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Saturday, January 23, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Romans 14

I have a way of being that gets me in to trouble from time to time. That way of being is that I try to love, value, and accept all people exactly where they are. I say try because I certainly don’t always live into that way of being.

“So how could such an approach get me into trouble? It sounds like a perfectly commendable way of being,” you might say.

Well, here’s how. Let’s say I’m around a group of folks who are very orthodox in their Christian beliefs and I mention I enjoy reading some of the works of John Shelby Spong or Marcus Borg. Folks in this camp tend to freak out and let me know these works are not acceptable and call my Christianity into question. Then, let’s say a few hours later, I’m moving in progressive circles and I mention that I’ve been touched by something I’ve read by Tony Campollo (a prominent evangelical who teaches at a Baptist seminary). My progressive cohorts often freak out every bit as much – sometimes going so far as to question my “progressive” credentials – because I read someone who has a different theological approach than they have. As someone who lives his spiritual life out of the boxes, this means I catch a lot of flack from those who live their lives inside boxes.

So where do I draw strength and encouragement during my sometimes controversial walk?

From the words of Paul, among other places. Today’s passage contains several tidbits that guide my approach to life. “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do,” Paul began. “And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with… treat them gently” (Romans 14:1 from The Message).

And later - “None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters [referring to the controversy over table practices]” (Romans 14:13 from The Message).

And – “So let’s agree to use all or energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words: don’t drag them down by finding fault” (Romans 14:19 from The Message).

And finally, the most critical words for me in my faith walk: “Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don’t impose it on others” (Romans 14:22 from The Message).

So the next time you find yourself put off by something someone says or does, I would invite you to remember the spirit of these words. The most important thing is not to focus on other people’s faith and worry about whether or not it corresponds to yours; the most important thing is to focus on your own faith and put that faith into action!

Til next time…

Friday, January 22, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Romans 12-13

Many of us who arrive in the United Church of Christ (UCC) come to the UCC from a variety of different faith backgrounds and traditions. I, for instance, arrived in the UCC after having been raised United Methodist. Being part of a faith community that is compromised from individuals from so many backgrounds can certainly be a challenge. It can also be a wonderful blessing – if we welcome the different perspectives people bring rather than feel threatened by them.

Let me give you an example of how I believe my Wesleyan (John Wesley was the founder of the movement we know today as Methodism) roots can help enrich our life together as members of the UCC.

John Wesley put a strong emphasis upon one of the concepts that was contained in today’s passage from Romans 12 – a thing called sanctification.

And what does sanctification mean?

Well, Paul describes it by telling us to “fix our attention on God.” If you do that, he adds, “you’ll be changed from the inside out… God will bring the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you” (Romans 12:1-2 from The Message). That is sanctification: the work God does inside you that changes you, rather than the work you initiate yourself.

So how can this theology inform my way of being in the UCC?

Well, when I hear folks talk about the history of firsts that have been accomplished by congregational communities (things ranging from the first ordinations of African-Americans, women, and gay and lesbian individuals), I think about those “accomplishments” in ways that might be different than some. Instead of thinking about them as things we human beings achieved on our own, I think about these as things God accomplished through us because we opened ourselves to the working of the Spirit within us. If there is a sense of accomplishment in those historical firsts for me – those accomplishments are God’s and not ours. What I CAN celebrate, however, is the faithfulness of my spiritual ancestors in the UCC – for they had the faith and the wisdom to get out of the way and let the Spirit do the Spirit’s thing!

If you happen to be a member of the UCC who has come into the denomination from another faith tradition, I would invite you to spend time thinking today about what perspectives and gifts you have brought to the UCC from your previous background(s). If you have been a lifelong member of the UCC, then you might reflect on some of the perspectives/gifts others have brought from other traditions into the denomination. If you are a part of another faith tradition/denomination (or no faith tradition/denomination), you might think about those things you have brought with you to your journey to this point that are blessings as you move into the future.

Til next time…

Thursday, January 21, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Romans 10-11

It's funny how an unexpected event in one's life can help you arrive at a deeper appreciation of life. I had planned a routine start to my day by waking this morning and working on my blog entry. When I got up, however, I found that our furnace had gone out and there was a heavy smell of natural gas in our house. An emergency call to the Gas Company later, I'm finally getting back into my routine. The good news is that everything is okay. The experience definitely made me appreciate the value of life - wondering what might have happened if the gas had overtaken us in the night. Needless to say, I'm starting the day with a healthy - and renewed - appreciation for the gift of life. Til next time...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Romans 9

If you were to ask me where I developed my sense of humanity’s finiteness (translation, “sin”), I wouldn’t say I developed it primarily in my religious education. I learned about sin during the time I spent in the field of politics. Let me tell you that lesson unfolded.

In the decade I spent working in the field of politics (the 1990’s), I heard much talk about how human beings end things like hunger, poverty, and discrimination if we simply got our act together and made it happen.

Once I entered the field of politics, however, I was forced to face the fact that that will probably never happen. Take the issue of poverty, for example. In theory, we can all SAY it is wrong for some people to have so little. When it comes time for us to put our money where our mouths are (i.e. spread around the wealth), the commitment to eradicate poverty seems to magically disappear. Same thing with extending quality education to all. In theory the idea sounds great. The second it involves making changes that would impact the school my child attends; many of us abandon that principle in a heart beat. It would seem that no matter how hard we human beings try, it is impossible for us to overcome two things that drive us: fear and self-interest.

I’ve thought a lot about this in light of yesterday’s election for US Senator in Massachusetts. The media portrayed the election as if it were primarily a referendum on health care. The outcome, we are told, will have a devastating impact on the future of health care reform – as if human beings could fix the health care system once and for all on our own.

Paul’s words in today’s passage from Romans remind me of the dangers of putting too much stock in our efforts. In speaking of what caused some to miss the impact of Jesus, Paul wrote: “How could they miss it? Because instead of trusting God, they took over. They were absorbed in what they themselves were doing” (Romans 9:32 from The Message).

In the past several months, some of us have gotten so wrapped up with a particular political party or platform that we started to believe the answers lay within ourselves. The election called that assumption into question.

If that’s the case, then what do we do? Throw our hands in the air and give up?

No. For me, the answer lies in deepening our connecting with the One who can help us human beings overcome our fear and self-interest. Once that spiritual connection is strengthened, than maybe – just maybe – we can begin to live into the individual and systemic change that desperately needs to occur.

Til next time…

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Romans 8:18-39

I was talking with a group of friends recently about what is currently happening within many of our mainline churches these days. Some members of the group were incredibly discouraged by the numerous challenges before us.

While some might have felt depressed or discouraged by participating in such a conversation, I walked away feeling excited and energized.

“And why is that?” you might wonder. “Are you a complete moron who didn’t understand the seriousness of what was being discussed?”

Well, I may not be the sharpest tack in the shed, but I did understand their point. What got me excited was that my friends understood that simply doing business as usual in our local churches is no longer going to work. Things are seriously broken – and simply rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic isn’t going to work. It’s only when we face that painful reality that we overcome our denial and put ourselves in a position where we can be transformed into something new. That’s what my friends did. They put themselves in a position where they were open to transformation. That’s what excited and energized me!

Does that mean since my friends have accepted the need for change that everything will now be easy for them?

Absolutely not! In fact, I can guarantee there will be long days ahead when they wish they had never realized that change was in order. Days full of pain. Like any process of creating new life, pain will be present. But oh is it ever worth it when you see what you have birthed!

I was reminded of this as I read Paul’s wonderful words to the Romans: “All around us we observe a pregnant creation,” Paul began. “The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it’s not only around us; it’s within us.”

Then Paul brings it home beautifully.

“That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don’t see what’s enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy” (Romans 8:22 & 25).

Perhaps there is an area of your life where you are currently feeling some pain. Instead of trying to ignore or numb the pain, ask yourself if the pain might be a birth pang – signaling the arriving of something wonderful and new in your life!

Til next time…

Monday, January 18, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Romans 8:1-17

Today I’m thinking a great deal about the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and other contemporary human rights movements. I’m particularly interested in whether or not there are lessons we can learn from the Civil Rights Movement that might help inform our efforts today.

There are certainly dozens of lessons to be learned – but there’s one that jumps out at me right away. As I look at the movement from the 1960’s, I realize that the defining battles for the soul of our country weren’t waged primarily in the courtrooms – the most important battles occurred on the streets of our communities and in the hearts of our citizens.

The Supreme Court may have ruled segregation unconstitutional in Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, for instance; but it took several years (and countless images of fellow Americans being brutalized with police dogs and water hoses) before the hearts of middle America began to slowly change. And when the sons and daughters, pastors and teachers from the suburbs began to get involved in the Freedom Rides – that’s when lasting progress was achieved.

I was reminded of this as I read Paul’s words from today’s passage in Roman, where he wrote: “The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of healing on it” (Romans 8:5 from The Message).

While I realize the passage is addressing an entirely different kind of law than that typically address by the courts in the United States, I think the underlying point is similar: the law itself won’t get us there. Something more is required…

On a day when we remember the important advances that have occurred because of Martin Luther King, Jr. my prayer is that each of us will recommit ourselves to ushering in a new era of liberty and justice for all in the most subversive manner possible: one shared story - and one changed heart - at a time. Til next time…

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: Revelation 21:10-16

Today was a special worship service in which we remembered and celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s visit to the church (Woodland Hills Community Church) 49 years ago. For my sermon time, I used four sections from the sermon he delivered that day titled "The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life". The first two dimensions King covered that day (the personal and interpersonal dimension) didn't seem that unusual since they dealt with topics related to King that are covered by the media. The third dimension he covered - (the faith dimension) is an area that doesn't typically get as much media coverage. This material - inspired by Revelation 21:16 - was wonderful because it gave me new insights into King's faith perspective on the world. Here is an excerpt from King's sermon at Woodland Hills Community Church on January 15, 1961...

"One more dimension of the complete life remains, namely, the height or that upward reach toward something distinctly greater than humanity. We must rise above earth and give our ultimate allegiance to that eternal Being who is the source and ground of all reality.

When we add height to length and breadth, we have the complete life. Just as there are some people who never get beyond length, so there are others who never get beyond the combination of length and breadth. They brilliantly develop their inner powers, and they have a genuine humanitarian concern. But they stop short. They are so earth-bound that they conclude that humanity is God. They seek to live without a sky.

There are probably several reasons why modern people have neglected this third dimension. Some have honest intellectual doubts. Looking upon the horrors of moral and natural evil, they ask, 'If there is a good God who is all-powerful, why does God permit such unmerited pain and suffering to exist?' Their inability adequately to answer this question leads them into agnosticism. And there are those who also find it difficult to square their scientific and rationalistic findings with the sometimes unscientific dogmas of religion and the primitive conception of God.

I suspect, however, that a majority of people fit into still another category. They are not theoretical atheists; they are practical atheists. They do not deny the existence of God with their lips, but they are continually denying [God’s] existence with their lives. They live as though there is no God."

Til next time...