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Archive for the ‘transformation’ Category

“You are free to make whatever choice you want, but you are not free from the consequences of the choice,” writes an Anonymous author.

“ There will come a time when we will have to sit down to a banquet of our consequences,” writes Robert Louis Stevenson.

“My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground on which I stand,” writes Thich Nhat Hanh.

All three of these quotes affirm the same truth; we all make choices or decisions and the consequences of those choices or decisions are ours. We own them whether we like it or not. I imagine Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, and Bowe Bergdahl are discovering that very truth along with many other folks.

Now, sometimes we see those consequences clearly, but more often than not we fail to see all the consequences of our choices, those we intend and those we discover later as unintended consequences.

Certainly, the Hebrews in the wilderness failed to see all the consequences of their choice to abandon God in favor of worshiping a golden calf made out of their ornaments and jewelry. Yet, Moses knows that without God’s presence this “stiff-necked people” will have a hard time being the distinctive people God intends them to be. They will not be able to live into God’s way of living as the community of God’s people because they have not, yet, learned how their trust in God is connected to how they are to live in the world as the message of God’s grace and as a community where everyone belongs and is valued with dignity and respect.

This message of God’s grace invites everyone to come and join the community of God’s people, so they may see how life nurturing and life sustaining is this way of living in relationship with God and with each other. This is the reason God choose Abraham and Sarah in the first place and continued to choose this family as the instrument God will use to bless the world with wholeness and peace because God intends for everyone in the world to live together in this way of wholeness and peace.

Yet, the consequences of the Hebrews’ choices puts this relationship and way of living at risk because they failed to comprehend that faith in God has serious, but unavoidable consequences for daily life, from the most mundane issues to questions of life and death, particularly, as they live surrounded by cultures whose political, social and religious values are opposed to God’s way of being fully human.

Indeed, the Hebrews do not realize, at this point in their journey, that their identity as God’s people is part of an interwoven conversation about who God is and who they are because of their relationship with the God who creates life, saves life, and sustains life.

They do not realize that knowledge of God leads them to knowledge about themselves, individually and communally. Nor, do they realize that our ultimate obligation to God sets the boundaries and limits to all other obligations of our life, even recognizing we are defined by our relationship and connectedness to God, not by anything else.

The Hebrews’ problem was that they were like the group of alumni of a university who were all highly established in their careers and who got together to visit their old university professor. Conversation soon turned into complaints about stress in work and life. Offering his guests coffee, the professor went to the kitchen and returned with a large pot of coffee and an assortment of cups — porcelain, plastic, glass, crystal, some plain looking, some expensive, some exquisite — telling them to help themselves to the coffee.

When all the students had a cup of coffee in hand, the professor said: “If you noticed, all the nice-looking, expensive cups were taken up, leaving behind the plain and cheap ones. While it is normal for you to want only the best for yourselves, that is the source of your problems and stress.

Be assured that the cup itself adds no quality to the coffee. In most cases it is just more expensive and in some cases even hides what we drink. What all of you really wanted was coffee, not the cup, but you consciously went for the best cups. And then you began eyeing each other’s cups.

Now consider this: Life is the coffee; the jobs, money and position in society are the cups. They are just tools to hold and contain life, and the type of cup we have does not define, nor change the quality of the life we live. Sometimes, by concentrating only on the cup, we fail to enjoy the coffee God has provided us.” God brews the coffee, not the cups. So, enjoy your coffee!

Enjoying the coffee-enjoying life as “God’s people” and recognizing how the choice to trust God has serious, but unavoidable consequences for daily life is the difference between where the Israelites in wilderness were and where the Thessalonians were.

The Thessalonians had done something quite remarkable in the middle of living in the vibrant seaport trading and cultural center of a major Roman city; they made the choice to turn to God away from the idols everyone else worshipped and served. They turned to serve the true and living God. Paul’s letter celebrates this choice, which was so complete that they became the examples for other Christian congregations in Macedonia and Achaia to emulate. Their spirit- derived joy empowered them to maintain their faith, their love and their hope and become the living messages of the gospel-the embodiment of God’s good news in Christ, even as they struggled against persecution from their families and their neighbors.

The church at Thessalonica, of course, was not merely a model where faith, hope and love were held onto like a display in a museum just waiting for people to walk past and admire, rather the church was the place from which the message of faith, the testimony of hope and the power of love went forth into in the world every day. Yet, at the same time, it was also a safe place-a sanctuary- where people lacking faith, feeling hopeless, feeling unlovable could find the great blessings of grace and belonging.

In many ways, every church, including ours, should be such a sanctuary where people in need of the good news of Jesus Christ and the great blessings of the grace and belonging can find them. The first-century Christians got that point, by the way. They saw the church as a safe place to go to survive life’s storms and calamities. One of the first symbols that the early Christians used to represent the church was Noah’s ark, the vessel on which representatives of all living creatures found refuge during the catastrophe of the great flood. The ark was the place from which those surviving people and animals went forth to participate in God’s re-creation of life as a community of mutuality and interdependence.

In similar fashion, the early Christians considered the church as the place from which God’s living messages of grace went forth into the world bringing the story of God’s saving grace to a world in need of faith, love, and most importantly, hope. That’s the reason churches have stained-glass windows of Noah’s ark or the dove with an olive branch in its beak as well as why many sanctuaries were constructed in the shape of a boat and why the pulpit was set up high above like a crow’s nest from which the leaders could see the horizon, see the coming storms, the rocky shoals, or the land where the ship might anchor and be resupplied before continuing its journey.

And, while you’re pondering all of that, think about the importance of faith, love, and hope as blessings of God’s grace and the way we, who are the church bring those blessings to others.

        First, the church is the place where faith is offered without embarrassment. There is an old saying that Christianity is always only one generation away from extinction. Without the passing of the knowledge about Christ and the testimony of faith from parents to children, from elders to youth, from those convinced of the faith to those who have not yet heard it, Christianity might eventually either die out altogether or be reduced to a curious historical phenomenon. Now we could make that one-generation-away-from-extinction statement about many things in life — about technology, skills, scientific discoveries and so on — but with Christianity, what is passed on is not only knowledge, but also the assertion that the meaning of daily life and the path of life is found in Jesus Christ.

Some youth workers, Christian educators and pastors today are wondering, “Will our children have faith?” They observe that young people today are actually quite interested in God, Christ and Christianity, but they aren’t particularly turned on by institutional expressions of it. There is a phenomenon afoot among some in the younger generations who individually express their love for Jesus but not for the church of Jesus. Individual spirituality is a good thing, but it seldom is enough single-handedly to pass the faith to the next generation. It takes communities of Christ’s followers to do that in an intentional way realizing that faith is caught in an environment where people are living their trust in God, expressing their trust in God in worship, and maturing their trust in God through the intentional discipleship of life-long learning; especially the discipline of consistent Bible study and theological reflection all done within a community of faith.

Second, the church is a place where love is exercised without limits. Jesus told us to love our neighbor, and as we in the church understand that, he wasn’t talking about emotions but about behavior. He was talking about acting in ways that support the well being of others as opposed to exploiting other people. And when we really grasp that Jesus is calling us to love others as God loves us, calling us to compare the way we are treating our families, our neighbors, the guy who is annoying at work or the woman who is hard to get along with at the gym to the way God treats us and all other people, then we realize we come up short, but that doesn’t let us off the hook because it ought to cause us to dig deeper by realizing that love has no stopping point where we can say, “There, I’ve done my duty, and now I can forget about that person.”

        Third, the church is the place where hope is nourished without delusion. Certainly there are ample reasons to lose hope in life. In fact, it’s fairly easy to experience despair, because in the day-to-day flow of life it often seems so much more credible than hope. There’s generally plenty of evidence around us to encourage and engender despair, especially listening or reading to the news, tweets, or what happens to our neighbors and friends. But we in the church understand that hope is not rooted in what happens in the present moment. The hope the church shelters believes the kingdom of God is here, now and will come in fullness, without denying life’s sometimes tragic character or attempting to explain away tragedy as “God’s will.”

Hope is not some sort of wishful thinking that those of us with strong enough gumption can somehow muster up from some mythological place, like fantasyland. Rather, hope is the steadfast trust that when all else fails, when every other support gives way, our lives remain in God’s hands. The writer of Deuteronomy spoke of this hope when she said, “The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Deuteronomy 33:27, RSV). The image Deuteronomy suggests is of God’s arms creating a “floor” under us so that no matter how far down the weight and even the tragedy of life pushes us, we have a solid foundation on which to find our footing. Our task as the community of faith is to nourish this hope by being the strong advocate for hope in a community and a world too easily and too quickly grasping for the comfort of hopelessness.

Finally, faith, love and hope are the foundations and the fruit of a community of faith’s life as Paul certainly made clear in writing to the Corinthians, when he wrote at the end of the wonderful chapter about love, “And now faith, hope, and love abide.” They dwell together in a community of God’s people. That is, why he once again points to those three at the very beginning of his letter to the Thessalonians, “We continually remember before God, our Father, your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  When we look for the blessings rising from the community of faith’s life together, these three rise to the surface: faith, love, and hope. They are God’s blessings for life given to us, so we might be living messages of grace blessing the lives of other folks.

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“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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