For the last several weeks, I have anxiously been awaiting the release of the movie “The Lovely Bones”. I’ve been looking forward to it because I admire the work of Director Peter Jackson, and I like actor Mark Wahlberg a great deal. So on opening night last night Mike and I went.
In case you are wondering what I thought of the film, I can honestly tell you I enjoyed the film a great deal. In talking about the movie afterwards, however, I realized the story is not for everyone. In addition to dealing with tough issues like the murder of a child, the film is challenging because it presents a different understanding of what it means to have “a happy ending”.
You see lots of us expect that the phrase “happy ending” means things resolve themselves exactly the way we think they should. We project our thoughts, our likes/dislikes, our preferences from the past and present into the future. If they line up, we walk away thinking the story has a happy ending; if they don’t line up, we feel dissatisfied. The challenge with “The Lovely Bones” is that things aren’t neatly tied up at the end of the movie; things resolve themselves in unexpected ways. That can be difficult to live with.
I was reminded of this as I read Romans 6-7 today. In that material, Paul talks about the move from a life of sin/death to a life of grace/freedom. A piece that struck me about this move was contained in Romans 6:4-5: “When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace – a new life in a new land” (from The Message). The thing that most struck me here was the final phrase – “a new life in a new land”. It reminds me that we can’t simply project our past and present into the future when it comes time to step into our new faith lives – we have to be open to truly opening ourselves to the new. And new doesn’t always mean easy or comfortable. New simply means new.
If someone would have told me when I began fully opening myself to “a new life” ten years ago that it would mean packing things up; leaving behind a career, family, and friends; moving 1,100 miles away to attend seminary; and serving two parishes 1,200 miles apart - I would have laughed in the person’s face. I would have wanted nothing to do with what I would have perceived of back then as an agonizing series of losses and risks. And yet talk to me today, and I will tell you this new life is the best thing that ever happened to me!
So as you think about the issues of new life and resolutions (or “happy endings”), today I would invite you to consider how open you are to this concept of “new life”. Til next time…
What I’m Reading Today: Romans 5
As I was reading the fifth chapter of Romans, I spent some time considering the language Paul used to talk about the human condition. “All that passing laws against sin did was produce more lawbreakers,” Paul noted. “But sin didn’t, and doesn’t, stand a chance in competition with the aggressive forgiveness we call grace” (Romans 5:20 from The Message). I started playing with the mental imagery of what those words suggested. The notion of sin seemed to represent a weighted or heaviness. And grace? Well, it represented a freedom and lightness. As I was thinking of these concepts, I happened to watch a taped episode of the television show Glee that I had missed when it first ran. The episode was called Wheels – and it contained a version of a song from the musical Wicked that I had not heard before: “Defying Gravity”. The song played with the notion of letting go of those things that hold you back (i.e. gravity/sin). So today, I thought I would share that song as a way to think about grace in new ways. Til next time…
When I was a candidate in the ordination process, one of my mentors suggested I read a short book by Melvin Wheatley called “Christmas is for Celebrating”. When he first made the suggestion, I wasn’t too thrilled. After all, at any given time during my seminary career I was reading somewhere between three and six books. “Don’t worry,” Tom smiled sheepishly as he read me like a book. “It’s short.”
By the time I finished the book, I completely understood why my mentor recommended it. It was the kind of book that transforms lives on several levels. There was one chapter in particular that caught my eye. The chapter had to do with the importance of receiving. Our depth of our spiritual lives as Christians, Wheatley noted, is related to our willingness to open ourselves to the receipt of God’s grace. The more of God’s grace we receive – the more we have to give.
When I first read that chapter, I hated it! I hated it because I was a terrible receiver. Virtually my whole life had been predicated on my ability to give to others. I was darn good at giving! I rarely if ever slowed down long enough to receive things from others. That’s because (if I were to be totally honest) I thought only weak people were receivers. Strong people like me were givers!
Wheatley’s chapter forced me to confront my bias against receiving and helped ground me in the spirit of the words contained in Romans 4. “If you’re a hard worker and do a good job,” Paul began, “you deserve your pay; we don’t call your wages a gift. But if you see that the job is too big for you, that it’s something only God can do, and you trust God to do it – you could never do it for yourself no matter how hard and long you worked – well, that trusting-God-to-do-it is what gets you set right with God, by God. Sheer gift” (Romans 4:4-5 from The Message).
As I have grown in my ability to embrace those words over the years, I’ve found an amazing sense of freedom. I’ve come to accept the multitudes of my own limitations and see myself for what I primarily am: a receiver and not a giver.
So how about you? Would you consider yourself primarily a giver or receiver – or some combination of the two?
Til next time…
One of the most controversial things we spiritual leaders in progressive communities can do is talk about sin. This is true for many reasons – one of which is because spiritual leaders who were more orthodox went to such lengths in talking about the absolute depravity of human beings that there position seemed out of touch. “What about all of the altruistic acts of goodness that human beings regularly perform?” progressives would ask. “Don’t those acts prove that sin doesn’t define us?” So the pendulum swung in the opposite direction – and we have spent a few hundred years contemplating the perfectibility of humanity.
All the while those of us comfortable with the notion of sin have sat somewhere in the middle and watched the pendulum swing by us in each direction – from total depravity to perfectibility and back again.
“So how can someone who calls him/herself ‘progressive’ be okay with sin?” you might wonder.
Well, here’s where the work of Karl Barth was helpful for me in seminary. Instead of using over moralistic language to talk about sin, Barth distinguished between two levels of reality. The first level is the Infinite; the second, the finite. God, by definition, represents the Infinite aspect of creation. All other creation is finite by nature – since it inherently has some degree of limitation. Sin, Barth suggested, is when the finite (the limited) confuses itself with the Infinite (the limitless). That way of thinking about sin is helpful.
Let me give you an example of where I see evidence of sin (human attempts to deny our limitedness): the debate about healthcare reform. Over the past several months, I have watched as we American have considered our options. Some would say the thing that has limited our ability to significantly expand health coverage is the insurance industry and its desire to preserve the status quo (and all of the profits it generates from the status quo). I don’t think that’s what’s really hindered the process. What’s hindered significant progress in my mind is the fear of those who currently have health insurance – a fear that their coverage would be limited or that their premiums would increase. Many of those currently covered would prefer that some in our land receive no access to health care than risk giving up the coverage that they’ve grown accustomed to. This fear is predicated on the principle of scarcity (there is only so many benefits to go around – so I have to fight against the rights of others to maintain my share). The principle of scarcity is rooted in a sense of limitedness – a byproduct of our finite nature. So we elect individuals to sit around tables, craft legislation that will solve the problem for us (i.e. assume the role of Infinite), and then look the other way when millions continue to be denied health care. How sad.
I’ve talked a bit about where I see evidences of this sin – this confusion of the finite with the Infinite – that Paul mentioned in today’s passage from Hebrews. Where do you see evidence of this?
Til next time…
What I’m Reading Today: Romans 1:18-2
Worship is most transcendent for me when it invokes the creative energies of those within the community. Yesterday, a friend sent me the link to this clip which captures an entirely new realm of creativity (at least for me). Therefore, it provided me with an incredibly sacred experience. While the subject matter is not - by some definitions- sacred (the woman in the clip was creating an experience to interpret the Ukrainian experience of World War II), I believe you can be spiritually touched by watching her artistic interpretation of the events visually unfold. I hope this experience helps open you to new ways of experiencing the Holy that could inform you spiritual/worship life. Til next time…
When it comes to aging, there are definitely pros and cons to the whole process. Some of the cons include things like the fact that your metabolism slows down (i.e. I now gain 2 pounds from eating two slices of pizza whereas I use to be able to eat an entire pizza and not notice the difference); you get aches and pains occasionally for no good reason; and you tend to fall asleep before the conclusion of some episodes you like on late night television. Ug!
So how about the pros?
Some of the pros of aging would include things like gaining a sense of what’s important/not important; an increase in one’s ability to appreciate the so-called “little things” in life; and gaining self-confidence so you aren’t as dependent on other peoples’ opinions as you were when you were younger. All of those are great things!
One of the pros of aging even spills over to my daily devotions. Take today’s passage from Romans, for example. For many years when I was reading Paul’s letters I would practically skip over the words of salutation at the beginning of his letters. And when I did stop to read those words, they sounded incredibly corny to me.
Fast forward eight years into my ministry, and guess what? Those words make complete sense to me.
Paul wrote: “I think God through Jesus for everyone one of you. That’s first. People everywhere keep telling me about your lives of faith, and every time I hear them, I thank [God]” (Romans 1:8-9 from The Message). After having left my first parish (a parish that I loved and cherished), I now know exactly how Paul felt.
So how’s your connection with your local faith community?
If you are currently participating in a local faith community, take a moment to stop and give thanks for the many ways it blesses your life! Thank you people of Woodland Hills Community Church!!! If you don’t have one, take a risk and reach out to one. While participation in a local church can certainly cause its share of headaches, it’s also brings with it transformative moments of love and grace – moments unlike any other!
Til next time…