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Posts Tagged ‘spirituality’

I suspect any of us could come up with a significant list of positives and negatives for social media. No matter how many of each, it may not matter much what we think about social media. Perhaps more interesting are the ways we choose to use it and what it says about us. For instance, it reveals our spiritual deficiencies. This is most evident when it is used as a platform to discuss polarizing issues. Culture thrives in the arena of instant critique. And the church seems to join right in. We don’t have to look far for evidence, just let Rob Bell write a book, Eugene Peterson get interviewed, or Donald Trump do anything.

I suspect we sometimes respond with “cyber rage” because we think others expect us to protest certain things. Maybe we fear silence will be viewed as agreement. There are likely any number of reasons we do what we do but anxious reactivity will always reveal something about our spirituality. Our words and other responses will impact our witness. We need a spirituality that refuses to rush to judgment. Among other things, the cyber age reminds us how easy it is for grace and truth and thoughtful response to be replaced by messages that are not part of our message.

One of the dangers of social media is that we can speak without looking at others. This is not the fault of social media. In this way, social media is like driving a car. During proper navigation, everything goes ok. Yet sometimes when we feel safe enough, out of reach, or that we have not been recognized we think we can get away with words and gestures we might never say or do if we were in closer proximity to those we communicate with.

I sometimes wonder if we believe condescending comments are acceptable if our theology is good. The fact is, our behavior reveals more about our theology than any verbal report. If we behave in hateful, hurtful ways our theology is bad. It is ok to disagree with others. It is ok to disagree with others publicly. It is not ok to become part of the larger problem to fail to love others.

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Pitchfork in hand, I am turning the compost. This pile is full of onion peels, the tops of tomatoes, potato skins, unused herbs, pieces of peppers, corn cobs, eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds, clumps of hair, grass clippings, the list could go on. Occasionally I recognize some of the individual scraps, but the contents are being transformed into an entirely new material. They may not seem like much before they become a part of this collection. But together, this stuff is something. Turning the pile permits air to enter and allows the pile to breathe.  Turning it into the garden helps to hold moisture, fight disease and feed plants that will feed us.

I am turning the compost and can’t help but think about the church. I can’t help but think that individuals who become part of this gathering are no longer what they used to be. I can’t help but think of how God is turning this group into something new. I can’t help but think of the big plans God has for this group together as a source of blessing and hope for the earth.

I am reminded the apostle Paul sometimes made lists of common sins and sinners that could be found throughout the Empire. We often read Paul’s lists of sins and sinners as a list of who gets into heaven and who does not. But the text does not read as if these folks do not have hope. In fact, these letters are written to recipients who used to commit these very sins and were described like these very sinners. To the Corinthians he said, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Perhaps we could say, “You are no longer what you used to be, you are being made into something new.”

Yes we look around and we might not see the church we dream of. Instead we find a broken, wounded, divided, spent, used, messed up group of scraps. But together our individual-ness, even our natural abilities and inabilities, takes a backseat. We may not look like much as individuals, but together we are God’s plan in action. Gathered and turned by the Spirit, we bring new hope to the world.

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This week in Nashville, Barbara Brown Taylor took us for a walk in the dark.  Walking in darkness wakes you up to the use of your senses.  In the dark, we become more alert and aware than we may have been in some time.  Still, we try hard to stay out of the dark.  In many places we have done a good enough job with light that we are not able to see the stars even at night.  Brown Taylor comments that the poor of the world are far richer in stars than we are.  And she cautions that before we replace the lights and the fixtures to make them more lasting and efficient we should ask ourselves if we have become too dependent on artificial lighting.  Brown Taylor is wondering if our fear of the outer darkness is just a reflection of the darkness that is inside us.

She takes us to the Gospel of John where we find Nicodemus in the dark.  The Gospel where we learn about the Light of the world (she adds that this is the Gospel where it seems every noun is capitalized to describe Jesus).  She asks whether Jesus met him there to enlighten him or to “en-darken” him.  To help him to recognize that he was in the dark.  The Nicodemus dialogue can be confusing, it is for Nicodemus.  As with wind and rebirth, we do not often know where we are going or coming from.  But, Jesus’s words remind the reader that there are things we do not know first.

She reminds us that Moses was caught up in the dark cloud of God’s presence.  Accepting this divine darkness is to be willing to live in the cloud of unknowing.  Brown Taylor wonders if it is time for us to be walking in the light and soaking in the dark?  After all, we walk not by sight.  But by faith.  Perhaps it is time to recognize that walking in faith means walking in places where it is difficult to see what comes next.  There is much here that we do not understand.  And she uses the term “theolatry” as something we choose to worship because we do not understand God.

Brown Taylor leaves you asking questions like whether living in the spiritual dark is a bad thing.  After all, God has done some of His best work in the dark.  Do day and night, light and darkness contradict one another?  Or complement one another?  Certainly, we cannot have one without the other.  Besides “when the sun goes down, God does not turn the world over to some other deity.”  So then, can walking in times of darkness strengthen faith?  Is there a better way to learn to walk by faith than when we are not able to see the way?  She adds that it is ok to admit that you do not know where you are going but you are going anyway.

This discussion reminds us that Nicodemus encountered more than an answer.  He encounters one who reveals that he is walking in the dark.  Interestingly, after the lecture, we stepped out into the night.  It gave some immediate time to think about what it means to find your way in the dark.

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This morning, as expected, the sun rose.  I watched as pinks and oranges appeared on a background of blues and grays.  And then the sky turned to gold.  Yesterday’s snow will melt today but last night it looked like a seasonal decoration under the light of the Full Beaver Moon.  The bare trees along the highway reveal Red-Tailed Hawks perched anywhere they can find a seat.  From trees, telephone poles, fence posts and wires, they turn their attention toward the open ground in search of food.

At this time of year, many of us are turning our attention toward a night where a manger became the focus. A night where we are told that angels sang and shepherds waltzed.  In my imagination, even friendly beasts acknowledged that something great had taken place. Yet, long before this night came to pass, the prophet Isaiah wanted people to rethink the way that God works. He warned that the ways of God are not predictable.  He wanted to be sure that we knew to look for something different than the world was looking for.

It is no coincidence then that I have begun meeting with a group on Tuesday evenings to read and discuss portions from the prophet Isaiah.  Even though these words were written long ago, they always seem to work their way into conversation at this time of year.

Isaiah speaks and writes to people who are accustomed to hearing about a God who promised a land of milk and honey.  One who rescues his people from slavery.  A God who opens up the sea as an escape route and provides food in the wilderness.  One who works for them and looks out for them.  For these people the ways of Isaiah’s God may sound strange.

Sometimes I like a big picture look at things.  I like to stand back and try to see how all the pieces fit together.  Other times I try to get as close as possible and just listen.  On Tuesday evenings, we seem to do both.  We sit with the prophet.  We listen as he brings his vision and history together.  Watch him call for witnesses.  Hear hear! as he heralds the message of Yahweh.  And we cannot help but notice that he has been influenced by some and has influenced others.

From the first chapter the prophet is calling us to recognize who we belong to.  After giving us the particulars of history he calls witnesses to observe the messy relationship between God and His people “Listen, O heavens, and hear, O earth”.  I wonder if the heavens and the earth are yet off duty.  Are they still witnesses of our rebellious behavior?  When I look at the sunrise, the full moon, the snow-covered ground and the Red-Tailed Hawk, am I the one being watched?

The testimony is clear.  “An ox knows its owner, And a donkey its master’s manger, But Israel does not know, My people do not understand.”  This is not the first time that a donkey appeared more perceptive than people (think Balaam).  And I cannot help but recall another manger.  While it may not be the first place we might think to look for the activity of God we are reminded again that God does not always work in the way that we might expect.  After all these years, the question of Isaiah remains, “will we recognize God at work?”

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I can’t help but notice a theme that occurs in many of the New Testament letters.  Letters from Paul, the Pastoral Letters, letters from Peter, the letter to the Hebrews.  All include grace as part of a greeting or benediction or both.  What can be said about letters whose content is surrounded by grace?  It is an interesting pattern.  If grace is our hello and grace is our goodbye, then should not grace be reflected in between our hellos and our goodbyes?

Of particular interest are letters written during the persecution to Christians by Nero.  These letters suggest some urgency in light of the persecution.  And yet the readers are not to forget grace.  Can they continue to extend grace even when their lives are in danger?  Can they extend grace to those persecuting them?  Can they extend grace to Nero?  Can they forgive the emperor that killed their friends and their family members?  Can they forgive the one who threatens their own lives?

It would be easy to believe that certain deeds always end with certain results.  That certain decisions always have certain rewards.  That certain activities always come with certain consequences.  That everyone be treated fairly.  That an evil Nero be treated with evil.  This all sounds good.  But it is not reality.  These are the attempts of people like us to make sense of things.  Such attempts fall short.  Such attempts lack imagination.  They are boring.  They are lazy.  They lack adventure.  Nineveh does not deserve good news.  The wasteful rebellious younger son does not deserve to receive a party when he returns home.

Any attempt to think you have earned something or that you deserve it or that someone else does not deserve what you have been given or that you deserve what someone else has is against the reality of God.  Would you offer grace to Nero?  Would I?  Would God?  His way is grace.  Grace can become messy.  Grace does not make sense.  Grace is unfair.  We all know that Nero does not deserve God’s grace.  The wasteful younger son does not deserve grace.  But, grace is the way of God.  It is unpredictable.  It is extravagant.  It comes unexpected.  It sets us on an adventure that is unlike any other.  So the Ninevites get another chance.  The prodigal gets a party.  Paul begins to substitute it for hello and goodbye.

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament states that grace “is always a gift on which one has no claim.”  It goes on to add that grace is sufficient.  “One neither needs more nor will get more.”  The hymnal says that this stuff is amazing.  But we seem to find it more amazing when we are the recipients.  We should be singing that it is unfair.  That it is unpredictable, unexpected, undeserved, unbelievable.  We sing that is higher than a mountain and deeper than the mighty rolling sea.  Should we also be singing about its mystery and its danger?  Should we sing of its untidiness and extravagance?  We never know where we will find it.  Who it will be poured upon or when.  But there are glimpses everywhere.  Even where you least expect it.

I am reminded of an interview I once read with rock star Bono.  He contrasted grace with karma by suggesting that karma is at the center of all religions.  I think he is right.  Many of us, even those who claim not to believe in karma, hold to a philosophy that we get what we deserve.  Then along comes grace and shakes everything up.  Grace defies reason and logic. You certainly do not deserve it, nor have you earned it.  It is a gift like no other.  It is more than we can ask for, more than we can expect.

It pours down upon us.  It bubbles up from beneath us.  We are soaked in it.  John Mark McMillan says that “if grace is an ocean we’re all sinking.”  It is greater than we are.  It comes upon us, wave after wave.  Does this stuff ever end?  Can we stop it or stand in its way?  In the next line McMillan says that “heaven meets earth like a sloppy wet kiss.”  Will you think of grace the next time you are licked by a dog?  The next time you stare at a body of water?  The next time you feel drops from the sky?  The next time you wade into a cool stream?  The next time you take a warm shower?  The next time you enjoy a cold drink?  The next time you receive a free refill?  The next time you receive any gift at all?  Grace.

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