Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Breast Plate of Aaron

In 2006 I got a book from the Bishop to encourage daily devotions, it was basically a journal with a space to write some prayers and a guide for reading through the Bible in a year. Each year since I have attempted to use this book as a way of encouraging good Bible reading habits. This year I started late, so I actually skipped most of January rather than try and scramble to catch up as I was just getting started with my new healthy Bible reading habit. This is probably fine since I made it through all of January the last two times I did this anyway. The guide basically has a person reading from one book in the Hebrew Bible and one book from the New Testament at the same time. So as I started on this project I jumped into the beginning of the book of Acts and the middle of Exodus. For the last two days I have been experiencing the fascinating tension of reading about the church in Acts and its struggles with the established religious authorities at the same time as I have been reading about the establishment of the religious authorities in Exodus. In particular I have been reading through the 5+ chapters that detail the Temple, the priestly class, and how to make the vestments of Aaron and his sons.

I am never sure what to do with the details of Exodus 25-29, while important historically, I cannot see how they help the Church today. Is there value in attaching ourselves to the symbols of the past? What do we do with the bloody nature of the early rituals? How does all of this relate to the sermon of Stephen in Acts 7 where he seems to emphasize that one of the largest fallacies of the Jewish tradition is that God can be contained in a temple. Without the need for a temple is there a need for a priestly class and priestly ritual? I guess what I am pondering right now, and have done almost every year, is beyond historical value, what can be gained from the descriptions of the ancient traditions of the Jewish faith, for Christians or for Jews. Just one more thing to think about.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

21st Century Rosary

I remember reading an article somewhere that talked about how men tend to compartmentalize relationships more than women do. Women tend to want someone, especially their spouses, to be the primary source for most things. Men on the other hand tend to break things down more, there is the friend you watch football with, or the person you vent about politics with, no one person needs to meet every need, even the your spouse. As I look at my own life this makes some sense n how I live my life and so on. I can remember one particular instance when I was really having a hard time with something and needed support. I remember pulling out my cell phone and flipping through my directory, looking at each name, trying to decide who would best understand what I was going through, who could give me the right kind of support.

I was thinking about this event the other day, and realizing that it provided me with an excellent idea for a 21st Century rosary, not that there is something wrong with the age old version. I have not yet done it yet, but I think it would be an interesting spiritual discipline to take out a cell phone everyone now and again and pray through it, pausing at each contact to say a pray for them. It seems to me it would help in remembering our interconnectedness and I find it easier to ask things for other people than I do for myself. I am not sure if it is something that would be doable on really regular basis, but I think it is worth trying and some point and would be curious if others tried it what they thought.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Getting Old

I am 26, going on 27 and I am well aware that by most people's standards I am not old. However, I am still at a point where I can begin to feel the effects of age, or really the fact that I am leaving the critical time period of an athlete that is the late teens and early twenties. A week ago I went cross-country skiing with my family and some of this was brought home to me. I simply do not have the same level of fitness I had four or five years ago. Some of this is a factor of a job that involves lots of sitting and lots of potlucks. Some of it is a factor of the fact that try as I might I am not good at exercising regularly, and some of it is just the reality that I have not skied in years. While my skiing experience brought to mind my current lack of conditioning, the more telling point for me was about two months ago when I fenced for the first time in probably 18 months. In case my readers are wondering, I am referring to the Olympic sport of fencing, not the act of putting up fences, nor the selling of illegal goods on the black market. I fenced actively all through college and even during seminary. In the midst of this there are several times that I engaged in highly intense and fatiguing fencing tournaments, fencing while sick, fencing on little to no sleep, etc. That being said, when I fenced again after so long a break in November, I had a unique experience for me, I was actually unable to do what I wanted to do. Fencing usually has a great adrenaline producing effect for me, allowing me to overcome many of the physical hardships I listed above, however on this occasion, as willing and fired up as my spirit was, my body was simply not able to do all the things I wanted it to do. As with the cross-country skiing last week, when I needed the body to perform it sent back a reply of "no." Which leads me back to my statement of me getting old, which is where I think this post gets interesting.

Getting old in fencing is not actually a bad thing, in general, while younger fencers tend to be more athletic, energetic, and otherwise "good", older fencers, especially the good ones, have something going for them that most younger fencers are severely deficient in, wisdom. When I fence someone younger than me, I often find they tend to really heavily on the knowledge that they can do whatever they need to to win. Older fencers are far more dangerous, because they know they cannot do whatever needed to win. Older fencers know their limits, which makes them harder to fence. One of the things I am realizing as I get more and more involved in my ministry is that the sooner I know my limits, the better off I will be. Now I know there is a danger in overstating one's limits, so that a person, or a congregation, does not think they can do anything, but at the same time, I think there is great value in knowing what it is we can do well, and knowing what is we need to ask for help on, whether that is asking God, or our neighbor, or just knowing that this is something we should not do.

I am getting old, I just hope I can gain some of the wisdom needed to survive along the way.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Radical Ability to Change

Over the last year I have been in looking at systems of change and how to create a process of change in congregations that are helpful and healthy, so that the congregation will be prepared to change again in the future as needed. Anyone who has spent a long time working in a church knows that it is often the simplest things, like changing the color of the carpet in the sanctuary that can create the largest fights amongst good Christians. The famous seven last words of a church are "we've never done it that way before." Change is not something that comes easily to people in general and the church in particular. Today I was told the story of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet and the work they did in the Twin Cities area. The most interesting part of their profound and energizing story was one that happened very early on. When the Sisters first arrived in St. Paul they started out by opening up a school to teach. A few years into their experience, a wave of cholera swept through St. Paul. As the story was told me, the Sister's took down the sign above their school that said "St. Josephy Academy", crossed out academy and wrote "hospital" and then they hung the sign up again.

What I want to know is how do we in the church get to that point? How do we get to the point where we are not only listening to where the spirit is calling us, we are actually willing to act on what we hear? How do we get to the point that we can not only see Christ in our neighbors and in our community, but we can also reach out to him and follow him where he will lead us? I work so hard to help the churches I serve to have a vision that there are times I am ready to settle for any vision, rather than working for us to find God's vision for us.

I think churches need to have the sort of flexibility that the Sisters have. When I think about church buildings, it seems we often build them in a way that does not lend them to change. We build houses of worship that do not have a lot of functionality, even for different forms of worship. I am not saying we need to build churches that are nothing more than empty shells, waiting to be filled, but we do need to see them as being more than what they are today, remembering that what they are needed for tomorrow could be something different. Sometimes the biggest problem with churches is not how the spaces are designed, but how they function in our mind. Sometimes the problem is not that we cannot use the space for something, but in our heads we cannot.

Jesus reminds us that the Sabbath was made for humans, not humanity for the Sabbath. Churches are made for us as well. I think we need to look at how we continue to be open to the new ways that God is calling us into action in the world. We in the church need to learn to shape ourselves in ways that are flexible to how the winds of the spirit blow in our lives, how God wants to shape us and mold us, each and every day. I do not know what it will take too live like that, to be like that, but the more I think on this, the more I want to shape my life and my ministry in that way.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Challenge of Coming to Jesus

One of the things that I have struggled with and in some ways almost regretted was that I lack a "come to Jesus" moment in my life. It is not that I have lived a perfect life, nor is it that I have never experienced God's grace after my mistakes and failings, it is simply that because of being raised in a strong faith community, I have never really known a life that was not about following Christ. I know I am not alone in this, but it has always made it a little harder for me to talk about and understand the process of someone "coming to Jesus" and giving themselves up fully to God and trusting in God's grace to save them.

I went to the dentist the other day, this is significant because throughout my life, dental hygiene has always been a weak point for me, something about my personality or something does not lend itself well to daily disciplines carried out over an extended period of time. For this reason, my trip to the dentist was overdue and certainly needed. The act of going to the dentist gave me a better understanding of what it is like to start seeking after faith. In order to go forward I need to recognized my nature as a dental sinner. As I filled out the paperwork for their records their questions further cemented in my mind how much a "sinner" I was. It took a certain amount of commitment and fortitude on my part to deal with all of this. Here I was, surrounded by all these people with clean, shining white teeth, further emphasizing my own fallen nature. It was a great humbling and enlightening experience. I gained a great deal of insight and respect for those people who find a way to turn towards faith. It certainly offered me some insights into what I need to do in the church to try and make it a more welcoming place for people who struggle and are in great need of grace. There is a reason that alcoholics seek each other for support and do not simply try and surround themselves with people who never drink. There is a reason that old established churches do not always attract unchurched people. The danger of the church is that as we experience grace and begin to improve, we lose the empathy we have for those who are still struggling. I know I have heard people in the church talk about those outside the church and wonder, usually about those young people, and how they can live such terrible lives. Those of us on the inside wonder how they can ignore the need for grace in their lives and keep living like that. As I think about it, the reality for me dentally speaking, was not an ignorance of my "fallen" state, nor was it because I did not know what I needed to do to make my life better. What held me back was the shame of admitting my problem, of having to bring my imperfect and flawed smile to be treated by people with apparently glistening teeth. Going to the dentist I had no way of knowing the cavities my hygienist had gotten in her life, and so even though she did not mean, I felt judged in comparison. I think we in the church are guilty of the same, hiding our sin and in doing so we hurt ourselves and all those who are struggling with their own shame who do not see our darkened nature, but only the glistening appearance we show to the world. We in the church need to continue offer grace, but also to continue to remember how much we need it as well, to share our failings so others are comfortable sharing theirs too.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Marvels of Technology

In some ways I am old when it comes to technology. I am old enough to remember, though vaguely the days of floppy disks that were actually floppy, and perhaps more obviously now, I am old enough, the barely, that texting does not come naturally to me, really I am right at the cusp of generations and the technology that accompanies them. That being sad I still pride myself on my use and knowledge of technology. In spite of all of that, I found it fascinating that yesterday, while I watched the results of the Iowa caucuses on television and check on them on-line, when it came to starting to work on my sermon, the instrument I reached for was a pen and a pad of notebook paper. For some reason everything has its place in my mind. I blog on my laptop, even at times like right now when I could just as easily do it on my desktop. When it comes to writing I use pen and paper. I think what I like pen and paper is the impermanence of the ideas. If something gets recorded on the computer it seems so much neater and more official. When I brainstorm things on the computer I try to get it all right. When I am just working on the rough draft of my sermon it starts out on scraps of paper or a notepad, sometimes sermons never even make it to the big screen of the computer, but go straight from notepaper to my pulpit on Sunday morning. I guess this is just one more reminder that as great as technology is, everything has its place, and for me the as yet undeveloped thoughts and ideas for a sermon belong on paper, where I can scratch them out, jot notes along the margins and feel like they are still nothing more than ideas, swirling on the paper before me. As for this idea, I think it is finished, have a nice night.