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Saturday, June 13

Today’s Readings: Psalm 19; 1 Samuel 13:1-18; John 17:18-26; 2 Corinthians 8:1-8; Psalm 25

Every once in a while I run across a story in the scriptures that pushes every last one of my buttons. Today’s story from 1 Samuel is one such story. The story pushes my buttons because of the way Saul get’s treated in the story. In the story it is implied that Saul was left alone with his soldiers near the scene of the battles at a crucial stage in the military encounter. Samuel said he would return in seven days to help lead the Israelites on the next stage of their journey. Seven days passes and there was no sign of Samuel. So what did Saul do? He did what I think most good leaders would do; he stepped up to the plate, made an offering to God, and prepared to lead his soldiers into the next stage of battle. And what happened to Saul? He got in trouble for not waiting long enough for Samuel’s return?! Now if Saul had not waited for the agreed upon time, or if Saul had tried to rush into battle without seeking God’s blessing; it would have been easier for me to understand why Saul got into trouble. But as it is, the God portrayed through the words of Samuel comes across looking rather capricious and sadistic (neither of which are qualities I would associate with God). I know the moral of the story is supposed to be: “Hang in there and wait upon God – no matter how difficult that waiting might be”. Today, however, I come away with another moral for myself; I come away with a commitment to continue to wrestle with my understanding of God and challenge those portrayals of God that don’t seem consistent with the nature of God as I have come to know and experience it. There is one critical thing I would note here. I’m not continuing to wrestle and challenge others portrayals of God until I can simply mold God into a form that fits my narrow needs and conceptions. Rather, I’ll wrestle and challenge others portrayals of God until I grow in my capacity for truth and understanding – knowing that I’ll never be able to fully grasp the immensity of God. Who knows? Perhaps the wrestling and challenging will lead me to be more (and not less) sympathetic of God as portrayed in today’s reading from 1 Samuel. Go figure. Til next time…

Friday, June 12

Today’s Readings: Psalm 1; 1 Samuel 12:1-6; John 17:9-17; 2 Corinthians 7:10-16; Psalm 119:49-72

As I shared with our Tuesday night Sacred Grounds conversation group last week, I learned something in seminary that made me feel as if I were an odd duck compared to most people. The thing I learned in one of our theology courses is that the single most difficult question most people wrestle with is the question of theodicy (i.e. “Why do bad things happen to good people?”). I must have a warped gene because that question has never bothered me at all. For me, the whole issue of free will answers that questions. It suggests that God is not a puppeteer controlling each and every dimension of our experience. Because God does not control each and every dimension of our experience, what we perceive of as "bad things" are going to happen. Because of this awareness, I’ve taken all of the energy some invest in asking, “Why did this happen?” and formed a different question that has become foundational in my spiritual journey: “What am I going to do with what has happened?” That simple 10-word question has completely transformed my life by taking me out of a victim's role. In reading today’s passage from 2 Corinthians, Paul says some things that reinforced in my mind how important my little old question is. For in writing of what can happen to one when one faces adversity, Paul wrote: “And now, isn’t it wonderful all the ways in which this distress has goaded you closer to God? You’re more alive, more concerned, more sensitive, more reverent, more human, more passionate, more responsible. Looked at from any angle, you’ve come out of this with purity of heart” (2 Corinthians 7:11-12 from The Message). Talk about doing something powerful with something bad!! Today, I would invite you to look back on a recent setback and ask yourself, “What have I done with the experience?” You might be surprised what growth the event can spark – IF you open yourself to that possibility. Til next time…

Thursday, June 11

Today’s Readings: Psalm 28; 1 Samuel 11:1-15; John 17:1-8; 2 Corinthians 7:2-9; Psalm 56

I'm sorry I missed yesterday's posting. I'm in the process of adapting to a new schedule (writing late at night and not in the moring so I can walk the dogs in the morning while it is still cool). I was so tired last night that I posted my entry on a different web page. Sorry! With all that said, let me move on to today's post :)
Growing up, I thought my parents had a really strange marriage. I say that because it seemed that the only time my father would respond to my mother’s requests were those times when she got him upset at him and went off. Once my mother went off, my father would finally get around to responding to whatever request my mother made. “If dad really loved mom,” I remember thinking, “then he would readily do the things she asked of him and NEVER make her ask twice.” Fast forward twenty-five years. Now I’m in my own relationship, and I find some of those dynamics at work in my marriage. Mike, for instance, will gently ask if I’ve returned the movie I rented to Blockbuster. I’ll tune out his request a few times until he finally pushes the issue, and then I get around to doing what I had promised to do. So what’s going on in this scenario? Well, I’ve learned that when you are in an intimate relationship it’s easy to get so comfortable with one another that you start to tune each other out. The tuning out isn’t a sign of disrespect; rather, is a sign that you are incredibly comfortable with one another. There are times, however, when one or both of the partners need to be jarred out of their complacency to tend to the issue at hand. Paul was dealing with a similar dynamic in the community of Corinth at the time he wrote today’s passage from 2 Corinthians: he was dealing with a group of people who felt so comfortable and connected with one another and their God that they started getting a little lackadaisical in tending to their spiritual lives. Consequently Paul jumped into action to shake them up. “I know I distressed you greatly with my letter,” Paul reflected. “Although I felt awful at the time, I don’t feel at all bad now that I see how it turned out. The letter upset you, but only for a while. Now I’m glad – not that you were upset, but that you were jarred into turning things around.” So where are you at in your relationship with God? Are you in a comfortable place where perhaps you’ve grown a little complacent and tuned God out? If so, don’t feel too bad if something dramatic happens to upset your equilibrium and get your attention. That “something” might be just the thing you need to jar you into turning things around. Til next time…

Tuesday, June 9

A few days ago, I connected with an old friend who is going through a painful time of transition. The transition involves his career. You see ten years ago my friend uprooted his family from the East Coast and came all the way to Denver in order to pursue his dream job. For several years he flourished in the position. The past few years, however, his relationship with his employer began to disintegrate until suddenly – promises were broken and the relationship was damaged beyond repair. “The pain,” he sighed, “feels totally overwhelming.” In talking further with my friend, I asked him a question that surprised him. I asked him what the pain might be signaling. “Does the pain you feel signal the end of your dreams,” I asked, “or could the pain represent something else?” “Like what?!” he asked. “Well, the pain that you feel might also represent the birth pangs associated with the birthing a new period of your life.” You see my friend had been thinking of switching fields for a while now. The comfort and security of his current position, however, had made it highly unlikely that he would have ever had the nerve to take the risk to change professions. But now – because his current job is ending – he’ll be able to pursue another dream of his. That realization helped my friend re-frame his situation and begin to move on. I was reminded of that conversation I had with my friend as I read today’s passage from the Gospel of John – for in that passage the evangelist quotes Jesus as saying: “When a woman gives birth, she has a hard time, there’s no getting around it. But when the baby is born, there is joy in the birth. This new life in the world wipes out memory of the pain. The sadness you have right now is similar to that pain, but the coming joy is also similar” (John 16:21-22 from The Message). Perhaps you – like my friend – are currently experiencing a time of hardship in your life: a time when the pain you feel makes it seem as if you are in the midst of death throes. If so, remember that pain does not always signal the end of life – it can also signal the beginning of a new life. May that realization give you strength to see beyond the pain. Til next time…

Monday, June 8

Today’s Readings: Psalm 2; 1 Samuel 9:15-10:1; John 16:1-11; 2 Corinthians 6:1-2; Psalm 70

When we are reading the stories contained in the Hebrew Scriptures (what many call the Old Testament), it’s easy to get so drawn into the details of the story that one misses important theological issues that lie below the surface. Take today’s story from 1 Samuel, for example. In that passage, we are told that God – in speaking of Saul – told Samuel: “He’s the one, the man I told you about. This is the one who will keep my people in check” (1 Samuel 9:17 from The Message). Those words make it pretty clear that Saul was God’s chosen one to lead Israel. Now, let’s hit the pause button for a moment and lift up a religious saying alongside this choice: “God, the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” There are a thousand variations on this saying that make the same point: “God never changes.” And yet if we fast forward in time, Saul doesn’t remain King of Israel until his death. Eventually, Saul falls out of favor with God and is replaced by David. Folks who want to hold on to the singular theological perspective suggesting God never changes might respond to this situation in a couple different ways. First, they might respond by saying, “God didn’t change. SAUL changed.” True. But then this raises questions about two other theological issues: God’s omniscience and God’s omnipotence (put in regular words, “Did God not know that Saul would fail to live up to the faith God placed in him?” and “If God has complete control over every aspect of our lives, why did God allow Saul to get off track?”). So why am I talking about all of this abstract theological stuff today? Because it’s an opportunity to remind ourselves about the limitations of our theologies as human beings. You see our individual theologies represent our attempts to take the Infinite (God) and translate God into finite (i.e.human) terms. No matter how careful we are in our attempts to create a systematic way of thinking about God that way of thinking will at some point fail to capture to complexities and mystery of God. So am I suggesting that we human beings abandon all our attempts to theologically reflect on God? Absolutely not! It’s crucial that each of us develop ways to reflect on the nature of God as we experience God. What is equally crucial, however, is that we have a GREAT deal of humility as we hold on to our personal theology and recognize its inherent limitations. If we all had such humility in terms of our beliefs, I believe our faith would truly make the world a better place. Til next time…

Sunday, June 7

Today’s Reading: John 3:1-17

I met the person who was to become my best friend in seminary at the start of the second quarter of my very first year of seminary. The gentleman’s name was Eric. And if any of you tell Eric I referred to him as a gentleman, I’ll deny it to the bitter end.

Eric and I happened to be going through painful breakups at the time of our meeting, and so that January of 2000 we made a practice of getting together every Thursday evening for dinner to see how we were holding up. That practice stretched through the month of January, then February… and before we knew it, our weekly get-togethers had stretched out over the ensuing nine years!

One interesting aspect of our friendship was that Eric and I were very different people. I had a call to parish ministry and was pursing my Master of Divinity degree; Eric had a call to teach and was pursuing a Ph.D. I was from the Pacific Northwest, Eric was from the Midwest. And I had the good sense to be a fan of Houston sports; Eric did not. Eric had the gall to be a Red Sox fan, but I digress. Anyway, it was those very differences that came to enrich and enliven our friendship.

Over the past nine years, I have learned many things from Eric about the nature of a true friend. One of the most important was the way true friends “support” each other. You see prior to my friendship with Eric, I thought friends were always supposed to "be there for you". By that, I mean they were supposed to agree with you! Eric didn’t always do that. Often, when I would finish telling a story about a difficult thing that had happened to me - and expected a pat on the shoulder and an, “Aw, that’s too bad…” –I would get a head shaken in total disbelief and a “What on earth were you thinking.” Eric was one of the first people in my life who could get real with me and challenge me. And while it took me a while to adjust to having a friend who could call me on my stuff, over the years I’ve grown more because of this friendship than any other.

In today’s reading from the Gospel of John, we are introduced to another two men who had formed an intimate association of their own: Nicodemus, a prominent leader of the Pharisees; and Jesus.

And how do I know their association with each other was relatively intimate?

Two reasons. First, the time of day (or perhaps I should I say “night”) that Nicodemus sought out Jesus. Let’s just say it was outside Jesus’ office hours. And second, the title by which Nicodemus acknowledged Jesus. It wasn’t exactly the sort of address most self-respecting Pharisees of the day would have used to greet Jesus. I probably couldn’t use their preferred title for Jesus in mixed company.

So how did this association affect the manner in which the conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus unfolded?

Well, as one of the members of the Tuesday evening Sacred Grounds conversation group pointed out, Jesus was a little testier with Nicodemus than he was with others. When most folks started out their encounter with Jesus by peppering him with questions, for instance, Jesus typically showed a great deal of patience - and slowly worked with the person to gently open his or her eyes.

Not so with Nicodemus. After Nicodemus’ just third question, Jesus couldn’t contain himself. He got peeved, and challenged Nicodemus by noting, “You’re a respected teacher of Israel and you don’t know these basics?”

And Jesus couldn’t stop there. Like a true friend, Jesus went for the jugular and called Nicodemus out by noting what was really going on through those questions. “… Instead of facing the evidence and accepting it,” Jesus noted, “you procrastinate with questions.”

And that takes us to the main point I want to leave you with this morning in regards to the passage. You see on most Communion Sundays, many of us want to hurry up and get through the Scriptural reading and sermon so that we can mosey on up to the Communion Table and have an encounter with the warm and fuzzy Jesus that we so desperately need –the one that offers unconditional love and unmerited grace. More often than not, what it really means is that we expect to meet that cosmic Yes Man who will accept - and leave us! - exactly as we are.

And yet, as this morning’s story reminds us, we better be careful about the Jesus we meet at the table. For in the midst of the unconditional love and the unmerited grace we find offered at the table, there’s something else waiting for us: the presence of the One through whom we can have the whole and lasting life – the One who came to put the world right. But in order to do that – in order to give us wholeness, in order to set things right - the living spirit of Christ will do to us what he did to Nicodemus. He’ll call us on our stuff.

Friends, on a Sunday when we celebrate Jesus’ standing invitation to open ourselves to being born from above, let us take a few moments to ponder those aspects of our lives that continue to tie us to those things down below – in hopes that we might have the courage once and for all let go of them and soar to those places that Jesus would lead…