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Archive for September, 2017

“Welcome to the wilderness,” said the soon to be departing Dean of students at Colgate Rochester Divinity School to all the new seminary students gathered for worship in the Chapel during our first day of seminary.

Little did we know how appropriate that welcome would be, since the wilderness is the place a person enters leaving behind all that came before on the way to a journey to a new place with new relationships and new understandings of who a person or community is and how they are to live.

The wilderness is where the journey through transition takes place, but it can be a scary place and a place where survival is the first priority. That was true for the Hebrews and the other peoples who left Egypt with Moses. Egypt had been the Hebrews settled homeland for centuries where they had lived and thrived as a people, until Pharaoh got scared because they were more numerous than the Egyptians and he thought they might try a regime change by overthrowing him. So, Pharaoh did what every leader who is afraid does, he seeks to destroy his enemies. First, he enslaves the Hebrews, forcing them to work 24/7/365 building pyramids and other public works. Second, he orders Egyptian midwives to kill Hebrew male children, so the Hebrews are forced to intermarry  and have children with Egyptians.

This, of course, prompts the Hebrews to cry out to God, who hears them and answers their prayers by sending them Moses, who battles with pharaoh until pharaoh relents following the death of the first born child of every human and animal, except the Hebrews and those whose doorways were painted with the lamb’s blood, and allows the Hebrews to leave.

Of course, it all seemed wonderful to be leaving behind the life of slavery, oppression and death for a sojourn to the land of promise and abundance and the Hebrews celebrated because being a sojourner, like Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph meant you were on your way somewhere, on your way to the fulfillment of a promised place and a new life. Sort of like the way every seminary student and every college and high school students feels on the first day of their new adventure. Sort of the way I felt as a child every time my family moved to a new town, new city, new neighborhood, new home, and new school, well not so much the new school.

Unfortunately, the Hebrews joyfulness and positive attitude didn’t last long because they realized this wilderness trek made them less sojourner,  less a resident alien, and more wanderers as they began coping with the stress of not having resources at their disposal like food and water, being out in the heat or the cold, subject to drought or famine and warring peoples, who were suspicious of large tribes of wandering peoples, not to mention not really having the sense of being on a journey toward a destination, but mostly just being out there. Even the word wanderer, according to Walter Brueggemann, suggests precariousness where survival is the key question of each and every day. “Will we survive today? Will we have water and will we have food? Where will it come from?  Israel, Brueggemann writes, experiences the bitterness of being landless, being exposed and helpless, victimized by anything that happened to be threatening them at any given moment. The people may have been on the way somewhere, but it was a dim comprehension of where they were going.

In the wilderness, faith is not easy. Anger and unrest are plentiful and reading Exodus and Numbers give ample voice to the whole menagerie of emotions the Hebrews were experiencing. Their wilderness experience is not really unlike that of our European ancestors, who came to this continent feeling they were on an Exodus journey to a new land God seemed to be promising to them, except upon arrival their fears of the wilderness became real, as they too experienced being in a precarious, frightening situation without resources, being victimized by everything, helpless, vulnerable, exposed and struggling for survival. Our ancestors had no actual experience of wilderness because they came from settled lands and in many cases from large urban centers, so they projected their anxieties about wilderness onto the new land they journeyed to get to. Thus, for our ancestors the wilderness was a place where the devil came to get you, it was unsafe and needed to be tamed and civilized so it might resemble the European culture and society they had left behind, a real re-creation of the good old days. Even the indigenous peoples who lived on the land needed to be conquered, enslaved, tamed or annihilated. Reading colonial era poetry, diaries of early colonial settlers or even Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” bears this out.

Curiously enough, congregations in transition feel the same way the Hebrews and our European ancestors felt as they, like the Hebrews, experience wilderness and romanticize the “good old days” while anger, resentments, fear, focusing on survival;  perhaps thinking they are short on resources, and feeling vulnerable, uncertain about where they are going and if they are really going anywhere at all. They feel more like wanderers than sojourners and faith is not easy.

Except, the Israelites were not alone and were not without resources for life because God was with them, leading them, feeding them, giving them water and protecting them, and teaching them how to be a people of compassion, wholeness and well-being. What God was trying to do of course was to mold and shape them into being a particular kind of people. That is, also, what the wilderness experience is about as the desert mothers and fathers called the wilderness the furnace of transformation. The place where all the business and confusion of our lives is burned away, so we might see more clearly how truly important are the choices set before us, choices of life and choices of death. So, we might meet God and gain clarity about what it means to be in a relationship with the divine based on trusting the promises of life God makes with humanity and creation and be transformed by the experience.

This is, also, the lesson Jesus teaches us by his journey into the wilderness furnace of transformation, the first place Jesus goes after his baptism and anointing with the Holy Spirit. There he was tempted by the devil with what Henri Nouwen calls, “the three compulsions of this world: to be relevant (turn stones into bread), to be spectacular (throw yourself down), and to be powerful (I will give these kingdoms). It was in this furnace of transformation that Jesus was tempted to turn away from God the way the first generation Hebrew wanderers did, the way our European ancestors did, the way congregations in transition do, but that isn’t what Jesus did. He affirmed God is the only source of life and identity (you must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone by serving those whom God loves, which is everyone, especially the least and the lost.) and if one trusts God, then there is no need seeking guarantees that the promises of an abundant life are real, nor is there a need to test God to see if God is really listening and paying attention to us. All a person, a community or a congregation need do is to learn the lessons God is teaching through the stories of the Hebrew wanderers, the story of God’s presence with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and the Israelites before, during and after exile as well as the stories of Jesus’ life and the life of the early church, being aware as George Herbert wrote in his poem about the Israelites’ struggles to enter the land God promised them, “their story pens and sets us down” which is to say their story claims those who remember it and retell it, marking and shaping all who do so by the same faithfulness of God, which elicits the same response of trust in God as the person, the community or the congregation live authentically their why, their identity as the reason God created them to serve God’s agenda.

I pray it may be so for us claiming to be a compassionate Christian community, fostering a personal connection with God for people of ages and expressing God’s love through worship, education, mission, music and fellowship living in a time of confusion and chaos where the old techniques and ways of doing church no longer work and we feel more like wanderers than sojourning pilgrims.

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Where, O God, can I flee from you?

Where, O God, can I go hide from you?

These are the psalmist’s questions in Psalm 139 reflecting a radical monotheism that is relational. This is a song of a relationship between psalmist and God that covers the entire breadth of human existence in terms of God’s presence, knowledge and power, the giving and nurturing of an awareness of the Lord as the total environment of life as well as the teaching and confessing that “my times, O God, are in your hands,” according to James Mays’ commentary. This intensely personal devotional song portrays the human self in the light of the work of God as well as God’s work and person as the foundation for the human person’s life. This is not an abstract or systematic writing about who God is and what God does, rather it is the intimate relationship where the psalmist is completely known by God. The Hebrew word translated as “know” indicates this knowledge of God is intimate and deep from the moment of being formed in the womb through birth and into the long daily routines of awakening and sleeping, going out from home and coming back home, working and resting and eating. Nothing is hidden from God and there is nowhere to go to get away from God. The psalmist is never free of God; however neither is he a prisoner of God. Rather he is free to live for and with God, as Mays describes this relationship.

Reading this personal psalm of God being the totality of a person’s life and the encompassing environment for all life contrasts and highlights the foolishness of Jonah, who goes to great lengths to hide from God because he refuses to be the prophet to Nineveh that God has called him to be. Instead, he runs in the opposite direction, tries to hide from God aboard a boat, then in the middle of storm convinces the crew that they can calm the storm by throwing him overboard into the sea, which they do. Then, in the sea he is swallowed by a great fish, as described in Hebrew. It is while he is in the great fish that Jonah prayers a prayer of thanksgiving to God for saving his life, which is humorous because he has been trying to hide from God, trying to hide from the Creator of the Universe. Of course, Jonah’s prayer is answered and the great fish vomits him up onto shore where he begins walking to Nineveh to be the prophet God has called him to be, although he complains to God throughout his time of ministry in Nineveh.

So, when Jesus couples Jonah’s story with Jesus’ death and resurrection it is a sign that God’s transformative love is a call to remember how near we are to God’s love and remember the power of God to transform life as well as remembering the unconditional nature of God’s love to forgive and embrace those who change the direction of their life even if it means God seeking us in the depth of our sorrows and our desire to hide ourselves away from everything and everyone, including God, to lift us up out of our miry bog to place us on a dry, level plain to continue to live for and with God in a greater awareness of God’s encompassing presence and trusting God to sustain life now and for eternity.

What the psalmist is also calling us to realize with the focus on geography, the focus on God being the total environment of life and the focus on God’s participation in our own personal creation is that all life is sacred and connected to each other in relationships of interdependence where what happens to one member of creation impacts and influences other members of creation.

This is profoundly true in our relationship with the land that we are tasked by God to till, tend, and protect and to care for, so it remains able to nurture life and sustain life and which various passages of scripture point out is often a mirror of our relationships within families and within whole communities.

Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel is, but one example of this mirroring effect. Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain is the oldest and is a farmer while his younger brother Abel is a keeper of sheep. They both bring to God offerings from their respective vocations. Abel’s is accepted by God while Cain’s is rejected by God. Cain is angry, dejected and is warned by God that “sin is prowling like a wild animal waiting to overcome you, but you must master it.” Thus, Cain has a choice either master sin or be mastered by sin. Still feeling the rage of his anger, Cain invites his brother into a field and kills him, then walks away. However, the voice of the dirt that absorbed Abel’s blood cries out to God with its own sorrow and grief for the blood spilled in violence because anger, resentment, and rejection had all grown to such overwhelming proportions that Cain could not master sin, but instead sin mastered him. It mastered even his response to God’s question, “where is your brother?” and his retort, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Keeper, the word has more meanings than one who keeps. It means “to exercise loving care for, to watch over, to guard, to preserve, to protect, to tend to the needs of another, to save a life, to sustain life.”

This was the same word “shamar,” in the Hebrew, used in Genesis earlier to describe God’s expectations for the man and woman and their descendants to keep the garden, keeping it able to be fruitful by their serving the land and all creation as they tend to the land’s needs and protecting the land from those elements that might destroy it, making the land unable to be productive and unable to sustain life.

Now, as the land that absorbed the Abel’s blood cries out in sorrow and grief, the fractured and broken relationship of the brothers was, also, given voice as the land’s pollution from violence mirrored the pollution of sin Cain experienced. In the same way that the mark on Cain signified his identity as one who ended life, the infertility of the sacred land, scarred by the blood seeping into it, identifies it as land unable to nurture life or sustain life.

Similarly, Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament scholar and theologian, makes this same point about land mirroring the broken and fractured relationships within families and within the community in his work “The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith” using the themes of contamination of the land, of excluding people from the land and possessing land to fulfill selfish economic actions without regard to the community, and of the defilement of the land. He begins, of course, with Moses’ farewell speech about faithfully living God’s teachings and God’s way of life as the foundation for staying long in the land promised and given to the Hebrews while being unfaithful to God’s way is the basis for the Israelites being exiled from the land and losing the land. Thus, the way the community lives its daily life in all their various relationships impacts what happens with the land.

I doubt that we are strangers to this conversation if we consider how brown field industrial sites have physically divided communities and economically divided communities into those who have more than they need for life and those who do not even have the basic necessities needed to sustain life, not to mention making the contaminated land unable to be used for the nurturing of life and sustaining of life and then reflect about how this violates the command to love your neighbor as yourself and violates God’s call to keep the land. Or, perhaps we might consider the way “mountaintop removal and the accompanying filling up of valleys with the debris from mountain top  is the most destructive way to mine coal, creating unhealthy living conditions for people in nearby communities, eliminating not only  forests and streams but altering a whole ecosystem that can never be restored and forever changing the communities where people live,” according to Kentuckians for Commonwealth. How does this action comport with loving our neighbors or keeping, tending, or lovingly caring for creation as God has called humankind to do?

How do any of the environmental disasters we have witnessed whether from the BP oil spill, the Exxon Valdez, Love Canal, the Chernobyl or the Three Mile Island disasters, or the pollution of rivers by coal mining companies, to name just a few, square with an understanding of our responsibility for the keeping and caring and protecting of the land given to us by God, not to mention the psalmist’s declaration that God is the total environment for life?

As the Seasons of the Spirit commentary reminds us, our choices have consequences for the land. Sacred ground can become scarred ground, whether by shedding blood or by poisoning the soil. So the question for Christians today in light of climate change, Arctic permafrost melting and rising ocean levels is, will we hear the voice of the land crying out to us or will we keep pouring the blood of human violence, contamination, defilement and greed into its mouth, so that we do not have to hear the land’s voice crying out to us or hear God teaching us the way for life to be nurtured and sustained?

How we answer that question will have consequences for how much longer the land will nurture and sustain life for us, our children and all future generations.

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Moses stands high on the rocks above the assembled Hebrews, who are eagerly waiting for the signal to cross the Jordan River and possess the land God promised to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, a promise passed down from father to son and mother to daughter.

After 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness, they are ready to go home and ready to leave the wilderness behind them, letting go of the nomadic way of living. These were a wilderness people because most of them were born and lived all their lives in the wilderness. They are the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of those Hebrews Moses had led away from slavery and death in Egypt to the freedom of a life-giving relationship with God, who gave them a way of living together filled with rich, intimate relationships of authenticity and integrity; a way of life where every person would be living from the center of their being.

That was, of course, exactly what their mothers and fathers had failed to do. A fact Moses points out in the beginning of this last teachable moment. You see, Moses won’t be crossing the Jordon with them. His ministry, the vocation God called him to live, was nearly finished. All he had to do was teach this last lesson then his ministry would be complete. So, he begins this moment by calling the people to remember how they came to be here by reciting the history of their long trek through the wilderness, the good times and the bad times, but especially those times when their parents had failed to choose life by hearing, obeying God and trusting God completely and had, instead, chosen death.

Now, Moses isn’t doing this because he wants to beat up on their parents for abandoning God and God’s way, rather he does it because he is teaching them about the two choices they will have to make, either choosing life or choosing death. There is no middle ground.

And, I will tell you Moses will exhort them to choose life because that is what God wants them to choose, since to choose life is to live within God, within the very heart of God, who is not only the creator of existence, the creator of living substance, but is life itself, which is the meaning of the name Yahweh, the name he told Moses at the burning bush.

Moses will exhort the people to choose life by telling them, “This commandment that I’m giving you today is not too much for you. It is not out of your reach. It is not on a high mountain,-you do not need to get mountaineers to climb the peak and bring it down to your level. It is not across the ocean,-you do not have to send sailors out to get it and bring back then explain it to you before you can live it. This word is right here, as near as the tongue in your mouth, as near as the heart in your chest. It is an easy choice, so just do it, choose life!”

Moses passionately challenges them to make this choice because by choosing life they will choose to live fully their new identity as God’s people from the inside out. You see, the commandments and the instructions Moses gives this people, the same ones he has been giving them for more than forty years, are not simply a set of rules or laws to be obeyed under penalty of punishment or eternal damnation, rather they are teachings to be lived every moment as if breathing air or eating food until each person has fully taken all of them into the very center of their being as part of their being just as surely are their hearts beat within them, sending the image and likeness of God hidden deep within them rising up to the surface and out from them like living water bursting out of rocks and soaking the world around them with God’s love in the concreteness of daily living, making God visible to every person and every nation surrounding them.

They are to be the visible expression of God’s presence in the midst of humanity”on earth, in time, in all the concreteness of the visible, perceptible, tangible world” as theologian Alexander Schmemann has written, so every person and every nation will be blessed with the comprehension of a new, radically different way of being fully human that actually works for the well being and wholeness of every person and nation, united together in the tranquility of God’s peace.

So every person and every nation will come to them and say we want to join your community, but not because the Israelites are so wonderful and perfect, rather because all nations and people will recognize that it is God, who has created this way of life and who has claimed these people as Isaiah says, “This is what the Lord says, he who created you, O Jacob; he who formed you Israel, fear not for I am have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name, you are mine.”

What Moses was teaching them is that they will make God visible to the whole world by the way they live and people will be drawn to God because of their lives. It is what Jesus told his disciples during his farewell discourse in the Gospel of John, “You have seen the Father because you have seen me.  Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11 Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. 12 Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13 I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”  So that God may be glorified.

This is what is affirmed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism in the very first question, “What is the chief end of humankind?” Followed by the answer, “Humankind’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.”

What the people who wrote the Westminster Confession and Catechisms were trying to say is that all human beings are, at every moment of our lives, in a relationship to the living God because God has formed us and shaped us in God’s image and likeness, so we might live the way God intends for us to live in wholeness and peace within the boundaries God has set in place for us.

“The image of God in humanity”, theologian Jack Rogers writes, “is not some particular quality or attribute such as reason or free will or the ability to dominate nature. Jesus Christ is the image of God and what set him apart from his contemporaries is that Jesus was totally obedient to God, who had sent him. The image of God, and the meaning of our humanity, is that we are created in relationship to God, so that when we obey God, as Jesus did, we “image” God by our lives. The thrust of Reformed theology is that we glorify God by living lives of obedient activity.”

You see, Reformed theology is clear that we are not created or summoned by God to a life of self-centeredness interested only in our salvation, agenda, power, or celebrity. It is not my agenda, your agenda, Donald Trump’s agenda or anyone else’s agenda.  We are saved by grace and summoned to serve God’s agenda for sustaining life, ours and creation. We are supposed to seek the glory of God and be pointing people to God by working toward the goals of God’s kingdom. This is what means to live that part of our identity statement, “we will foster a personal connection with God for people of all ages.”

God provides all we need for life and is with us, even when we wade through the deep water, walk through fire or need a lift up out of a miry bog and be set down a dry, level plain. All we need to do to show our gratitude for all God does for us is act on God’s agenda for this world by choosing life, choosing God’s way of peace, so all will see how wonderful it is to live God’s way of life. May it be so for you and for me.

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