Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Word on Wednesday: Mark 11:15-19

One of the stories from scripture associated with Holy Week is that of Jesus "cleansing" the Temple. This story appears in all four Gospels, with the synoptics placing it during the final week of Jesus's life while John recounts the story early in chapter 2.

In the synoptic accounts, Jesus cites an Old Testament passage as his explanation for his actions: "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations." But Jesus sees that this house of prayer has been turned into a den of robbers.

As I pondered this story, I remembered the set-up of the Temple in Jerusalem with its many levels/layers. At the center was the Holy of Holies that only the High Priest could enter. Then there were other locations that only the priests and temple workers entered. Outside this was the court for the men, then the court for the women, and finally the court for the Gentiles or the nations. It was in this last area where people were exchanging money and selling animals for sacrifice.

The Temple was supposed to be a place where all peoples - not just Jews - could come to pray, to worship, and to encounter the Living God. It was to be a holy place, but this was no longer the reality. So Jesus took action - harsh, abrupt, even violent action - to remind everyone why the Temple even existed and to call them back to its purposes.

It is easy for anything of a religious nature to become institutionalized. That's what happened to the Temple so long ago. It happens to the church. It happens to religious people, especially the clergy. I am thankful for the reminder from Jesus that my life and work need to be more about prayer, worship, and being open to encountering God than the things about which I have made it. As we journey toward Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and ultimately Resurrection Sunday, may Jesus turn over the tables of institutionalism in our hearts and breathe into us a spirit of prayer and worship.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Thursday Theology - Heaven and Hell

One of my first blog posts this Lent was about Rob Bell's new book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. You may remember that the buzz around the book before it was even released caused quite a controversy, and that has continued since the book's release.

A friend gave me a copy of the book last week, and I read it over the weekend. I found it to be a wonderfully engaging book that has got me thinking. And really, what more could you want from a book? It is well-crafted and full of probing questions, compelling stories, and astute analyses.

Much of the controversy is about Rob Bell's position on what happens after we die, specifically whether or not he is a universalist. In my reading of the book, he certainly does not use that term to describe his theology, nor does he even carve out a position that I would interpret as universalism. At most, I would say that he leaves the door open for that possibility (mainly because who is he - or any of us - to say what God can or cannot do).

I really enjoyed chapter 6, entitled "There Are Rocks Everywhere." The title is in reference to the rock that Moses strikes in Exodus 17 that gives the Israelites water. Bell then identifies this same rock in 1 Corinthians 10 from which all the Israelites drank. Funny thing is, though, that this rock is then identified by Paul as Christ. In other words, a millennium before Jesus was born, Christ was with the Israelites providing for them. Likewise, in the prologue to John's Gospel, Christ (the Word) is identified as being co-eternal with God and the agent of creation. All this to say, Christ is at work all around us - and all around others who don't even know it. This leaves open the possibility for Christ's work in people's lives without their calling him by name (like the Israelites) or even without their knowledge. Our God is a big God, and there are rocks everywhere.

One of the other things I like about the book is that he continually emphasizes the here and now as opposed to what happens after we die. He claims - and I think rightly so - that the Gospel is bigger than a message about what our ultimate destination will be. He continually affirms that heaven and hell can be experienced in this life, and that matters. Focusing exclusively on the afterlife gives very little meaning to the things of this life, yet Jesus, the prophets and all of Scripture spends much more time and energy focused on this life rather than the afterlife. We would do well to pay attention to that.

In the end, one of the things I take away from the book is that it has sparked this great theological debate, but it's not really a theological book. By that, I mean that Bell didn't set out to explain or defend a certain doctrine or theological perspective. Not that you can always separate these two, but he is writing as a pastor and not a theologian. His concern is for people who have been hurt in the past by hateful messages from the church about hell. His purpose is to open us up to the possibility of different ideas and to remind us that there is a different story about God's love that we need to tell.

This summer during the month of June, I plan to lead a 4-week Sunday School class on the book and the issues that it raises. I look forward to many good conversations. Feel free to post thoughts or questions here!

Monday, March 28, 2011

Methodist Monday - Methodist History Overview

Each Monday, I hope to write a little bit about The United Methodist Church. The topics will range from our history and theology to our current structure and challenges. If there is a particular topic you'd like for me to cover, just let me know!

Today: History Overview

This is a brief overview of the history of The United Methodist Church off the top of my head...

After Jesus's death, resurrection, and ascension, his disciples shared their beliefs about Jesus and what it meant to follow in his way with others. This Good News spread across the known world, and the church was born. For a millennium, the church (for the most part) was one - unified by its common leadership and theology. Then, in 1054, for various theological but mostly political reasons, the church split east and west into the Roman Catholic Church in the west and the Orthodox Church in the east. In the west, the Roman Catholic Church stayed (for the most part) unified until the Protestant Reformation in 1517 and the English Reformation in 1534, which gave birth to the Church of England.

In the 1700s, John and Charles Wesley, themselves sons of an Anglican priest, were studying for the priesthood at Oxford when they formed a small group that met together to pray, study, performs acts of mercy and justice, and hold one another accountable. This group became nicknamed the "Holiness Club." Through this experience, they realized the importance of small groups and having a methodical (that's where our name comes from) approach to discipleship. Their desire was for faith to come alive and transform their lives, the nation, and the world.

Thus began the Methodist movement as an attempt to revive and reform the Church of England. They organized small groups, preached in public (rather than only in cathedrals), went on missionary trips, and much more. Both Wesley brothers had their hearts "strangely warmed" in 1738 as they became convinced of God's love for them and ignited a fervor across England and her colonies. The movement grew and spread within and beyond the Church of England, all with John's brilliant organizational abilities providing legs to it and Charles's beautiful hymns providing a voice.

The Methodist movement was thriving in America in 1776. As war broke out, the Church of England recalled her priests back to England, leaving those of a Methodist persuasion in America without ordained leadership to order the church or perform the sacraments. The Methodists pushed forward with strong laity, but there was great need for clergy as well. John Wesley petitioned those in the Church of England repeatedly to send priests to America and provide pastoral leadership to the people there, but his requests were denied. So, in 1884, Wesley took matters into his own hands. Citing extraordinary circumstances and reasoning that he was already acting as a de facto bishop for the Methodists, he consecrated Thomas Coke as superintendent for the Methodists in America and sent him across the Atlantic, where Coke organized a new church with the Methodists already there: the Methodist Episcopal Church. Coke and Francis Asbury were made the first bishops.

As the nation began to expand westward, so did the church. Little Methodist meeting houses popped up across the frontier and travelling preachers known as Circuit Riders were assigned areas of responsibility. They would travel from place to place - on a circuit - to hold quarterly meetings with congregations, to celebrate the sacraments, to preach, and to share in fellowship. As cities began to form and churches became established, pastors were appointed to serve these station churches. The methods and focus of disciple-making shifted from the small group class meetings of early Methodists to Church School. Hospitals, colleges, nursing homes, and orphanages were founded, and the church continued to grow.

As you can see, the history of Methodists in America closely parallels that of our nation. The church was born around the time of our nation, has a similar governing structure and philosophy, and struggled with many of the same issues. One of the biggest issues for the first several decades was slavery. The African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion broke away and remain separate denominations. The church split north and south in 1844, foreshadowing the Civil War. In fact, at the time, the Methodist Episcopal Church had more people attending worship than any other denomination, and some scholars have speculated that if the church had been able to work out its differences on this issue, perhaps the nation would have as well.

North and south reunited in 1939, along with a smaller break-away Methodist denomination called the Methodist Protestant Church, to form the Methodist Church. Then, in 1968, the Methodist Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) to form The United Methodist Church. We get the "United" from the EUB church.

Today, The United Methodist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States behind the Southern Baptists. We have just under 8 million members here and more than 11 million worldwide. Our mission statement is to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world."

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sunday's Sermon - The Woman at the Well

The primary scripture text for Carol's sermon today was the lectionary text from John 4, which is the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. Carol began the sermon by talking about college basketball and rivalries, specifically between Duke (her alma mater) and North Carolina. She likened this rivalry to the Jews and Samaritans of Jesus's day. She went on to talk about the woman - what we know about her and what we can speculate about her. In the end, she is someone who is broken and thirsting for something in her soul - just like all of us. Jesus offers her living water, life-giving water, and reveals himself to her (a Samaritan woman of all people!) as the messiah. And, of course, Jesus offers the same to us.

One of the lasting impressions I have of this woman is how much she is changed - for the better - by her encounter with Jesus. She begins the story as an outcast of sorts, drawing water from the well by herself in the heat of the day rather than with the other women during the cool of the morning or evening. She begins the story ashamed of her past, not willing to tell Jesus her tale. She begins the story with resentment toward the Jews, and probably even toward men in general. She begins the story thirsty. But in the end, she comes to believe in Jesus because he already knows her tale, and she tells her entire village. She is the first evangelist, completely changed by her encounter. Our God is a God of transformation. How am I part of God's transforming work in the world and in people's lives?

Secondly, I am reminded of the profound importance of knowing someone else's tale. When she realized that Jesus knew her - not just knew about her, but knew her down to her soul - it made all the difference. She opened up to him and had a life-changing encounter. And so, I am left wondering, "Who knows my tale? Whose tale do I know?"

Finally, I am challenged by this woman's willingness to tell others about Jesus. I picture her going through the village, knocking on people's doors, shouting in the streets and the marketplace, talking to everyone she passes about Jesus, the promised messiah. When is the last time I shared about Jesus like that?

Feel free to comment below with responses to any of these questions, or pose your own!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Thursday Theology - Guilt

Oops! I haven't posted in a week! Daily disciplines have always been a struggle for me on my journey of faith. This blog is a nice microcosm of that. My typical pattern is to begin a practice, have it interrupted for some reason, stop doing it altogether, and then feel guilty about it. For example, I began blogging daily at the start of Lent and did pretty well for a couple of weeks. Then, this weekend, I had a fever and stomach bug and didn't blog. I haven't picked up the practice again until now, which I, of course, feel guilty about.

So, time to get back on the horse!

Since I am feeling guilty for not blogging, why don't I start there today! Guilt is a tricky topic as it relates to faith, especially when we begin to wade into the waters of ontological guilt in concepts like original sin and the atonement. But that's not the kind of guilt I want to write about today. I want to write about feeling guilty - like I have failed, let someone down, or been inadequate.

Guilt can serve two purposes. One is good; the other, not so much. Good guilt motivates us to change. In it, we recognize our deficiency and work to rectify it. As Christians, we might call this conviction and repentance. It can be a means through which God's grace works in us to make us more holy, turning away from destructive behaviors toward life-giving ones. This good guilt doesn't stay with us because we are changed by it.

The bad guilt, though, is what I think most of us experience more often. This guilt hangs around, doesn't let go, and can even attach itself to our soul like a parasite and suck the life and joy out of us. It tells us that we are not good enough, that we have failed, that there is something wrong with us, that we are not worth redeeming. This guilt comes from many different places and for various reasons. Sometimes it is an act we have done in the past that we are ashamed of and cannot move beyond. Sometimes it is simply not living up to someone's expectations. Sometimes it is realizing our own place and role in the misfortune or oppression of others (e.g. white guilt). Whatever it is, I do not think this guilt is what God wants for us.

Yet, as Christians, we often get this guilt from one another and from the church. We receive a message that if we do not live up to a certain standard - like never doing anything bad but having a picture perfect life where everything is in order and we spend hours each day in prayer, study, and serving the poor all the while with great joy - then we are failing. I don't know anyone who lives up to that standard; I'm not even sure Jesus did! But I suspect that most Christians walk around with some sense of guilt that they are not a good enough Christians.

But do you know what? That is the exact opposite of what God wants for the life of faith! Romans 8:1-2 tells us, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death." Guilt is a symptom of condemnation, but we who are in Christ have been set free!

So, I know that getting past and getting rid of guilt isn't as easy as snapping your fingers are simply saying, "You shouldn't feel guilty." But really, we shouldn't feel guilty! Ours sins have been forgiven and we are loved right where we are. So may we begin to overcome our guilt and live into the newness of life, free to be ourselves!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Thursday Theology - Lent and Sacrifice

My sister sent me a link on Facebook yesterday to blog post entitled Eating Chocolate for Lent. I hope you'll take a moment to read it, as I did, because it offers an astute challenge from a feminist perspective to the practice of giving up something for Lent. For many, especially women, who are already habituated to sacrificing and submitting to the authority of others, this Lenten practice can be demeaning and self-deprecating rather than life-giving and life-affirming.

To me, Lent is an opportunity and even a challenge to us to be more intentional about our faith. Some do that by sacrificing something; some do that by taking on a habit or discipline; and some may simply need a reminder that they are loved by God and to find ways to dwell in that love. One thing is clear to me: a one-size-fits-all approach won't work. We must each try to discern what it is we can do (or not do) to be more intentional about our faith development during this season.

For me, I am blogging. It forces me to set aside time to think, pray, reflect, and write...each of which is a way that God can work in my life. Some years I have given up something, which has been a fruitful practice for me. Some years, I have not done anything. But whatever we do in Lent, it ought to be something that is grace-filled and not condemning...many of us get more than enough of that from others or even ourselves. How are you partnering with God this Lent?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Word on Wednesday: John 2:1-11

Up until now, I have been pretty random with my blog posts, but last night it occurred to me that I might do well to have more of a structure or pattern to them. So, you will begin to notice some alliterative titles guiding me in the future.

I have been using Christ UMC's Lenten Devotion for my own devotional time during Lent. Today's reading was from John 2:1-11 in which Jesus performs his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee by turning water into wine. As I read the story this morning, I was struck more by what Jesus says in response to his mother telling him that they are out of wine than by the actual miracle: "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come."

What does Jesus mean by this cryptic statement? Perhaps he means that it's not time for him to reveal his true identity as the Messiah, and so he doesn't want to perform a miracle. But, he does perform a miracle, which indicates to me that either a) this is not what we means or b) he is doing it reluctantly only because his mother asked him to do so.

Another option for what he means, though, comes from a common phenomenon in John's Gospel. It seems as though people are often talking on a plain, literal, physical level while Jesus is speaking on a spiritual, deeper level. This Sunday's text from John 3 when Jesus says that you must be born again (or from above) and Nicodemus takes it as literally going back into your mother's womb.

If that is what is happening here, then while Mary is talking about actual wine, Jesus is perhaps talking about wine in a spiritual sense...the wine that is his blood, the cup of salvation. And his time has not yet come to offer it on our behalf (though we are anticipating it during this season of Lent). Jesus knows this is what the people at the wedding truly need - the gift of grace - and not more wine, but he gives them wine. Indeed, his gift of physical wine is a sign to them and to us of his gift of spiritual wine. May we all drink of this gift with grateful hearts!