Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Diminishing and Enriching

Tonight in Bible study, as we were all-but-snoozing through Acts 11--this because we had just had an incredible Fat Tuesday feast of pancakes, bacon, country ham, sausage, scrambled eggs, ham, biscuits--I noticed something that I had never seen before.

Acts 11 basically reiterates Acts 10. That is, the experience of Peter in Joppa, preaching to Gentiles of Cornelius' house. The results are swift and dramatic: the Holy Spirit falls on them. Peter, amazed that these Gentiles have been granted the Spirit just as he and his fellow Jewish believers have, orders them baptized. What is crucial is that the Jewish Christians who are with Peter and observe the phenomena are "astounded."

Meanwhile, the Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem who, as chapter 11 begins, hear about the Gentiles' conversion are outraged and, when Peter returns home, demand an explanation. How dare you, they say, go among the Gentiles? Peter recounts the story of Acts 10, and at the end of his testimony the angry Jewish Christians are mollified, are amazed that God is in fact doing what was promised in Joel (pouring-out the Holy Spirit on all flesh).

Here is what occurred to me. The fact that the disciples in Jerusalem accepted his testimony enriched both Peter and his inquisitors. Had they not, both Peter and the Jerusalem Christians would have been diminished, impoverished, belittled.

Likewise, when we are able to trust and accept the testimony of our brothers and sisters, we are enriched by their experience, broadened in our perspective, ennobled. When we reject the testimony of our spiritual friends,we are correspondingly diminished.

Monday, February 23, 2009

At the Bottom of the Mountain

Yesterday was Transfiguration, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany and the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. We remember that strange story of Jesus going up the mountain with Peter, James and John, where he was changed in some way--not so much that the disciples could not tell who he was but enough that the fishermen were both terrified and elated. Not knowing what to say or do they offered to build chapels for Jesus, and for Elijah and Moses, too, who were there on the mountaintop with them for a while.

Our focus is always on that part of the story, on those four characters (or six, counting the Law-giving Liberator and the Prophet; seven, counting the Voice). This week, though, as I have brought my own recent experiences to the reading of the text and the preparation of my sermon, I have been thinking about the other disciples, the ones still down the mountain, those on the outer edge of the inner circle, the ones who for one reason or the other were not invited to go along and therefore were not a part of the experience. Did not have the vision. Did not hear the Voice. Did not share the mountaintop moment.

I'm hip.

I wonder if they wondered why Jesus favored some and not all? Why a few got to see and the rest had to hear. Why one of the three, at least, was always getting it wrong and still got the invite while other, somewhat more steady if not always more faithful of the group did not. I have to say I wonder all of that even if they didn't. About them. About us.

Soon Jesus and the others will come down from the mountaintop and find the rest of the disciples in an argument. A man had brought his sick son for healing, and healing him is something that the disciples had authority to do, ought to have been able to do, tried to do--but failed. Not surprisingly, their sense of failure, prompting a sense of inadequacy, resulted in defensiveness and controversy--a parable of church life, I think. Jesus is annoyed with the whole scene, it seems: with his feckless disciples, with the illness of the child, with the doubt of the man, who by the time Jesus returns has seen so much of the disciples' inabilities he questions Jesus' abilities. Jesus is even irritated with the man: "If I am able?!" he barks at the man's plea, as if to say, "Just whom do you think you are talking to? Of course I am able." Jesus, after all, is the one who really believes.

And the disciples just stand there, in the middle of the battle in a way and as unarmed they can be. Worse: they know they should be armed, should be able, but are not. Maybe if they had been on the mountain and seen a vision. Maybe if they were blessed to be on the inside of the inner circle. Maybe if Jesus had blessed them the way he blessed the others and not left them alone down at the bottom of the hill to do this work that only he seems able to do.

Why is it that some are favored and some are not? I do not know that, but it can be painful to be among the left behind, as it were. I am among the chosen and called. I do believe that. I am not, however, one of the favored chosen or called. I know that all too well. I sometimes think if I knew why all that were true I could do something about it, could earn more favor or blessing--but that is not the nature of "favor" or "blessing," is it? Those dispensations are products of grace, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

Like others waiting at the bottom of the mountain, I have been called. All of us have been commissioned, and Jesus will return to us to finish what we have been unable, in truth, to start. He may chide us for our insufficiencies, but he will love us nonetheless.

If I did not believe that I could not go on.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Sweet Smell of Fish Vomit

The irony is that while I was having my D.Min. students read Eugene Peterson's Under the Unpredictable Plant, I was learning again what fish vomit smells like. See, I thought I was on my way to Tarshish, to a place and a job that seemed an amazing gold ring for my carousel and roller coaster career (to mix a couple of midway machines if not actual metaphors). Once again I am bound for Ninevah, there to preach whatever little message God has given me to preach. I am covered with fish vomit, but that is not a bad thing all in all. It means it matters to God where I am, where I am going, how I am going to work-out this call with which God called so long ago.

I will not bore you with details. There is little comfort in knowing that I was almost but not quite the person "they" were looking for. In any case, it reminded me of a terrible moment in my professional life some seven or eight years ago when I was one of two finalists for a position at the seminary and, to my mind, a shoo-in, when at the eleventh hour and forty-fifth minute another guy emerged and got the job. It was a no-brainer for the school--he was clearly the superior candidate. I know that.

I just didn't feel that. Still, I tried to distinguish between being rejected and being unchosen. They are different things, of course, though each leaves your emotions similarly raw and your knees similarly jellied. And in some ways being unchosen is actually worse, if only because Election, God's choosing, and Covenant are so crucial to our faith history and identity. It is good to publish books and articles...but if no one chooses to read them; it is good to be the finalist or near-that for a glossy job...but if you never get it; it is good to be a husband, a father, a friend...but if others do not choose you every now and then over against some other need or purpose or history, it is pretty disheartening.

So maybe I need to regard fish vomit as the smell of my election and call--which is to say, being one of the often and essentially unchosen by people and institutions, maybe I can smell this harsh detour back to my original destination (as a work-a-day pastor) as a kind of incense and blessing,

In any case, I am not going to Tarshish. Come June I am on the way to Ninevah, though I do not know where that will be precisely. My prayer is that wherever I am on July 1, that will be the place God has given me to serve and, I pray, thrive. If I bloom where I am planted it will be because even the fish vomit was a kind of fertilizer.

Monday, February 09, 2009

These Scotch Presbyterians!

Dr. Samuel Johnson, famously, was incredulous as to whether even "one book of any value on a religious subject" had ever been penned by a member of the Scottish clergy.

It may be unseemly to disagree with Dr. Johnson, but I must. My mentor in prayer is John Baillie, whose A Diary of Private Prayer saved my life. And day by day I am blessed by a little book edited by John Birkbeck, A Private Devotional Diary, which has snippets of sermons and writings from Scottish men and women--clergy, gentry, royals and others.

The entry for this past Friday, from a sermon written by James Henderson (1787-1858), Minister at Galashiels, reads:

"Jesus will never forsake them that truly love him. Though their love be but a feeble spark, he will not suffer it to be quenched amid the trials and troubles of this life, but will watch over it and fan it into a flame. Though their faith be weak, he will give growing distinctness to its views and confidence in the promises it embraces, and make them strong in its exercise, giving glory to God. Though hope may now struggle feebly with doubt and fear, it shall yet fix its anchor firmly within the veil, and comfort the soul that is tossed with tempest, with the sure prospect of an entrance into the desired haven."

I think if Dr. Johnson had read that, or Dr. Baillie's books, he might not have been so dubious. For my part, Wesleyan that I am, I am almost invariably strengthened in my prayers by these Calvinists and their convictions as to the sovereign grace of God.

Friday, February 06, 2009

My heart whispers...

For those who don't pray, and for those whose prayers serve to make them arrogant.

For those who do not read their Bibles, and for those who read to sharpen their "swords" against the imagined enemy.

For those who see no intercourse between the Bible and daily life, and for those who imagine the challenge of scripture can be condensed into a red or blue platform.

For those who are afraid of God, and those who are too chummy with God.

For those who have never experienced the Holy Spirit and because of withered hearts have prevented others from drawing near; and for those who have experienced the Holy Spirit and because of self-righteousness have prevented others from drawing near.

Let our prayers today, O God, make us meek, humble, lowly of heart, ready to serve and to see you in those we serve.

Monday, February 02, 2009


From Carlo Carretto, The God Who Comes.

How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you!

How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you!

I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.

You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand sanctity.

I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.

No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, although not completely.

And where should I go?

Where, indeed?