April 26, 2013
Yesterday, I pondered spiritual boldness and the need for Christians to pray for it in an increasingly pluralistic society. From a cultural point of view, uttering certain viewpoints is risky and costly, leading some Christ-followers to be circumspect if not silent about their faith. I found out yesterday that one of my former students, applying for a ministry internship, was challenged by the interviewer for having me as one of her references, “because [I am] against gay ordination.” The student, taken aback by that attitude in what was supposed to be an ecumenical environment, stood up for me. [For the record, they never called me, but they probably googled my name out of curiosity. Great way to “check references,” when it becomes an evaluation of the reference rather than the applicant!] Upon hearing about this uncomfortable interchange, I was sad that my views and actions would penalize her—obviously, a completely unintended consequence. But it would explain why some, with less mettle than my friend, would distance themselves from me if they felt their livelihood threatened.
There is growing concern that teaching a biblical view of sexuality may some time soon be considered “hate speech,” if it includes an injunction against homosexual practice. It doesn’t matter to those of an opposing view whether the speaker is of good character or gracious manner. If she holds the now politically-incorrect view that homosexually committed persons must repent before being ordained to the ministry, she is believed to be a bigot, or worse, a hater, and must be isolated out of fellowship among “rational” and open-minded people.
In any other generation, the constitutional guarantee of free speech and exercise of religion alone should protect a Bible teacher; but alas, now if someone feels hurt by what a teacher says, regardless of the intent or the content of speech, those feelings “prove” a wrongdoing. We are entering a period of serious threat to reasonable discourse, historic constitutional interpretation, and even academic freedom. Some of my Presbyterian colleagues have felt this much more acutely than I have, and I empathize. This is no figment of the imagination.
And even in the PC(USA) I am hearing of more clergy who feel they cannot teach from the Bible on certain subjects, for fear that viewpoint would divide their congregations. There is great timidity out there, based on the desire to keep church members “in the boat” and not lose them. What I hear, however, is that members are leaving congregations for at least two conflicting reasons: the belief that the pastor is too conservative or perhaps not liberal enough. The fact is, because the issue itself exists and cannot be navigated in an emotionally healthy way, church membership is dwindling. Pastors cannot win for losing, so to speak. The challenge to a biblical and confessional belief about marriage and sexuality is slowly (though more quickly now) eroding the heart and soul of the church. Is that really what homosexualists want—to destroy the church?
If it isn’t their church members calling pastors to task, it is higher-ups who pressure conformity to the new standard (which is no standard at all, as I have previously written). What was generally touted as the removal of a restrictive standard has now morphed into a new “standard” forbidding consideration of a pre-established biblical standard of sexuality when evaluating candidates. Whatever happened to “the Scriptures, our only rule of faith and practice”?
So where does boldness come in? What is a person of conviction to do in a world and a denomination growing more hostile to a biblical point of view on sexuality? Careful consideration must be given to consequences, if only to prepare for them. But negative consequences did not deter the apostles from boldly proclaiming Jesus Christ and the transforming gospel. Peter and John, as mentioned yesterday, were strongly exhorted to never teach in the name of Jesus again (Acts 4:18). Paul, previously a persecutor of the church, was challenged constantly for proclaiming Jesus Christ, working miracles, and casting out demons (cf. Acts 16:16-19). And of course, we are inspired by the Savior himself. He knew what his job was—the atonement of humanity’s sin and the ushering in the Kingdom of God—and nothing deterred his progress toward that end. It meant momentary alienation from his family (Matthew 12:46-50 & parallels), the betrayal of friends (John 18), and ultimately his own death.
What about us? As the writer of Hebrews observed, “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Hebrews 12:3-4). What a convicting word! If our goal, navigating the waters of pastoral leadership, is not to suffer, we are missing the opportunity to develop under Christ’s discipline. If we are acting (or not acting) out of fear, we are to remember Paul’s exhortation:
“God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7) The Christian faith is not a security blanket keeping us cozy in the safe confines of our homes and churches. The Christian faith, held with courage and conviction, puts us in danger or at least into trouble, where we can do the most good.
April 11, 2013
Friends of “Bringing the Word to Life,” I submitted the following letter to Presbyweb in response to a letter to the editor by Mike Garrett. I believe the fray is going to start up again, and commend to you as a catalyst a very thoughtful and well-written “prophetic word” by Jim Goodloe, found here.
In response to Mike Garrett’s letter which observed the “deafening silence of disengagement,” I want to agree and to explain further.
As one who has contributed to the debates in the last several years and lately by blog, I can acknowledge the truth of his observation in my own experience. There are a few factors contributing to, for instance, my rather sporadic blog coverage of PCUSA matters lately:
1. The Presbyterian decision-making process is rigged, and thoughtful discourse has nowhere to go to make a difference. I have read the most reasoned and helpfully clarifying pieces by colleagues, directed both to GAPJC and the General Assembly, but they get nowhere because decision-makers choose to remain so open-minded that their brains fall out. What we have going now is not debate based on Scripture and reason but on emotion, experience, and a worldly view of unlimited personal rights. Interjecting a voice of common sense and Scriptural sanity, for the moment, is an exercise in repetitive head-banging with no appreciable result.
2. I struggle with soul-care in the midst of the fray. Topics and discussions that have the ongoing effect of raised blood-pressure, sleep deprivation, and a constantly critical attitude are not good for my spirit. I am still learning how to stay in the discussion with eyes on Jesus without sinking into Galilee’s waters.
3. Who is the audience? Those a theological conservative like myself might encourage to action are opting for alternative ways of being Presbyterian, either by sheltering in place or dismissing to other denominations. Those to whom truth must be spoken are not listening, or if they are, they are patronizing and even, at times, abusive in response. The role of the prophet within and to the PCUSA is not acknowledged or respected because the church has lost sight of what constitutes the Word of God. So what else is new?
4. So the question of engagement, for me, boils down to call and empowerment by God. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It is a costly business to put oneself out there with a counter-cultural view, and there have been times and seasons when I have given this service willingly and even joyfully. But now more than ever there is little personal support holding up the arms of a prophet. To answer this challenge, I have tried to balance draining “engagement” work with projects that are spiritually uplifting. In the last few months, I have collaborated on a curriculum for study of the Essential Tenets, reviewed the five-part The Bible series, and now am preparing to speak at a congregation’s all-church retreat. Three books await the daily discipline of personal engagement. This all takes time, which I have in only finite quantity, and the choice about how to spend it is sometimes torture. If, in those daily dilemmas, comments 1, 2, and 3 above seem particularly strong, then “Presbyterian stuff” goes to the bottom of my things-to-do list.
But don’t worry; I’ll be back soon enough. And others will be right there alongside me to try again to help our denomination listen to Scripture and reason. Until then, I remain
Christ’s servant and your friend,
(The Rev. Dr.) Mary Holder Naegeli
Walnut Creek, California
March 22, 2013
A Bible overview such as History Channel’s The Bible causes me—as a Presbyterian minister and activist, a sometimes seminary professor, and an ongoing Bible teacher—to ponder the great themes and golden threads that run through the story. My current teaching project “It All Started in the Garden” traces eighteen theological themes introduced in Genesis 1–3 and carries them forward through the Scriptures. Watching The Bible on television and making these repeated journeys from Genesis to Revelation each week have highlighted one particular theme I’d like to reflect upon here: Faith as a Journey to the Promised but Unknown.
God’s initiation takes human beings by surprise. Rarely do we sense that the person God presses into service is expecting the call. Adam and Eve are created and given the four-fold charge: multiply, subdue the earth, exercise dominion over creation, and till the earth. Noah unexpectedly hears God say, “It’s going to start raining, so get ready.” Abraham is called out in Ur and told to “go to the place that I will show you.” Moses is hiding out where he thinks nobody can find him, until God starts speaking to him in a burning bush. Lowly Mary and Joseph are visited by God’s angel and called to birth and raise the Messiah. The Pharisee enforcer Apostle Paul is blind-sided and called into evangelistic ministry. Among the figures highlighted in the television series, King David is a notable exception, as he was anointed by Samuel to be the new king (following Saul) several years before Saul’s death. And God promised that David’s son Solomon would follow him. So those two had some warning. Otherwise, God calls out those he has chosen for leadership when it’s time, but the reaction is often, “Who, me?”
God gives hints of what is to come, but it is rarely appreciated for its scope at the moment of invitation. Who can fathom in advance the vast purposes of God? And yet, those purposes often drive the small, beginning steps of faith without the knowledge of how big a leap one is actually making. Abraham by faith united with his aged wife, years after the initial promise that he would be the father of a great nation. Joseph sat in an Egyptian prison cell for years before it became clear that he was part of God’s strategy for rescuing the Hebrews. Samuel said yes to God as a boy, and by the end of his life would be prophet of God for two monarchs. God’s plan often starts with a whisper, a thread, or a fragile moment of belief, and develops into something epic.
The invited one has no real idea of what is in store and how hard it will be. And it’s a good thing, too, or no one would say yes. God promises his guidance and his power and provides the way forward. But as Teresa of Avila allegedly told God on a very bad day, “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few of them!”
God honors his promises, though the time of fulfillment may be much longer than originally anticipated. Back to Abraham, I think I did the math once and it was 27 years or so between Genesis 12:1 and the birth of Isaac. That’s a long time to hold a promise. The Messiah was anticipated for hundreds of years. The fact that we are still waiting for the reformation of the PC(USA) or the Second Coming of Christ after 2000 years should not alarm us in the least. God promised, Jesus is returning, and it will happen. Maranatha!
God empowers obedience to his call, though human beings often do not accept the help and still try to do things according to their own wisdom. This observation is the only way to explain the messes unfolding in the Old Testament. Moses in exasperation (and disobedience) hit a rock to get water from it for the grumbling Israelites, and was disqualified from entering the promised land himself. During the period of the Judges (not Israel’s best hour), the people clamored for a king like their neighbors had. Despite the ideal that they were to follow God as their King, God reassured Samuel that their request could be fulfilled, but that it was going to be hard to maintain. The monarchy was definitely a mixed blessing, as 1 and 2 Kings will tell you. And yet, for those who remained faithful to God, the power to do the impossible was present: waters parted, speeches were given, enemies were defeated, messages were carried, babies were born, fish were caught, and forgiveness was granted.
Faith in God and humility before his throne remain the two great qualifiers for leadership among God’s people. Abraham believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Do these things and it will go well for you. Humble yourselves and pray. Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Christ must increase, but I must decrease. I am the Lord’s servant; may it be done to me as you have said.
This faith responds to God’s invitation with a blank check, as we in “our” leadership trust God with our unknown future. All we can know for sure is that God is in charge; we are not. God is perfect; we are flawed human beings in need of a Savior. God is completely trustworthy; we are utterly dependent upon him. As biblical history shows us, God mightily used men and women who were willing to travel with an open ticket, who acknowledged their sin, who depended on God for power and wisdom. And those who took matters into their own hands, who jumped the gun, who usurped God’s place, or who turned aside to other gods, experienced the withdrawal of God’s blessing. Which kind of leader do you want to be? “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!”
March 14, 2013
When a friend posted on Facebook “White smoke!” I turned on the television today and wrapped myself in the NBC coverage of the announcement of the new Catholic pope. As a cradle Catholic (who changed lanes into the Presbyterian church at age 22), I have witnessed the election of five popes in my lifetime. Experience as a Presbyterian pastor, leadership of a session, and organizational executive roles have given me only an inkling of the burden this man will bear as leader of over 1 billion souls worldwide. If that thought is staggering to lowly me, imagine how the question of “Who is up to the task?” burned in the corporate soul of those 115 cardinals called to discern God’s will in the matter.
Their announcement of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, of Buenos Aires, as the next pope sent several electrifying messages to the world:
• Age—76. Pope Francis, as he will be known, was not bypassed because of his age, though the predictors gave him no chance. Some think Pope Francis is too old to make much of an impact on world Catholicism. But hear this: All the 76-year-old pope has to do is call a Third Vatican Council, and the door is wide open for a transparent dialogue and true reformation of the global church, in authentic Franciscan tradition. I for one will pray for just such an invitation.
• Nationality—Argentinian. Son of Italian immigrants to South America, his background offers a reassuring link to Italy (for traditionalists) but a distance from the Roman mess (for reformers). His humor was apparent as he greeted the crowd today: “They [the cardinals] had to go to the ends of the world to find the new bishop of Rome.” The first pope from Latin America celebrates the reality that 37% of the world’s Catholics are Latino. He may be an outsider to Rome, but there is great potential for a global embrace of his papacy simply from ethnic affinity.
• His Name—Francis. After the twelfth-century saint from Assisi, Pope Francis is no doubt signaling a desire to live a simple life, which he has demonstrated as an archbishop and cardinal. But I think even more significant is an affinity with God’s specific call in St. Francis’ life. Abuses of power, off-center theology, and material excesses were already in evidence in northern Italy by his time. In prayer one day, Francis heard God speak to him unmistakably: “Rebuild/reform my church.” And that is what he set out to do. You may consider Francis socially inept or psychologically wacko—he most certainly was unusual in his methods—but there is no doubt in my mind that Francis sparked an authentic and influential renewal movement in the Late Middle Ages. The new pope may well surprise us with his bold initiative to think outside the Vatican box and spark a revival and much needed reform within the institutional church.
• His Order—Jesuit. The Jesuits are as close to an autonomous organization within the Catholic Church as they come: noted for placing a high value on education, theological boldness, and independence, the Jesuits have never produced a pope until now. Doctrinally orthodox—no wandering Jesuit is Borgoglio—yet part of an order that sometimes pushes the envelope in theological discourse, Francis brings something new to the table. I would imagine a few Curia types (institutional preservationists) might be wondering if he is going to be a bull in a china shop. But everybody says he is “gentle.”
• His Spirit—Humble. His reaction during the announcing ceremony today was astonishing for its serenity, gentle humor, deep humility, and reference to his new role as “bishop of Rome,” not “pope.” I know they are one and the same thing, but he referred to himself only as “the bishop,” bowed low to receive the prayers of the crowd for him, and wanted to express his commitment to the flock right there in the Eternal City. There was not one ounce of grandiosity or ego evident today.
• His Vision—Think Global, Act Local. Francis expressed the desire to evangelize the city of Rome. This guy is firmly planted and passionate about the gospel. He understands that in order for the Vatican to reach the world, it must reach its neighborhood first. If that isn’t “missional,” I don’t know what is.
The over-80 cardinal Edward Egan offered NBC commentary prior to the pope’s election, on five qualities this person would need in order to be effective:
A deep, abiding life of prayer, both in private and in public.
A passion to articulate the gospel in an uncomplicated manner.
Leadership in the worldwide quest for justice, compassion, and peace.
The ability to govern firmly and manage a complex organization.
A thick skin, an ability to hear and handle criticism without losing his confidence or vision.
These qualities ring true to me and represent a very tall order only God can fill. So we must all pray for this pope, regardless of our denominational affiliation, simply because he is one of the most visible Christians in the world today. May God grant Pope Francis favor with his people, spiritual protection, ongoing virtue, and a bold gospel witness. For the global church, let us plead, “Lord, clean our house and reform our ways!” Beyond the church, let us pray, “Lord, may the world hear the gospel through this man and turn to Jesus Christ!” All things are possible with God, even a new Reformation led by a pope.
February 21, 2013
Last Sunday night, my husband and I hosted a black-tie five-course dinner for eleven other friends in our home. The occasion was the finale of Season Three of Downton Abbey, giving us the opportunity to live a brief fantasy of British aristocracy. The purpose of the evening was to enjoy the company of friends, have a luscious meal served to us (the thirteenth person, by prior arrangement, was our footman—and a fine one he was indeed), and discuss the characters and plot lines of the British television series. [May I just say, in a moment of personal privilege, that the program’s tragic ending ruined the mood of my dinner party…but I digress.]
A couple of the guests were barely conversant on the arc of the story, so we reviewed Seasons One, Two, and Three in the sort of detail only a group brainstorming session can conjure. Then we asked, “What secrets were held by whom?” which gave us an opportunity to delve into the motivations of each character, starting with the Crawleys upstairs and concluding with the servants downstairs. We had to ask, “Where is the vicar when he is needed?” and “What role is faith playing in the life and plot of these people?” and the Jesus question, “With whom are you willing to have dinner?”
But the most important question, in my mind, was whether or not a person who had fallen from grace could experience personal transformation and be restored socially. Though applied unevenly, it turns out, the operating principle at Downton Abbey seemed to be, “Once a sinner, always shunned.” Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter comes to mind. And yet, the hopelessness of that answer chafed at least a couple of the characters into giving Ethyl another chance at a respectable life and Thomas a compassionate reprieve.
It is a matter of Christian faith that the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful and able to reach the hearts and minds of the wayward, turn them around, and save them from the consequences of their sin. We profess this, though I think our culture is cautious about certain types of sinners and would seem to prefer cities of refuge to a return to respectable society. That topic, though interesting, is beyond my pay-grade today.
But what about the church itself? I have intimated many times in the last eighteen months that the PC(USA) has gone a bit haywire theologically and ethically and is losing its way. Is it possible for the organization, the institution, to repent corporately and receive as a body the forgiveness, demonstrate the repentance, and live a new life as a result of the saving work of Christ on the Cross? Is it necessary for its members to do the same individually in order for the body to experience the transforming power of our Savior? Evangelicals probably feel more comfortable with the second, individualized, movement taking priority, but the first, corporate, movement should not be discounted in value or dismissed as unrealistic. There have been seasons, perhaps even in your congregation, where under the leadership of a new pastor or executive director or pope, when a body changed its tone and refocused its attention on the essentials of faith and practice.
The Catholic Church is presented with such a moment in the unusual transition of leadership in its immediate future. I have greatly admired Pope Benedict XVI, and appreciate the courage of his choice of downward mobility. TIME Magazine, in this week’s cover story entitled “Second Act: How Benedict XVI may become more influential after his resignation,” reflects on what Benedict was able and not able to accomplish during his tenure:
Benedict’s successor will inherit a long list of problems. The wounds from the priest sexual-molestation scandals are deep, and it may take generations to win back once fervently Catholic nations like Ireland. While Benedict did more than John Paul II to try to make amends for the crimes, he was too much a part of the compromised bureaucracy to truly cleanse the organization. (Vol. 181, No. 7, p. 21).
The Catholic Church is not unique among religious institutions in its suffering from corruption, immorality, and power-brokering. If one with as much authority as the Pope is unable to transform one church, we must all throw ourselves upon the mercy of God and plead for his transforming power to work miracles in and among us. Our only recourse is to cooperate with the refining fire of God’s Spirit and submit to the discipline required to set us on the right track again. We must pray for our leaders to make this submission visible, and pray that God would start with us. The PC(USA) can change, but only if we truly repent individually and corporately of our disobedience, recommit ourselves to God’s Word in faith and action, and take the painful steps of repentance to unlink our structures from worldly ways and means. And then perhaps we can hope that our witness to a hurting world can be strengthened and those like myself—who have been scandalized by the behavior and message of so many within our tribe—can rejoice and welcome a transformed PC(USA) into our hearts and around our table again.
January 3, 2013
Yesterday, I suggested that denominational life is likely to become more difficult for evangelicals as we move through 2013. My predictions of trends are discouraging, I know, but today I want to give a word of encouragement. A difficult life, in and of itself, is not a sign that Jesus has left us orphans, nor is it an excuse to give up and give in to the worldly influences surrounding us. Rather, a difficult life calls us to depend on our Savior all the more and to hold fast to what we have been given. We have our testimony of faith, which is not ours alone but that of the whole Church of Jesus Christ. We have the Communion of Saints cheering us on toward the finish line, and we have a great confessional heritage that has stated eloquently and fervently the hope of our calling. To these things we must cling as we walk the path our Lord has set for us.
God through his Scriptures offers us examples and exhortations for witness-bearing. From Matthew’s gospel, we have the account of that check-in conversation between Jesus and his disciples. After a round of significant public meetings, Jesus took them aside and asked them what the people out there were saying about him. “And they said, ‘Some say [you are] John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. . .’” (Matthew 16:14-18). Our Catholic friends understand “the rock” to be Peter, and express this by building the church around the papacy through “apostolic succession.” Protestants like us take this verse to mean “the rock” is Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus, and the church is built upon a steadfast witness to Christ’s Lordship. Good arguments support both views, but for today’s purposes I would like to expand on the Protestant view.
When Peter got it and recognized Jesus’ true identity on this occasion, he gave a clear statement of doctrine and faith. Central to the life of the Church is this awareness that Jesus Christ’s identity as Son of God and Messiah is the Church’s defining belief. The Apostle Paul later spoke of passing on to his readers the gospel entrusted to him, “as of first importance,” that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters . . . and finally also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6).
Later, Peter himself exhorted those he was teaching: “…but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16).
As we face difficult times within the PC(USA), we are reminded once again that we are here for Jesus Christ, to serve him alone, to promote his gospel only, to hold fast to what he taught us, and to do as he commanded. Period. We must teach this and model obedience, understanding that we are torch-bearers in a long-standing relay race of Christian testimony.
To that end, it behooves us to know the Story. For most of my adult life, this has meant becoming intimately acquainted with the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. But as I get older I want to be sure I am passing the Story along to my children and the next generation, with deeper appreciation for the faithful witness of the saints who have gone before me. As a Presbyterian, I have access to nine creeds, confessions, and catechisms (among others to be sure), which set forth the essentials of Reformed faith and Christian doctrine. These confessional documents organize our beliefs in teachable, transferable form, and they are a gift to the church. If we learn them well, we are equipped for that conversational moment, that debate moment, that ordination examination moment—all those “teachable moments” in the life of the church—to give the reason for the hope that lies within us.
If the PC(USA) really does descend into doctrinal chaos, it won’t be too long before people previously sucked in by the world’s bad ideas are going to be looking for hope. We may be the very ones to provide it, through the testimony to God’s gracious and truthful revelation in Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, and his Word transmitted through the generations to our time and place. So let us learn the creeds, confessions, and catechisms. Let us read, study, and internalize the Scriptures. Let us practice speaking out loud what we believe in our hearts. And then, let us be bold to add our own testimony to that of the saints through Christian history, so that this generation can place its hope in the only One who can save us, Jesus Christ the Lord.
December 31, 2012
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
After a two-month hiatus from blogging, I am ready for the daily discipline again. I stopped out for three main reasons:
Firstly, a writing/editing project came along and its due date was December 21. Now that it is finished, my readers will be hearing about it in future posts, because it has everything to do with Bringing the Word to Life and the Presbyterian Church. But I’ll keep you in suspense two more days on its themes.
Secondly, I found myself speechless. I know this is hard to believe, but I felt “silenced,” not in a bad way but more along the lines of Proverbs 10:19, “When words are many, sin is not absent, but the one who holds his tongue is wise.” There have been so many issues and events to comment upon, but sometimes things just need to sit without comment while time heals and gathers wisdom.
Thirdly, in a season of personal soul-searching and spiritual discernment, I did not feel it appropriate to share my thoughts-in-progress. Since this blog focuses on Bringing the Word to Life in the Presbyterian family, and what I was pondering was far removed from PC(USA) concerns, this was not the time or forum. I do have a life much larger than my involvement with the Presbyterian Church, and that wider zoe got my full attention.
What prompted me to write today, however, was a thought sparked by some of the fun Facebook posts I have enjoyed in the last month. Several babies (or grandbabies) have been born to friends, former students, and daughters’ BFFs. Pictures of Baby appear on the birth day (supplanting the printed and mailed birth announcement), and ecstatic parents, grandparents, and friends log in with their amazement and wonder. Best quote: “I can hardly believe what has happened. There didn’t used to be a person here in my arms.”
And then about a week later, one reads the posts born of fatigue mixed with gratitude: fatigue at the lack of sleep, and gratitude for the privilege of welcoming a little one into the world. A few days later, the parental mishaps, chronic tardiness, and other inconveniences introduced into their pre-baby orderly world are revealed.
These comments of course revive my own memories of birthing two daughters, two years and five months apart in the early 1980s. Our life story is forever divided into BC and AC, “before children” and “after children.” The first week of parenthood, while amazing and thrilling, was also one of complete exhaustion as we re-organized our entire lives to accommodate the needs and schedule of a newborn. This meant giving up sleep at all hours, sticking ourselves with diaper pins in a dimly lit nursery, adjusting diet to enhance nursing, and learning how to do everything else one-handed. I remember the day my greatest accomplishment was washing my hair, and I laughed at myself for all the multitasking I was not maintaining under these startlingly new conditions. It was indeed a shock to the system that had previously been somewhat under my control.
So here is where my thoughts took me: at this time of year (Christmastide), while the world has dropped the subject of Christmas altogether, we Christians are pondering the impact of the Bethlehem Arrival announced on December 25. On the day of God’s Incarnation in Jesus, the lives of Mary and Joseph were disrupted. They were already away from home on an administrative errand when Mary’s time came to deliver her child. There was no room in the inn, as Bethlehem was disrupted by the influx of visitors. Shepherds tending their flocks nearby were disrupted by the appearance of angels announcing the Savior’s birth. Herod most emphatically was disturbed by news reports of a rival king. In addition to all this commotion, I am sure Mary got little sleep while her infant experimented with the day-is-night and night-is-day turnaround that confounds parents everywhere. Nevertheless, she embraced the parental role: to do what is most important for the safe nurture of this new human being. Emotionally healthy parents will do anything to secure their child’s future. For Mary and Joseph, that included a sojourn to Egypt to escape Herod’s jealous rage.
Jesus’ Incarnation causes the Church no less of a disruption and no fewer inconveniences than a newborn’s entry into a family. God expects us to rearrange our corporate life around the reality that the Savior dwells in our midst and must be the center of our attention. Our life together finds order only as every activity and every thought, every strategy and every plan, revolves around knowing Christ and making him know to everyone everywhere. A church in my neighborhood underwent a major re-building a while back, and its architectural design illustrates this reality beautifully. The worship sanctuary is imbedded in the middle of the main church building, surrounded by both classrooms and offices, reminding me of the exodus arrangement of tribal encampments around the Tent of Meeting.
And so, in 2013, I hope the PC(USA) can give attention to how we organize ourselves to give witness to the presence and power of God and to remain alert to his claim upon us. It is this impact for which we must make room in our hearts and in our organization.
October 2, 2012
This morning a Facebook friend posted his status: “Today is a good day.” Having just come off a bad day myself, the simplicity of his statement caught my attention and begged for reflection. Sunday for me was the sort of day Judith Viorst described in her class children’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Well, I had one.
Two events cast their deep shadows on this week’s Sabbath. The first occurred during worship and the second at home late in the day. On this particular week, my participation in worship was musical. The choir director needed a pianist to substitute for our regular keyboardist. So I took on the two pieces, which were spectacular, fun to play, and challenging enough to require hours of practice and 30 minutes with the choir. We have three services, so it would be a long morning. No problem; I’m used to that. Everything went fine (so until 11:37 a.m. it was actually a good day), until the third performance of the second piece. And somehow, inexplicably, I completely lost my concentration at a page turn and muffed the notes so badly the choir could not make its entrance. We had to stop. As we haltingly started again, I still was internally paralyzed for another eight or twelve bars, just thinking about what I had done. I was mortified and felt terrible afterwards, and then the pastor—full of grace and good humor—used the debacle as an illustration of the point he had been making in his sermon. It took me most of the afternoon to get over it.
And then at 5 p.m., while preparing our favorite dinner, I burned the rotisserie chicken. I mean, it went up in flames, along with the potatoes. Fortunately, this all happened outside on the gas grill, but it is indeed a bad day when your long-awaited culinary treat becomes a burnt offering unto the Lord. The morning’s praise offering was marred by an appalling inattention of one sort, and the afternoon’s burnt offering was caused by inattention of another kind. At my places of personal pride—musicianship and gourmet skills—I had failed, and pretty spectacularly.
I could not wait for the day to be over.
Just so you know, two days later, I’ve moved on. And then I read my friends status update: “Today is a good day.”
How do we evaluate the goodness or badness of a day? Typically, I realize after Sunday’s mortification, we judge a day by successes, achievements, whether we got our own way, and circumstances falling in pleasant places. Bad days are days in which we were embarrassed, hassled, frustrated, or incompetent. I know this is how we feel about it. I remember another Alexander-type day several years ago in which several things went wrong, a couple complex problems defied solution, the air conditioning went out on a very hot day. And as I turned out the light and tried to go to sleep, the final insult was hearing a mosquito buzzing around my head, invisible and determined to get its feast for the day. I cried out to the Lord, “Okay, that is it, Lord. It’s my turn for a blessing!” Like Jacob I wrestled with God in utter discomfort and defeat.
But here is the Word from the Lord: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). The day itself, the span of time, is a gift of God. What happens in it might not be so great, but the day is good. It contains opportunities to experience redemption. It gives us practice at being grateful to God despite circumstances. And it provides space for enjoying the presence and power of God in those circumstances. The day itself is good because its Creator is good, and what he has made is good (Genesis 1). He numbers our days lovingly, is present in every one of them, and by his Spirit even provides a way for us to enjoy the day while we tackle the challenges that flow through it. It is not even necessary to resort to Scarlet O’Hara’s philosophy, “Well, fiddle-dee-dee. Tomorrow is another day.” It is true of course, that we have tomorrow; but we still have today to decide how we’re going to feel, how we are going to respond to God, and how we are going to grasp the joy that is both a gift and a choice for the Christian. Yes, it is faith that helps me see it this way, and thank God for that. So I join my friend with the affirmation, “Today is a good day!”
July 2, 2012
One of my favorite verses in my favorite chapter of the whole Bible is this one:
10”But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 8:10-11)