Thursday, May 30, 2013

Divine Competence

2 Corinthians 3:1-18
“Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit…” (2 Corinthians 3:5-6a). These words are a great comfort to me. They remind me to give thanks to God for all that I am able to accomplish. They remind me to do my best in any situation and to trust God to bless the outcome. They remind me that it is not I who achieve, but God who achieves through me. Paul’s words free me to worry less about whether I can do something and instead to give thought to how something might be done.

The work of ordained ministers has changed in recent decades. While preaching, teaching, and pastoral care were long considered the primary concerns of clergy, we now find ourselves dealing as much with staff development, budgets, endowments, boards of agencies, volunteer recruitment, fund raising, facilities, in short, administration. There are always plenty of reasons to stay in my office even though I feel like my work should take me into the world meeting needs and touching lives. It really seems that few people can do all that the ministry requires today. But not all ministry is done by “ministers.” Much of what the church is about is best done by lay people, those with the skills and talents needed for such tasks. It is, I believe, a matter of matching the person with the right talents to the job that needs doing. Even then, though, even when we get people pointed in the right direction, it is by the grace of God that they succeed in their work.

Each of us, no matter our skill level, is dependent on God to give us the insight and wisdom, the talent and determination, the skill and imagination necessary to act in faithful obedience. “Our competence is from God,” said Paul, which means not only that we give God glory for what we are able to do, but that we should never waver in our determination, never falter in the face of difficult tasks, because until we try we will never know what God has given us the ability to accomplish. And there is no telling what the Spirit of God will lead us to do next.

Prayer: Lord, only you can give us competence, only you can give us what we need to succeed. Help us, then, to be about your work in the world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

For All the Saints

Psalm 15
Several years ago, my wife, the Rev. Dr. Debra Carl Freeman, organized a number of “Prayer Knots” within the congregation we served as co-pastors. One of the practices she strongly recommended for these small groups was regular Bible study using the daily lectionary. After about eight years of participation in one such group, I and another member, Jo Fontaine, began to swap emails each day pointing to verses that had been particularly meaningful or thought-provoking for us. Jo and I were having so much fun communicating our thoughts that I thought maybe others would enjoy getting in on the conversation. So on March 14, 2007 I began this blog. And though it has recently begun to attract a larger number of readers, Jo has always been one of the people I could count on to read it and comment on it. Jo was a little skittish with the internet, so she never actually saw the blog. What she saw was an email of each post that I sent to her as soon as it was written. Even after a change in pastorates lead me to another town, I remained as active as possible in that prayer knot with Jo and our friends HK Stewart and Vivianna McAtee, and I continued to swap emails with Jo.

In recent months, Jo’s health began to decline. She was well into her 90’s and still full of the same insight and wisdom that I had come to value, but finally Jo was not physically up to the challenge. I last met with the group early this past April on a visit to Little Rock. It met one more time after that. Yesterday, I again returned to Little Rock where I had the honor of participating in Jo’s funeral. It will feel strange to post to my blog today, knowing that I will not be forwarding a copy to her, that her thoughts will not arrive in my inbox, that our opportunity for sharing has ended for now. Grace abounds, but not always in ways that we fully appreciate.

I was struck today by the first verse of the morning Psalm: “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1). It is a question Jo might have pondered with great interest in years past. Now, by the grace of God, Jo is a part of the answer. I will miss her, and the gatherings that she, HK, Vivianna, and I shared for 14 years. But I will remain grateful to my wife for organizing “prayer knots,” to the others for participating, and to Jo for sharing her insight and wisdom over the years. She once referred to my wife as the godmother of our prayer group––which was true––but it was Jo who, despite her humility, was the heart of it.

Prayer: Lord, for all the saints who from their labors rest, we give you thanks and praise. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

People of God 2.0

Ezekiel 11:14-25
If you are like me, you can get a little weary of the constant upgrading that goes on with computers and software. Just when I get comfortable with a program or a web site, just when I feel like I finally understand how to use a laptop or iPad, along comes a new operating system, or a new layout, or a new interface. The social media giant Facebook is famous for such changes, but even, the site where I post this blog, has recently undergone a revision. I want to say “Enough already. Stop with all the changing!” But the truth is that there are times and situations where change is not only desirable, it is absolutely essential. One such case is mentioned in our Old Testament reading for today. “I will give them one heart,” says the Lord, “and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God” (Ezekiel 11:19-20). Let’s call this phenomenon “the People of God (version 2)” because according to the prophet, God’s people are about to be completely reoriented and it will begin in the heart.

This message is profound. Though God created women and men in the divine image, over time even God’s chosen people had become hardhearted, unfeeling and unresponsive to God’s will. Hearts made for compassion and love had instead become like rock, unmoved by the needs of others. The result had been calamitous. By the time of Ezekiel’s writing, the people of God had been spread among the nations, awash in exile. God had not given up, however, and though the situation appeared dire, the Lord promised to restore the people by first correcting their innermost deficiencies. Hearts of stone would be restored to their original loving and compassionate forms. The result of this transformation would be a restored community bound together by attention to God’s will and a renewed relationship between God and humanity. Essentially, all that was wrong with the world would be corrected when the people themselves were remade.

Here the analogy with computers and the internet breaks down because with technology there are obvious adjustments that are made, clear examples of change that are impossible to ignore. But with people, change is not always certain, nor is it always obvious. Indeed, it would be difficult to point to a moment in time where God’s promise to instill new hearts was accomplished. Humanity remains afflicted with sinfulness and a lack of compassion. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, however, has proven that God is firmly committed to upholding the covenant even as God continues to call people to lives of faithful obedience. Perhaps it is in Jesus’ defeat of sin and death that you and I find our fullest transformation as humans, our most pronounced “upgrade.” For in the new thing that God is doing in Jesus Christ, we have been given a fresh start, have been recreated. Indeed, God’s work in Christ makes it clear that things are not what they once were, which is to say that compassion and love are no longer exceptions, they are the rule. For this we can say thanks to God.

Prayer: Gracious and loving God, we thank you for the new beginning you have given us through your Son Jesus Christ and for the forgiveness and hope we find in him. Amen.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Mission Continues

Luke 10:1-17
“Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Jesus’ words to his followers found in our gospel reading today play multiple roles. On the one hand, Jesus is speaking to those whom he “sent on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go” (v. 1). But Luke also has the responsibility of speaking to you and me, members of the contemporary church, who have also been sent into the world by our Savior to share the good news and to do ministry in his name. Placed in this context, Jesus’ words should become a great deal more compelling for us.

Imagine reading an email addressed to a stranger—or so you assume. It appears to be from someone in need of help, someone who is counting on assistance, someone who is waiting for a reply. The email is interesting, but not so much so that it makes an impression on you. But then imagine discovering that the email is in fact intended specifically for you, that the person in need of help is calling on you for that assistance, waiting for you to respond. Knowing yourself to be the intended recipient of the email may not lead you to take action in the matter, but you cannot pretend to be uninvolved. You are a part of what is going on here. In a similar way, reading Jesus’ words in Luke 10 as though they are meant solely for his original followers is to ignore the fact that Luke is speaking just as directly to us. We are every bit as engaged in the ministry of Jesus Christ, the evangelism and witness to which the disciples themselves were called. It is through us that others may or may not choose to listen to Jesus Christ, who may or may not accept him as Savior. We are a part of the story, and it is through us that the mission of the 70 continues to develop and to grow.

This is a major reason why the gospels were written in the first place, as an invitation to accept the Son of God in our own time and to follow where he leads us. The world has changed dramatically since Jesus first spoke these words, even since Luke recounted them, but the mission continues nonetheless because this has never been simply an interesting tale. It is a part of our day to day lives, instructions for us to follow as we live our calling to be the people of God.

Prayer: Lord, help us to hear your word with clarity and to respond with urgency, that the world may know the good news of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Patience of Faith

Hebrews 6:1-12
Patience is not always something I do well. I find it irritating when I have to wait, especially when I have no control over a situation. Slow moving traffic and long checkout lines are among the things I dislike the most. As much as I hate to admit it, waiting for God is also on that list. Here, too, I can get impatient to the point of exasperation. At various points in my career I’ve felt that God was not responding to me quickly enough, not giving me a sense of call or direction at the speed with which I wanted it and I became very agitated. (Ironically, I’ve even gotten impatient with God today as I wrestled with this blog post and found the writing to be slow going.) Maybe all of this is why the reading from Hebrews today struck a nerve with me.

“And we want each one of you to show the same diligence,” we read, “so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises” (Hebrews 6:11-12). The writer of Hebrews presents us with a dichotomy between spiritual inactivity on the one hand, and diligence, faithfulness, and patience on the other. Put another way, those who, in the words of Isaiah 40, “wait for the Lord” will be sustained in their effort while those who do not are apt to fall away. As is so often the case in scripture, patience is shown to require effort because it is hard work which deserves our full attention.

When I become impatient with what God is doing, I risk turning away from the divine will for my life. I might take matters into my own hands, which is bad enough, but I also might fall into lazy spiritual practices. That doesn’t mean I’m not doing anything. I might be busy with all sorts of activities, but it is what I do to further my spiritual life that determines whether or not I am “sluggish” in the way that the writer of Hebrews uses the term. How do we avoid the trap of impatience with God? According to Hebrews, we work at it “diligently” which I believe could include fervent prayer, acts of generosity and compassion, the study of scripture, regular attendance in worship, participation in the community of faith, and the willingness to share the good news of the gospel just to name a few. This is what it means to actively wait. This is also how our spiritual patience is deepened and any tendency to become sluggish is turned back.

Yes, I get fed up by waiting. Yes, I want things to move more quickly. Yes, I would appreciate it if God moved with a little more urgency as well. But if I am to serve God faithfully I need to live with patience so as not to become sluggish.

Prayer: Almighty God, give us the strength to stand firm in the faith and to await your will to be done. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

God’s Got Soul

Jeremiah 32:36-44
There are a number of places in scripture where God is spoken of in nearly human terms. Phrases referring to “the hand of God” can be found throughout scripture (e.g. Isaiah 5:25) as can those about God’s arm (e.g. Exodus 6:6). There are references to “the apple of [God’s] eye” (Deuteronomy 32:10, Zechariah 2:8) and the call for God to “give ear” to prayer (Psalm 84:8). Perhaps we should not be surprised then by the Old Testament passage for today which includes God’s words, “I will rejoice in doing good to them, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul” (Jeremiah 32:41).

When we use the term “heart and soul” we are usually referring to the entirety of a person, or at least his or her full attention which is undoubtedly what is meant in Jeremiah. God will be completely devoted to meeting the needs of the people, says the prophet, and will be fully engaged in that work. It is, of course, a promise that God is uniquely qualified to make. Few of us have the ability to remain totally absorbed by an activity for a prolonged period of time, but God can and does, throughout history and in countless ways. God focuses all the divine will on creation, on the long process of redemption as fulfilled in Jesus Christ, on emboldening the early church on Pentecost and sustaining it across centuries. Human thoughts wander, interests wane, attention levels fall. New fads rise with disturbing regularity and new ideas clamor for our endorsement. But God remains firmly rooted in the divine work and sees it though to completion. In other words, God has always put heart and soul into the care of humanity.

Then again, the word soul is also used to speak of the intangible nature of an individual, that which makes a man or woman unique in essence and intellect, the creative side of who they are and the very deepest expression of themselves. It also refers to a type of art or music that expresses an authentic humanity, that nearly lives and breaths with pathos. To say that God has soul, then, might be to claim that God knows or experiences the human essence at a truly authentic level, that God understands what it means to be us. And why not? God did create woman and man in the divine image. The fact that we have a soul may simply reflect the fact that God had one to begin with.

Whatever the case, God is in tune with humanity in ways that we cannot fully appreciate or understand, in ways that boggle the imagination and exhaust the mind’s capacity to comprehend. God is with us, heart and soul, guiding us on toward the coming reign, holding us accountable as we stumble, lifting us up when we fall, step by step for as long as we live. Yes, God has soul.

Prayer: God of all, walk with us as we journey toward you so that we may arrive at your new creation and stand in your eternal light. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Do The Right Thing

Romans 12:1-21
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:14-18). I wonder what would happen if we took Paul’s exhortations as seriously as we do some other biblical texts. I wonder what would happen if we challenged ourselves to no longer repay evil for evil with as much vigor as some people of faith use in speaking out against what they consider to be among the more egregious sins. Or if we took Paul’s directions to “live in harmony with one another” to be as essential to a godly life as we hear certain other activities to be contrary to God’s will.

I’ve noticed a tendency on my part to do some picking and choosing when it comes to standards of conduct as a Christian. I’ve also noticed that I’m not the only one. It is terribly easy to make up our own catalogue of dos and don’ts and to add what we feel is appropriate to the list while leaving off some items we aren’t as fond of. The fact is that over and over again in the words of Paul—just as in the words of Jesus before him––the focal point remains love for God and love for one another. With this love comes a willingness to suffer with and to care for those around us. Jesus said that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16), a sentiment echoed by 1 John which says, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (1 John 4:16); Paul himself says clearly that “faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). It all comes down to love and the harmony, and the shared burdens, and the peaceable living, and the willingness to associate with folks from all classes that comes with it. It all comes down to opening our hearts to God in such a way that we also love our neighbors as ourselves.

As we ponder the word of God and God’s will for all people, we must embrace the entire scope of scripture. Yes, God does offer judgment, does seek to correct our sinfulness, does lead us to a more profound sense of righteousness. But first and foremost God calls us to build a community in love and forbearance where no one is haughty and everyone seeks to live in peace with everyone else. I just wonder what that would look like.

Prayer: Almighty God, may our lives be filled with love for you and for each other, and may we be guided in all we do to build a world full of your grace and peace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.