonder. When I am with God, time stops. Five minutes in God’s presence is an eternity. It is more than enough.

By the way, in the book the rabbi gives away three of his five minutes to those who need them more. You will have to read the book – or at least the epilogue – to see how he uses the other two minutes. (You can read the epilogue for free with the “Search Inside” feature at Amazon: Have a Little Faith: A True Story)

But in the meantime take five minutes now to ask yourself, “How would I spend my five minutes with God?”

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Need To Preach

Last Sunday after worship several people came up to me and expressed gladness … and sorrow … that I was planning to take a church in New Hampshire. They were sorry to see us move away, but happy that I was getting back into the pulpit. “You need to preach,” one woman said to me in the middle of a hug. Those words have been echoing in my heart.

It is true. I need to preach. It is not a unique experience. The apostle Paul said, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” The prophet Jeremiah said, “But if I say, ‘I will not mention his word or speak anymore in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.”

Do not misunderstand me. I have enjoyed not preaching during these fifteen months of mini-retirement. When it comes time for me to really retire, I will embrace it without regret. During this extended sabbatical we have enjoyed traveling, relaxing, and spending time with family and friends.

I have even enjoyed sitting in a pew and hearing someone else preach. I have been blessed to be part of a great church with a great preacher for the past year. I have heard a lot of bad preachers in my time. In fact on a recent visit to Florida, it took all of my willpower not to walk out of a horrible sermon. But the pastor at “our church” is good. He is the age of my eldest son, yet he has wisdom beyond his years.

I have enjoyed writing this blog and a book (unfinished but not forgotten.) I have read widely in controversial areas. I have had freedom in the Spirit to express emotions and explore new ideas - ideas that would have been self-censured if I had to second-guess how a congregation might receive my words. It has opened up new spiritual vistas for me.

But I need to get back into the pulpit. It is what I do. Strangely enough I also need to shepherd people. I missed church people. I did not miss the innumerable endless meetings. Neither did I miss the bickering and pettiness of church life. But I missed the intimacy of sharing deep times – crises, illnesses, deaths, joys, births, and weddings – with sinner-saints.

I missed talking openly and frequently about spiritual matters. Unless you are a pastor you can’t invite yourself to someone’s home and then ask pointedly, “So how is your spiritual life?” It would be considered presumptuous. But it is okay if your pastor asks that question.

I missed interaction with children and elders. I missed riding the heartbeat of a spiritual community. I missed the camaraderie of other pastors struggling to balance the expectations and responsibilities of the pastorate.

I missed the richness of pastoral ministry. Back when I was a seminarian I had a decision to make after I got my Master of Divinity degree: preach or teach. I decided I would teach. I entered the Ph.D. program with a plan was to teach in a college or seminary.

Then I had second thoughts. I felt like I needed to explore pastoral ministry first. So I took a church … just for a few years. But like Frost said, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.” I did not fully realize it at the time, but I had permanently left academia for the pastorate. Thirty-four years later, I am not sorry. I need to preach.

Art is “Saint Paul Preaching in Athens,” Raphael 1515-1516

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Pepsi Defense

Recently a local man was arrested for assaulting his mother. That is nothing new. Petty crime is a commonplace around here. The highlight of our local newspaper, the Beaver County Times, is Mugshot Monday, where the photos of all those admitted to the Beaver County jail in the past week are displayed.

Recently David Huffman, 33, of New Sewickley Township was charged with aggravated assault, simple assault and harassment of his 68-year-old mother. The mother suffered a fractured wrist in the incident.

The interesting aspect of this story is his excuse. Huffman told police that it wasn’t his fault: the Pepsi machine at Costco made him do it. I have a feeling he had been imbibing something a little stronger than Pepsi that evening. And he didn’t get it from a vending machine.

It illustrates the victim mentality that is prevalent these days. It is never our fault. Pepsi made Huffman do it. It is reminiscent of the famous “Twinkie Defense” used in the trial of Dan White in 1979. White’s attorney argued that junk food deranged his client to the point that he was compelled to murder San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk and mayor George Moscone. 

A couple of Sundays ago God made Buffalo Bills receiver Steve Johnson missed four passes. At least that is what he angrily tweeted that night. There is no shortage of other scapegoats. Our parental upbringing made us what we are. Racism, sexism, homophobia or some other cultural bias have caused our problems.

I just read the story of a man who inherited $14 million and was broke in ten years. He was angry. He said it wasn’t his fault. He blamed it on bad financial advice. Right! They made him buy all those houses and vehicles!

The classic theological formulation of this attitude is “The devil made me do it.” If it is not the external devil, it is the internal one - our “sinful nature” or “the flesh.” 

The apostle Paul writes: “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”

Human freedom and responsibility are tricky concepts. There are powerful forces that influence and limit our freedom, but ultimately our actions are always our responsibility. Though we may be “slaves to sin,” we are still accountable to God. Ultimately there is no defense for our sin – carbonated or otherwise.

“O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tweeting God

Buffalo Bills Wide Receiver Stevie Johnson missed four passes during Sunday’s loss to the Steelers, including what would have been the game-wining touchdown in overtime. Late Sunday night he launched a tirade at God via Twitter for letting him down. He tweeted, “I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS IS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!!!!”

Hmmm… This is disturbing in so many ways. First is the idea that you can communicate with God by Twitter.  Does God tweet? Is this God’s new mode of revelation in this electronic age? 

The second troubling idea is that God is responsible for our mistakes. Where does human responsibility kick in? Does God really compensate for our lack of athletic coordination? I guess if athletes can credit God for touchdowns by pointing to the heavens, then it follows that they can discredit God when the ball falls short of the goal line.

A third disturbing thing is that this man thinks he has the right to yell at the Almighty when things don’t work out as he thinks they should.  If God is really the type of God Johnson thinks he is, then if I were Johnson I would be watching the sky for lightning bolts.

A more fundamental assumption behind Johnson’s tweet is the idea that the spiritual life is a deal made with the Almighty. We agree to praise Him 24/7 and in return he will make us successful in whatever we attempt. If we aren’t successful, then God has dropped the ball – literally and figuratively. Our failures become God’s fault, and we have the right to berate him loudly, angrily and publicly.

This is the arrogance of the “prosperity gospel,” which sees a direct relationship between righteousness and worldly success. If God really does micromanage the universe, including intervening in football games on behalf of his servants, then we ought to observe a direct correlation between righteousness and Super Bowl victories. I don’t see it.

Stevie Johnson’s tweet may seem crude, but it is the unspoken sentiment of many people’s souls. They just don’t make the complaint so publicly. They voice it quietly to their pastor in a hospital waiting room or even more privately in agonizing prayer.

As a pastor I have heard many people say that God has let them down – usually in the form of unanswered prayer, tragic death, or serious illness. Too many people say that is the reason they will have nothing more to do with church or religion.

It is a serious issue – serious enough for the Bible to have a whole book – the Book of Job – dedicated to the exploration of the topic. In the end there is no good answer – no tweet from heaven. No neat explanation for why bad things – things much worse than incomplete passes –happen to people.

In the end we can go no further than Job. For forty chapters Job yells at God, but in the end he shuts his mouth and repents. Not because he has received a satisfactory answer to his complaint, but because he has met God, who has some questions of his own for Job. In the presence of the One who knows all, no answer is necessary.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

View from the Fence

I love reading scripture. Not just Christian scriptures – although I love those most – but also other religions’ scriptures. After all, the word “scripture” just means “writings,” much like the word “bible” literally means “book.” But these words are commonly used to refer to the most ancient and sacred writings of a culture.

Anyway, I am starting to read the Upanishads again, some of the most revered texts of ancient India. The Isha Upanishad says, “In dark night live those for whom the world without alone is real; in night darker still, for whom the world within alone is real…. In dark night live those for whom the Lord is transcendent only; in night darker still, for whom he is immanent only.”

It seems like religious folks are always making one of those two mistakes. We tend to gravitate to the extremes – inner or outer world, transcendent or immanent.  The West tends toward the outer and transcendent; the East tends toward the inner and immanent. And as Kipling reminded us, “never the twain shall meet.”

I have likewise lived at the edges. As I look at my spiritual pilgrimage, I have not held one changeless theology. I have moved within a range of theologies. One decade I embrace transcendence, another decade immanence. One season of life I am more conservative, another more liberal.

Consequently I have friends on both sides of the theological divide. I never sat on the fence. I always passionately believed in the values of whatever side I was on. But now I see truth more like a balance of extremes. I have crossed the fence so often that the fence feels more familiar than either side.

Maybe I have just grown weary of the trips from one end of the playing field to the other. Perhaps my heart has stretched some in the process – like the Grinch whose “small heart grew three sizes that day.” I find that can hold hands with those on either side of the fence without much strain.

The differences between the extremes feel more like harmony than contradiction. It is creative tension rather than conflict. I also can see more clearly from here on the fence. There is more light here. The light shines from both directions as well as overhead. The extremes look so very dark from here. I did not realize how dark they were until I stopped moving.

Here on the fence paradox is enlivening. Conundrums are comforting. Words are signposts directing the hearer toward truth rather than bearers of truth. The divine is real presence instead of a distant figure from the scriptural past or a theological weapon used to pummel your opponent.

From the fence it all seems so simple. The fence is not meant to keep the sides apart. It is a meeting place where opposites reconcile, where enemies become friends, where two becomes one. Call me a fence sitter, if you want. I will be here to greet you when you become tired of the extremes.