Tuesday, October 24, 2017

What is the most important question today?

Our minds might race to answer, “What is the most important question today in the church?” But, I am wondering what is the most important question in the world today. Does it have to do with the economy? Politics? Divisiveness? Healthcare? The environment?  Or, is the most important question one of meaning? Where do people find meaning in their lives? How do they see God?
This question is about relevance. What means the most to the most people? What question challenges everyone? What question has universal implications? We know that we will all die, so maybe the most important question is about death. Life had to come from somewhere. Most religions, including our Christian faith, offer some suggestions about the origin of all that exists.
The beauty of this question is dialogue. We have different answers. Our answers come from our various perspectives. And, as we share our answers we learn from one another. The answers can relate to the end of time or the beginning of life. This query is a point of departure. It is a place to begin exploration. The church is a place where we can pursue these questions. The church is a safe place—a place where we can be both validated and challenged at the same time.
Isaiah 64:4 says, “From ages past no one has heard, no ear perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.” Paul quotes this verse in 1 Corinthians 2:9. The following verses suggest the Holy Spirit’s continuing involvement in the world. We can pursue these difficult questions in the church and have faith that God will engage with us on the journey. There are mysteries and we can explore them, but we explore them together. Perhaps, as we continue to build a safe place to pursue these important questions, other people will join us in our pursuit. This is my prayer.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Be Still When the Wicked Prosper

Psalm 37:7, "Be still before the Lord and wait patiently; do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes."

Recently, I encountered someone who has a "wicked scheme." This person works toward her own selfish desires. And, she seems to be indifferent to the pain she causes others. Mercifully, I rarely encounter such nefarious plans, but sometimes I do. On such occasions, maintaining perspective can be a challenge.

Many people struggle. No two journeys are identical. And, even the ones who appear to hatch a "wicked scheme" have a life. That life is unique and many variables join together to create the context that births "wicked schemes." Evil does not exist in isolation.

For many years, I have collected rocks. My collection resides on my desk and reminds me to maintain perspective. One rock is worn almost into a smooth ball. For many years, the sea and sand rolled and washed it. How many years did it take for it to become smooth? Several others are flat and stack into a mini-cairn.

John Muir, who founded Yosemite National Park, reads rocks with great sensitivity. After returning to the wild, he wrote, "All the rocks seemed talkative, and more lovable than ever. They are dear friends, and have warm blood gushing through their granite flesh; and I love them with a love intensified by long and close companionship" (Yosemite and Beyond, p. 145-46).

What do my rocks say to me? They remind me to keep my perspective. They point me back to the psalmist who said, "Be still before the Lord." When someone embarks on a "wicked scheme," God remains God. I do not have to answer for others or their plans. I answer for myself. What can I do? "Wait patiently... do not fret," says the psalmist.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Need for Systematic Theology

The German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg published an essay in 1991 called, “The Need for “The content of truth that is inherent in the documents of the tradition has to be determined again and again, because in each historical situation a new effort is needed to distinguish the truth of the gospel…from the evanescent forms of language and thought that at one time served to express such abiding truth.”[1]  In other words, we have to keep exploring our faith. We have to keep pushing it further. We cannot take things at face-value. Our context is different from the context of Charlottesville twenty or fifty years ago. We keep pushing our faith so that we can grow and come to a deeper understanding of our relationship with God.
Systematic Theology.” He writes,
Theology revisits old questions. As Christians, we can ask, “Is the Holy Spirit saying something new?” If the answer is, “yes,” then we do not indict the past. We recognize God’s continuing engagement with the world. And, we give thanks! For God still loves the world! The world still needs this good news.
In the Gospel of John, we read, “After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord--and you are right, for that is what I am. So, if I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you and example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’” There is a lot to unpack in these verses. Theology provides us with tools to better understand the meaning. 
The content of truth has not changed. Jesus is the Christ and sets an example for us to follow. But, we need to determine that truth and how it applies to our lives again and again. The lens through which we see the world today is different from the lenses we used when we were children. Likewise, the lens we use today is different than 100 or 1,000 years ago. We engage with God and God can handle our questions. We can push further and dig deeper. If you ever want to discuss one of these big questions, please come and see me. I love theological questions and searching for the answers with friends. I look forward to continuing the journey with you and growing in faith with you.

[1] Wolfhart Pannenberg, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991).

Monday, September 4, 2017

Psalm 26--A Reflection

Vindicate me, O Lord,
    for I have walked in my integrity,
    and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me;
    test my heart and mind.
For your steadfast love is before my eyes,
    and I walk in faithfulness to you.[a]
I do not sit with the worthless,
    nor do I consort with hypocrites;
I hate the company of evildoers,
    and will not sit with the wicked.
I wash my hands in innocence,
    and go around your altar, O Lord,
singing aloud a song of thanksgiving,
    and telling all your wondrous deeds.
Lord, I love the house in which you dwell,
    and the place where your glory abides.

Mayella Ewell had no friends and was lonely. The Great Depression chased away not just material wealth, but hope too. For some people, it left a poverty of the soul. During the long, hot summer days in Maycomb, AL, Mayella looked for a friend in Tom Robinson. The problem was in the 1930s, in Maycomb, AL, Tom and Mayella could not be friends, or anything more. Mayella was white and Tom was African-American. Mayella did not see it as a problem and sought Tom’s affection. Tom knew this could only go one way. He rejected her advances and…[1]
Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn'd[2]
Mayella accused Tom of attacking her. Atticus Finch was the attorney who tried to defend Tom. I do not know if Harper Lee knew Psalm 26 or thought about it when she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. But, I heard Tom’s voice when reading the words of Psalm 26, “Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity, and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering. Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind.”
Who stands with the boldness, even arrogance, to say, “Vindicate me, O Lord”? One who is innocent. When accused, we only seek trial when we know we are not guilty. In Psalm 26, we do not know if it is about a trial. We do not know if it is about false accusations. This particular psalm is elusive. Commentators disagree about its purpose and connection with other psalms. Some say it is connected with Psalms 7 and 17, in which the psalmist seeks justice. Others argue that it is similar to Psalms 15 and 24 and it is an entrance liturgy. Still others find a connection with psalms petitioning God’s help against the wicked.[3]  
If we look at the content of the Psalm itself, we see, “Prove me, Lord… I do not sit with the worthless… I go around your altar… Lord, I love the house in which you dwell.” Paul Mosca suggests that a priest was preparing to go to the altar. In ancient Israel, only priests could go around the altar, and the law required them to wash their hands and feet before approaching it or else they would die. Mosca suggests that this is the private prayer of a priest getting ready for worship.[4] It sounds like a plea, like, “I want to serve you God. You know me. You know what I do, how I act. Please find me worthy of your presence.”
Too often, readers of this Psalm connect it with the Pharisee in Luke 18:11. Jesus is critical of his prayer. The Pharisee says, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people.” The Bible lacks stage direction or notes about tone, but I can hear the Pharisee saying, other people, with a certain implication in his voice. When we connect Psalm 26 with self-righteousness, we read into it something that is not necessarily there.
There are two troubling aspects of Psalm 26. First, it seems self-righteous. Second, separating the wicked from the righteous sounds elitist. All of this harkens to the Pharisee in Luke 18, and Jesus is critical of him. We do not want to be like the Pharisee. However, this kind of reading ignores the possible context of accusing someone who is innocent. The jury in Tom Robinson’s trial ignored the facts and assumed the white Mayella told the truth.
Context matters. The psalmist’s plea, “Vindicate me, O Lord,” suggests a deep trust in God. In other words, Lord, no matter what is happening, I trust you. We can know that God is greater than our problems or circumstances. Maybe we are not in Tom Robinson’s shoes. Maybe we do not have someone falsely accusing us. But, we can see in this plea a basis for trusting God. The psalmist believes that God is interacting with us. We are not alone. God cares and God acts in our lives. When we pray, our words do not hit the ceiling and bounce back. God is with us.
The psalmist suggests a divine ethic. “I do not sit with the worthless… I hate the company of evildoers.” There is a good and a bad. How we behave matters. James Mays writes, “Psalm 26 reminds us, then, that there is a legitimate form of separatism. Not anything goes! God opposes evil. Those who submit their lives to God’s sovereignty will be different from those who follow only the direction of the self.”[5] The faith journey has a form. It has direction.
What is it? Is it, as the prophet Micah says, “Do justice and walk humbly with God”? In our gospel lesson, Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” To live out the psalm means having a tangible faith. It means that people recognize God in us. The way we speak, the way we act, and the way we live our lives should reflect the plea in this psalm. It should reflect our trust in God.
How do we trust God? Not, do we trust God? The latter is a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. We can say, “Yes, I trust God,” and be done with it. But, to ask, “How do we trust God?” implies something deeper for our lives. What do we do to provide evidence for our trust in God? Do we lay ourselves bare, saying, “Search the depths of my soul, Lord, because we know you already know, and I feel confident that my life reflects your love”? Then, as we bear our souls before God, we can live out our trust in tangible ways.
Atticus Finch did not convince the jury to exonerate Tom Robinson. But, God is bigger than the fictional lawyer in Harper Lee’s book. We can trust and know that God is God and capable of addressing all of our needs. Amen.

[1] Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (New York: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1960).
[2] William Congreve, The Works of William Congreve, ed. D. F. McKenzie, vol. 2 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 60.
[3] James L. Mays, Psalms, ed. James L. Mays, Patrick D. Miller, Jr., and Paul J. Actemeier, Interpretation (Louisville: John Knox, 1994), 781.
[4] Paul G. Mosca, "Psalm 26: Poetic Structure and the Form-Critical Task," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47, no. 2 (1985).
[5] Mays, 783.