The Sunday prior to the big fall back hour: The return to Central Standard Time. I woke up to a cloud, rainy, pre-dawn morning. Aargh! Two cups of black coffee had no impact whatsoever.
The ancients believed this was the annual price we paid for the dying and rising of the sun god.
When worship focused on the Son of God, the whole holiday was recast as Christmas. So around the time the longest night of the year arrives and the sun begins to linger a few minutes longer every subequent day, we Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. Of course, he was probably born in the spring, about the same time as he died 30-50 years later (traditions vary). We may think this is the case because the shepherds were out in the fields by night: huge clue here, gang. But such niceties means nothing when you are trying to get the pagans to stop paganing, with their greens and candles and Yule logs. So the nights get longer, we eat more, and generally make ourselves miserable until Christmas Day, the day we surround ourselves with feasts and family, when we really make ourselves miserable. We started doing all this 2000 years ago to convince the pagans they should be Christians because they really would have more fun if they gave it a try. We were right, and the pagans have held Christmas captive ever since.
Then the government got involved - something about cattle and chickens - and I don't mean with Christmas but with changing the time next Sunday. The last time this happened my basset hound's schedule was completely thrown off and she gets up at 3:00 a.m. every morning to greet the dawn, whining, The dawn is still hours away and I hate whining from everything and everyone. If Mary and Joseph had a dog like this to contend with, there would have been no "gentle Mary laid her child." She would have handed the lad to Joseph, especially if he was whining. Then she would have gotten on her hands and knees, started snarling and put the dog on her back. Once she got the dog's attention, Mary would have put her bare teeth on the dog's neck, snarling savagely, just to show the basset who was boss. I did this and it worked, and it would have worked for Mary too. Of course, they still wouldn't put it out in a nativity scene on a courthouse lawn because no one, Christians or pagans or anyone, wants to see Mary activing like the alpha male even if she did have Joseph wooped into shape.
And how do you feel about the gradual loss of sunlight?
What is your defnition of sin? A common biblical metaphor is that of an arrow shot that falls short of a target. When Jesus taught the Lord's Prayer, the language of debt and debtors made sense: He may have been addressing a crisis of debt that froze economic activity and disadvantaged the poor. Indeed, it was likely that he was calling for the reinstitution of the Jubilee Year, the Israelite vision of regular forgiveness of all debt that allowed for the equalization of human wealth. The language of trespasses goes back to the practice of large land owners protecting their real estate with draconian measures. Translating such full-bodied and radical images found in the Bible into mere sin, the word often used in modern parlance, seems pretty anemic.
So I have been thinking about Wisconsin's last-second loss to Michigan State. When the Wisconsin team returned to the locker room, it did so with the knowledge that it had fallen short. No matter how tremendous the effort exerted throughout the game, every mistake made in every play accumulated to make the final loss possible. The linebacker who tried to wrestle the lucky Michigan State player to the ground may have received the blame, but in the end he deserved no more blame than the coaches or the Badgers involved in Wisconsin's very first play from scrimmage. That seems typical of sin; it accumulates, decision by decision, choice by choice, deed by deed, sometimes unnoticeably, until a terrible loss is experienced.
I have also been thinking about a squirrel. Son DJ and I dutifully planted wife Susan's tulip bulbs in a place where the deer were unlikely to approach: right next to the front plate glass window where I sat today working. A squirrel appeared momentarily, then left. Then he returned and left again. By the third journey, I knew his mission. He was stealing our bulbs, one by one. This too is sin; not all at once, but bit by bit, sin steals all that we value, all that we have worked so hard to obtain, away from us.
Even the best of us serves as host to the thievery of sin. So we rejoice in the saving power of God, who forgives and reconciles us. And guard our hearts and actions carefully . . .
Today we took a survey in church. The U.S. Congregational Survey tapped denominations to identify growing congregations among their adherents, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) picked us. It is quite an honor, and one well-deserved by our congregation. When Jesus returned home to Nazareth, it was remarked that "he could not do many miracles there due to their lack of faith" (Matthew 13:58). My finding over 30 years of ministry is that great congregations make for great pastors. Their faith allows for miracles. First Presbyterian Church of Iowa City is a great congregation by this measure. Still, taking the survey was disruptive to our worship and I am sure exercised the members' patience. But that too is a mark of a great congregation: They were called on to render a service for the greater good, one that inconvenienced them, and they came through in a big way. Truly, they have a heart for servant leadership.
The whole event did bring back some unpleasant memories, however. Some years ago I served in a community in which the church down the road was similarly honored. It had grown rapidly because a few years before my arrival, the church I served had experienced a series of scandals. People fled that congregation and ended up down the road. I served the victim; there were no winners. The gain of one became the loss of another. This is not so unusual as most church growth comes from people moving from congregation to congregation. In fact, the fastest growing religious group in the United States is the roll of the non-affiliated. Christianity is not so much growing in the United States as church-growing Christians are proving fickle. More troubling, many people are joining the ranks of the disaffected and non-aligned.
I think the more profound question is why we reward church growth. The crowds followed Jesus until he made clear his intentions to die as the messiah. Then the crowds abandoned him, leaving only the disciples. When Jesus wondered out loud if they would leave him too, they asked "To whom are we to go? For you have have the words of eternal life" (John 6:68). When were Jesus and his disciples the most faithful? When they entertained the crowds, building momentum for the big show in Jerusalem? Or when "he humbled himself and became obedient to the cross" (Philippians 2:8)?
So I am proud of the congregation I serve because they can take pastors with modest gifts and make them believe in themselves. I am proud of the congregation I serve because they take seriously the prophetic command, voiced by Jesus, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with their God. I am proud of the congregation because it has a servant's heart. I am proud of the congregation because it "lifts high the cross." Growth is good when it results from a congregation serving Jesus Christ faithfully, because faith is best of all.
Each time we moved, we got rid of stuff. Lots of it. That's why we don't have a '61 Chrysler, a kerosene space heater recalled by the factory and never returned, and a musical toy that our older boy Will utilized to drive us to the point of madness. Most of the time we bought new to replace old, and as the houses grew so did the possessions.
Our priorities changed the last few years or, more specifically, our square footage did. Unfortunately, during the last move the family and I never found the time to throw what we had stowed. The combination led to our current dilemma: We have way too much stuff. I wish I could call it junk: This would give us permission to toss it. I wish I could call it treasure: This would give us hope of selling it.
But it is not junk. It is family heirlooms, antiques passed down to me lovingly wrapped in newspaper by my old Dad. It is old furniture, chairs in particular, that I doubt ever provided the Masseys comfort. There is art created by friends who wished to share their soul with me. There are legal papers that honor no statue of limitations. Books for all ages and levels of education overflow our bookshelves.
By the same token, it is not treasure. To a buyer its value would not exceed a few dollars. To the reciptient of charity it would not lead to considerable betterment.
So this is my life, cluttered. Yet I feel incapable of changing my plight.
What makes this hard is the truth that possessions have spiritual value. They can represent the insecurities that I cannot find in my heart to release to God. They whisper of the past that has not healed within me. From these heirlooms I draw some comfort for a lack that only God's spirit can fill in me.
So I need to get rid of all this stuff. But how? And how can I rid myself of the feeling that keeping this stuff diminishes my soul while giving it away means losing my life ?
When you open your closet, walk through your basement or dust your knick-knacks, what are you called to recognize and do? How free are you if you cannot?
When presidential contender Rick Perry appeared on the national scene, he did so in the company of the New Apostolic Reformation. This groups emphasizes dominion: They want true Christians in every part of society (the so-called 7 mountains) to provide a witness. The NAR doesnt want to take over the world, according to one of their God-picked apostles. They do want to exercise positive influence among other influences.
I confess that their public argument - that many different voices should be heard at the table of democracy - has appeal for me. But I am uneasy when they claim that Christ calls persons especially gifted as apostles to rule over the church. No democratic largesse here: Persons not called to rule in the church apostolically are called to submit.
What makes me uneasy is my own Presbyterian ownership of this one idea: that participation in church government under the Lordship of Christ prepares persons for governance responsibility in the larger culture. Presbyterian church government presumes that broken sinners must work in humility and prayerfully to find God's call. This call always exceeds the understanding of one person or even a group of persons. Only dialogue among differences leads to insights. We have no popes speaking ex cathedra. In other words, Presbyterian government goes back to the early church and Acts 15. During that first ecumenical council several persons - including Jesus' original disciples, although not they only - met to make decisions, often compromises, in light of what the Spirit of God was doing.
With all due respect to his supporters, I grow anxious with Perry's battle language and with the NAR's praise of centralized rule in the church. It feels to me that the two might collapse into each other and become really ugly. Arrogance can wear a variety of spiritual cloaks, from conservative to liberal. Your thoughts?
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