Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Soul Food Fest

This was a good day in God's house among his people, ending with a Nowthwest Conference Meeting in the evening at historic First Covenant in Minneapolis, one of many planned by Conference leaders this year in celebration of its 125 years of ministry and outreach.

It was a soul food fest, drawing my spirit as I participated back to childhood days when churches would gather all over the north side of Chicago to worship and celebrate God's goodness. Only now the souls gathered and fed were more diverse, as is the Covenant everywhere these days.

What touched me most deeply was the intergenerational nature of the food served up--soul food in the best sense: children's and congregational singing, various ethnic groups represented in the reading of Scripture and the preaching, a witness from our camps in the conference, and a marvelous story told by Dr. Philip Anderson of our Seminary in Chicago of a pioneer pastor and huistorian among us who even while dying wanted to share with his peers in ministry and anyone else who would listen the importance of staying focused on the good news of God's grace.

Topping the evening off was a passionate message by Efram Smith of Sanctuary Covenant, reminding us all from 1 John 4 of what we already knew but are often in danger of forgetting, i.e. that our future is tied to our past and may be, as David Nyvall once said, the nearest path to our future. "We are as a people the overflowing of God's grace in this world," Efram said, "Mission Friends who care about the communities and world in which live. We are called to love one another, and warned that such love must be evidenced by our faithfulness to core values in our history such as not only sharing Christ with the lost but promoting justice and mercy in his name on behalf of the least."

Something came together in the spirit of the whole evening that fed my soul. From all I could gather it fed the souls of others as well. Is God leading us into a new springtime of joy in believing and belonging, even richer now for spanning the diversities that are making fellowship and communion with one other in Christ's body daily more rich?

If Efrem is right, as I believe he is, there is more than enough reason to be hopeful going forward if we remain true to who we are in Christ. In this assembly of believers every one has a place to serve and be honored and noone can claim to love God who refuses to love and care for their brothers and sisters and holds back from witnessing to their neighbors.

Thank you, God, for a great day among your people. I am content now to go to bed for the rest I need. I also anticipate awakening in the morning more fully alive to both the challenges and opportunities that await me as a Christian and a Covenanter called to serve you and your people and your world.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Poor Proofing: Should We Laugh or Cry?

John Lund, an attorney friend in Wisconsin, sent me a list of some crazy newspaper headlines that some editor forgot to proof before they were published. They're really fuuny, even when they misrepresent tragedy. Hope you enjoy them as I have. Hope, too, you cringe a little, as every good editor should for allowing them to go through:

Man Kills Self before Shooting Wife and Daughter.

Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Experts Say.

Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers.

Miners Refuse to Work after Death.

Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant.

War Dims Hope for Peace.

If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile.

Enfield (London) Couple Slain: Police Suspect Homicide.

Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges.

Man Struck By Lightning: Faces Battery Charge.

New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group.

Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft.

Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half.

Hospitals Are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors

And the winner is:

Typhoon Rips Through Cemetery: Hundreds Dead

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Discord and Harmony

I have been wondering a lot lately about the relationship between discord and harmony in life. In part, my preoccupation has been triggered by political forums that seem to be getting more and more ballistic in nature and less civil in tone. Even in Christian circles where we know our unity to be in Christ, believers on all sides of any particular issue tend to hunker down behind walls protecting their own preferences--in music and worship, for example--than to center on seeking in common Christ's will and way.

I am thankful for every reminder that the tensions separating us from each other are not new. It is also important, I realize, not to see discord as separate entirely from harmony. After all, honest differences of opinion can help to correct false harmonies that themselves are discordant with truth. They can also, as in music, add richness to the score, notes that waken us from the sameness in our hearing, jarring us to attention.

Surely there is a higher road we need to negotiate in dealing with each other in the body of Christ. And, in my own mind, taking that higher road requires a renewed commitment to focus on Christ and listen carefully for the signs of his presence in the thought and life of others, no matter how different from us.

Sparring with one another will get us nowhere, for what we communicate in that sparring-- even though we may deny it--is a kind of body-language disdain that is less than helpful and only furthers our divides. Nor is it helpful to ask surrogates to speak for us, thus avoiding the civil and personal conversations that honor every one's place in Christ's body.

May the Lord help each of us to understand, as David Nyvall once wrote, that "even the best interests may become discordant and inharmonious. But they may also be in concord and tuned to a harmonious hymn [of] praise [to] the Lord."

We cannot live behind walls of our own making. We must move out to one another in love, not afraid to express our feelings, but open as well to what Christ may be saying to us through others. In the long run, praying for and seeking together the will of our Lord will be far more rewarding than simply seeking life on our own terms. "He who seeks his own life," Jesus said, "will surely lose it. But he who loses his life for my sake and the gospel's shall find it."

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Breaking the Tyrannies of Time

Time as a sequence of events has us all in its grasp it seems. Ask people how they are--even in retirement--and their common response is often "busy." Time is too often marked sequentially by events and meaning tied to the number of them in which one is involved.

"Unfilled, time is a threat," Bruce Chilton writes in Redeeming Time: the Wisdom of Ancient Jewish and Christian Festal Calendars (Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), "and under that threat people commonly speak of being depressed." Time thus becomes something to be filled, scheduled, marked by daily calendered events that measure our worth as persons.

Chilton argues that in biblical narrative and the histories of Judaism and Christianity this dominance of time as interval over time as rhythm has been broken. Dark sequential events that often dominate the landscape of our lives are not equal in power to the rhythmic patterns of light that shine through biblical revelation and subsequent Jewish and Christian faith and worship.

In times of terror like 9/11 and the seeming impasses in Iraq and Afghanistan, people of faith are given a rhythm of action that allows them to respond in ways that are not normally seen or even imagined. "The enduring Torah, the timeless Christ--along with their myriad reflections in philosophy and art and belief, and their counterparts in other global religions--have on many occasions shattered the illusions of this world and [its] pretense to dominion over time."

He or she is wise who looks to and for such rhythms in life. For in, with, and under the struggles that mark our lives--the chronological events in which we all too often seek meaning and purpose--are deeper, long-range patterns of divine/human engagement that are far more important and fulfilling.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Change Me, God, and Then the World

A slender, bold, black-on-white sign is attached to the outside wall approaching the Prayer Room in our church. Though there over time and a bit bedraggled, I had not really noticed it-- much less paid attention to what it said--until yesterday, in a solitary moment, passing by on my way to greet the preschoolers on the other end of the building.

"Bold persistent prayer works," it proclaimed. "First it changes us. Then it changes the world." I stopped momentarily in a room further down the hall to write it down in my datebook and discovered that fleeting as my memory is I needed to go back to get it right. The rest of the day and through last night it has haunted me--almost like a word from God, hanging in the air all around until it accomplishes what he sent it out to do in me.

Have you noticed how easy it is to be defensive spiritually, hunkered down in your little self, wanting somehow to avoid life's threats and challenges, either by pretending they are not real or by shoving them off as someone else's responsibility? In your own impatience and sometimes even disgust over the opinionations of others, have you faced recently your own facile opinionations concerning them and the world at large?

Thoughtless prayer, aimed as much at others as to God, is hardly useful. It might actually be more hurtful than helpful, no matter how many hours one might spend exercising it. But "bold persistent prayer works," because it changes us first into vessels of the caring grace God is out dispensing in his passion to change the world.

Change me, God, praying as I write. Break down every middle wall of partition that separates me from you and every other human being and circumstance. "Purge me with hyssop and I will be clean.... Fill me with joy and gladness.... Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.... Then I will teach transgressors your ways and sinners will return to you" (Psalm 51:7,8,10,13).

Sunday, September 13, 2009

God Bless the Doorkeepers!

Rally day is always a festival day for me. The joys of believing are specially entwined with the joys of belonging as one finds one's way to the House of God. What a privilege we are given to gather with God's people week after week.

On arriving today I was reminded also once again of the care given that House in preparation for our coming--hardly noticed by many, perhaps, consistent as it is. We have more or less come to expect it. Hidden disciplines extended, day by day and week after week, tending to floors, walls, and carpets--not to mention all the special setups required of doorkeepers who thus minister to us by facilitating our worship, study, and fellowship.

A day in thy courts is better than a thousand, the psalmist says (84:10a). Indeed! That's exactly how I felt from arriving until leaving God's House today. And I realized the whole time while there how in no small measure the pleasure of it was due to staff colleagues who in devotion no less than mine--perhaps even greater--silently make their witness to what the psalmist then goes on to say, I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness (84:10b).

May God help us as ministers to be as faithful in our preparations for serving God's people as those doorkeepers are who prepare the way for us who come in and go out from God's House week after week. And may he give us the grace not only to recognize their combined efforts but offer each of them personally out thanks as well!

Monday, September 7, 2009

Why Write?

On this Labor Day I am making my way through Ralph Wood's recent book on Flannery O'Connor, arguably in his view the greatest Christian writer in 20th century America. The book catalogues her fascination with what he calls "the Christ-Haunted South," which is the nexus out of which she wrote. A devout Catholic, O'Connor was both fascinated by and admiring of the a fundamentalist Baptist tradition that she saw--in its spirit if not always its theology--as an antidote to the pervasive nihilism in both the secular and religious life of her time.

O'Connor's writing is not an easy read. Her short stories, the main body of her work, are filled with weird characters and strange evocative narrative that seem on the surface almost scandalous and therefore irrelevant, less than acceptable to average people. Yet time spent in them creates in one a passion for reading more of her and her characters--largely I think because they point to a passion for the life of faith that unmasks the trivialities that so dominated the secular and religious life of her time.

Afflicted with lupus and dying already in her thirties, the tenor of her spirit remains a haunting reminder to all of us that death itself, as she once wrote, is "the most significant position life offers the Christian," just as, Wood reminds us, the psalmists say in 39:4 ("Lord, make me to know mine end and the measure of my days, what it is; that I may know how frail I am") and 90:4 and 12 ("So teach us to number our days ... that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom").

With a deft sense of style as well as humor, and a dogged determination not to think of herself as anything special, this literary giant put her whole vocation as a writer in wonderful perspective. Reflecting on Jesus parable of the talents she wrote a friend, "The human comes before art. You do not write the best that you can for the sake of the art but for the sake of returning your talent increased to the invisible God to use or not use as he sees fit."

No wonder being dead she yet speaks so powerfully and redemptively. The God she loved and believed in so passionately is seeing to that.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Christ's Body, the Church

In his annual report to our denomination this year, Covenant President Gary Walter used an image that we all do well to heed. It had specifically to do with how we see ourselves as individuals in relation to our local church, and how we see ourselves as churches in relation to the denomination. Taking us back to root understandings when the Covenant was founded, he laid out before us as individuals and churches a powerful--and I believe biblical--reminder:

"Did you ever stop to think that we chose for ourselves the name The Evangelical Covenant Church, not The Churches of the Evangelical Covenant? We purposefully chose the single, more organic name Church.

"It intentionally invokes Paul’s teaching on the living Body of Christ…made up of many parts, yes, but never standing apart from one another. “Churches” for me has an organizational implication of retaining separateness; “Church” as a living organism has the implication of essential oneness and unity."

What a difference that understanding has made in my life. From childhood it supplied to and in me a security that being essentially on my own could never have supplied. It not only planted my spirit in the rich loam of being "In It Together," as President Walter has now termed it, but set me free from the awful spectre of continually wondering, like so many are these days, "How am I doing?"

The greatest challenge of our time in my view, religiously and politically, is to rediscover our identity--where "home" is for us, the place from which we venture out to work in the Lord's vineyard every day and return at night to renew and rest our spirits.

I once asked an earnest and energetic young man part-way into a local church job interview, "Where is home for you,?" Not lacking in ideas as to his ministry and his gifts, that query somehow struck him to the quick. "That's a great question," he replied, "I'm not sure I know!" What was supposed to be a half-hour interview turned into a two-hour dialogue that moved us both. And on rising after prayer, before leaving, he asked simply, "Could I have a hug?"

The Covenant Church we have inherited as Church--one body of churches conjoined in Christ--is a treasure. What becomes of it now moving forward depends on whether we heed our President's wise reminder that we are "In It Together."

Are you praying for, present with, and supportive of the whole body we are as a Covenant Church, not to mention Christ's larger body of which it is only a part? Is the Covenant just a cardboard house for you to do your own thing, or a home your inhabit and care about with all the others who bear its name with you in the larger body of Christ?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Meet Alice and Art

I first met them three or four years ago, while serving as Interim Pastor at Salem Covenant Church. I had heard that Alice had taken sick and was soon to be hospitalized. So I phoned their home to inquire if I might visit them, and was greeted by Art's voice. "Today would not be a good day," he said. "I'll be gone all afternoon." I asked him to take my number and call me back when it would be convenient and was startled to hear him say, "I can't. I'm blind."

Here was a woman whose long pilgrimage through illness has led now to chemo treatments for cancer. And a loving husband whose own condition, I later discovered, not only included blindness but a serious heart condition as well. Every visit I have made to the Blaisdell home since then, not to mention Unity Hospital, has left me praising God for these two.

Blaisdell seems an appropriate name for them, almost parabolic in the sound of it. Blazing their way together through life's dell, helpless in one way healthwise, but for the most part stable in spirit--even cheerful. People of faith, hope, and love. Uncomplaining in adversity. Wanting our prayers, of course, and glad for our presence alongside. Yet not clutching straws, realistic and in their own way vibrant.

We laughed last night about that first phone call, and in the glow of evening talked openly about all that lies ahead--for her and for him. Turning to Scripture I read from the Psalms, Matthew, and Romans, clearly food for their souls. You could see it in their eyes. I prayed--asking God to sustain their spirits and give them hope. Then Alice took over, wanting to tell me about of her recent trip with her daughters--over 3,000 miles by car no less--to extended family in far away Idaho and all that meant to her. In her condition family wanted her to fly but she insisted she wanted an auto trip. When it was time to go, I asked them to rise, gathered them close, and with my hands on their heads pronounced the benediction.

As I drove off, Art was standing at the door, buoyed in spirit, I believe, as if longing for more. And I was in tears of gratitude for the privilege God has given me just to visit such saints in light, whose lives and spirits in spite of their condition are such a powerful witness to the things in life that remain and matter for Christians.

Surely God himself has blest and kept Alice and Art. Clearly he is still making his face to shine upon them and be gracious to them. Yet not only so. Time and again, through them, he is also lifting up the light of his countenance on me.