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Saturday, February 20, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: 1 Corinthians 3-4

I spent all day yesterday attending a church vitality event in Long Beach, CA. I had the opportunity to sit in three sessions led by Rev. Anthony Robinson from the Seattle area.

Since the issue we were discussing was congregational vitality, we spent some time looking at issues that arise in troubled (or non-vital) congregations. And wouldn’t you know it – one of the resources he frequently turned to was the book of 1 Corinthians.

Paul’s words to the community in Corinth were helpful because he did two things in his letter that we can still learn from 2,000 years later. First, he identified some of the ways a community gets off track. And second, he identified the way vital faith communities should act.

In today’s passage, Paul wrote one sentence in particular that captured the essence of my entire approach to ministry. That sentence reads: “God’s way is not a matter of mere talk; it’s an empowered life.”

The first half of that statement points to a challenge to the lay persons in our community. It’s easy, for instance, for lay folks to slide into a critical mode and simply talk about what’s happening in the community. It’s much easier to respond to things by simply telling others what the community should be doing and then walk away – expecting others to carry through the project for you. A truly healthy community doesn’t allow an individual to get away with that. A healthy community would expect folks to step up to the plate and actively be a part of addressing the concern.

Which leads to the second half of the equation – the spiritual leader(s) of the community.

Lots of spiritual leaders will complain about lay people who don’t do enough. That complaint isn’t really accurate. What they really mean is that the lay people aren’t doing enough of what the pastor is telling them to do.

Paul isn’t an advocate of this approach at all – at least not in today’s passage. Instead, Paul talks about people living an “empowered life”. This means our spiritual leaders must shift gears and invite lay folks into the process of addressing concerns in truly meaningful ways. Instead of telling them what to do, for instance, a leader should begin by asking them what they feel God is calling them to do. Once that is identified, a pastor’s task is all about empowering the individuals so she/he can go forth and actually lead the ministry themselves.

In both cases (whether from a lay or clergy perspective), one thing is clear. Living a life of faith wasn’t meant to be a spectator sport. It’s all about discerning God’s call (as opposed to simply doing what you want!), developing those skills to follow one’s call in community, and then using those acquired skills to carry out one’s call.

Perhaps there is a project that you believe is crucial that is not happening in your world. Maybe you’ve ever grown a little angry or bitter because that project has not yet been realized. If that’s the case, stand up – walk to your bathroom mirror – and glance at the person you see standing before you. Chances are looking at the person God has called to move things forward.

Til next time…

Friday, February 19, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: 1 Corinthians 2

If you were to ask most folks on the street when the next National Football League season begins, they would say, “September” – since September marks the beginning of the 2010 regular season. Others might say, “July” – since that’s when training camp opens. A few might say, “April” – since that’s when the NFL Draft is held. A few of us odd ducks might even say “February” – since that’s when the Combine is held for rookies to show off for NFL scouts in hopes of getting teams to want to draft them. In case you can’t tell by now, I am one of those hard-core NFL fans that would say the season begins in February.

As an hard-core NFL fan, the two months between the Combine and NFL Draft are hell for me because I have to endure several weeks of speculation regarding who my team – the Houston Texans - will draft. Will it be a cornerback to potentially replace Dunta Robinson who might leave via free agency? Will it be a running back to take many of the duties away from Steve Slaton? Will it be yet another defensive tackle who can help with the pass rush? The speculation is tortuous!! If I visit 10 different websites looking for predictions, you can often get 10 different answers. All of that makes me wonder, “Do these so-called ‘experts’ really have a clue about what they are talking about?”

Paul asked himself a similar question when it came to the so-called experts regarding peoples’ spiritual lives. And his answer was a resounding, “No!”

When it comes to the depths of our spiritual lives, Paul wrote: “We don’t have to rely on the world’s guesses and opinions. We didn’t learn this by reading books or going to school: we learned it from God, who taught us person-to-person through Jesus, and we’re passing it on to you in the same firsthand, personal way” (1 Corinthians 2:12-13 from The Message).

During this season of Lent, the next time you find yourself facing a problem and are tempted to run to the latest source of information to help you “solve it” – stop for a moment and spend some time in God’s presence in the way that is most meaningful for you. See if that most ancient Source might give you access to wisdom and strength you desperately need to face the turbulence life throws our way.

Til next time…

Thursday, February 18, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: 1 Corinthians 1

Just before I started reading the first chapter of 1 Corinthians, I took some time and read Eugene Peterson’s introduction to the book. Two of the sentences jumped out at me right away. Those sentences read: “The people of Corinth had a reputation in the ancient world as an unruly, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous bunch of people. When Paul arrived with the Message and many of them became believers in Jesus, they brought their reputations with them right into the church.”

Those words reminded me that each of our faith communities is often a collection of folks from a variety of faith backgrounds. Each of us responds to those backgrounds a little differently. Some people, for instance, embrace those backgrounds and want pieces incorporated of that background incorporated into their new faith community. Others figure they have left their previous faith tradition for a reason and want nothing whatsoever to do with anything that reminds them of the faith tradition they left.

On the surface, you would think this makes it impossible to live together in a faith community – for no matter what you do, there will always be those who disagree. Even those who come from identical backgrounds! Believe me, there are days when it feels impossible to live together. But I do believe there is a way to go forward and live together as a community.

And what is that way?

By focusing on what unites us instead of that which separates us. Here’s how Paul talked about it. “But to us who are personally called by God Godself – both Jews and Greeks – Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one” (1 Corinthians 1:24 from The Message).

Today I would invite you to consider the way(s) in which you carry yourself. Do you tend to be drawn to those things that separate us (things like backgrounds and personal preferences); or are you drawn to that which unites us?

Til next time…

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Mark 15-16

When it comes to identifying my favorite version of “the Easter story”, I would have to say my favorite version is contained in the original text of the Gospel of Mark (by that I mean the version ending with Mark 16:8 that concludes by saying: “They [Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome] got out as fast as they could, beside themselves, their heads swimming. Stunned, they said nothing to anyone”).

My selection of this version would probably surprise folks on the theological right while my reason for choosing this version might unarm folks on the theological left. Let me tell you why I say that I’m an equal opportunity offender.

Some folks on the theological right would be surprised to hear I prefer the version of the Easter story that doesn’t give any evidence of Jesus’ resurrection since they assume the only value of the story lies in the supernatural raising of Jesus. “Without that,” they would argue, “the story has no value!”

Some folks on the theological left, on the other hand, might be disturbed with my reason for choosing Mark’s version of the story. Unlike some progressive folks who prefer Mark’s version because it places less importance upon the physical resurrection compared to the other Gospel accounts, I like Mark’s version because it preserves a sense of mystery associated with the Easter event. It doesn’t attempt to answer the question of what the resurrection means for you; it invites you to sit with unknown dimensions of what the event might mean. In other words, Mark’s version allows you to remain – well – stunned.

And that – at least for me – is the beauty of the upcoming Lenten and Easter season. It invites us to explore a faith that leaves room for mystery. Even more important from my vantage point, it invites me to have an experience – not simply rest in a conclusion. That is a rare thing these days when folks on either end of the theological spectrum seem to clamor for a conclusion.

My hope and prayer for you this Lent is that you will have an experience all your own – and that you may grow in your appreciation for the sense of mystery and wonder that grows out of the empty tomb.

Til next time…

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Mark 14:32-72

For many years, I found myself on a sort of pendulum when it came to my spiritual life. I would go through times when I felt especially connected to God and my spiritual life seemed to be booming. It was easy for me to find time for prayer/meditation, my devotions, and participation in spiritual community. Other times, however, things didn’t come so easy. Often, when I fell away from my spiritual practices, it would get me off track and start extended periods of disconnection for me.

The reading I did today from Mark was a good challenge for me to confront my “roller coaster” approach toward my spiritual life – going from one extreme to another. For in that reading, there were two examples of how Peter wasn’t able to stay connected to Jesus. There was the famous example of Peter’s denial of Jesus three times in the courtyard. There was also the less famous example of how Peter was one of the three disciples who fell asleep three times in the Garden of Gethsemane while waiting for Jesus.

What’s important for me in all of this is that Peter was able to incorporate all aspects of himself – the parts that were faithful and disciplined as well as those parts that seemed to fall short – and still lead an integrated life. With that in mind, I draw encouragement to get off my roller coaster and start doing a better job integrating all of the aspects of myself into one whole.

As we prepare to officially begin the Lenten season tomorrow, I know that many of you might be adding the practice of a particular spiritual discipline to your Lenten experience. Some of you might be giving something up; others might be adding something. Regardless of what practice you might be incorporating, be gentle with yourself and realize there is a chance that you might not be perfect in your commitments. You might slip up at certain points. If that’s the case, don’t use those slip ups as an excuse to pull back from God. Rather, use them as a reminder that God has reached out to you – just as God reached out to Peter – imperfections and all. Use that realization to draw you even closer to your all-loving, all-embracing Creator.

Til next time…

Monday, February 15, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Mark 14:1-31

Eleven years ago, I was in the process of culminating a long process of discernment. I was trying to decide whether to devote myself to a career in politics or a career in the ministry.

For a while it looked as though my career would be in politics. There was one primary reason why I thought that. It had to do with the impact I thought one could have in each area. I remember thinking to myself: “An elected official has the ability to help create public policy. Those policies impact tens of thousands of lives. I want my life to have that kind of impact!”

And my thinking about parish ministry?

“Well,” I remember thinking, “the work is important, but you work with such a small number of people by comparison. There’s no way my life could have the same sort of impact that it could in politics!”

I smile as I type that for a couple of reasons. First, I smile because of the way my ego was running rampant. I was trying to make my life all about me. Second, I smile because I sorely underestimated the kind of impact a person of faith can have on the world.

Take the woman who anointed Jesus’ head in today’s reading from Mark. Here was a humble person whose life had a tremendous impact. So much so that Jesus said of her, “And you can be sure that wherever in the whole world the Message is preached, what she just did is going to be talked about admiringly.”

“If what she did was so important, than why didn’t the story even bother to name her?” some have asked.

My years of parish ministry have helped me answer that question. You see some of the most transformative things I’ve been around aren’t things that have occurred in state legislatures of in the halls of Congress. Some of the most impactful things I’ve seen have been in much smaller and more intimate settings.

I think, for instance, of the dedicated university scholar who volunteers a tremendous amount of time on his weekends during the school year in order to help a talented group of teenagers create an amazing musical production. I think of the women in their 80’s who labor to pull off an annual fundraiser to benefit a home for troubled adolescent boys. I think of the woman who established an educational/environmental program to benefit the indigenous people of Peru.

None of these are individuals whose stories will make the front page of tomorrow's edition of the Los Angeles Times – yet each of their actions are making the world a better place to live. I am so blessed to have the opportunity to spend a little time with these heroes of mine each week at church.

The next time you begin to wonder what difference your life has made, remember the quiet little story about the woman who anointed Jesus’ head. Then appreciate those quiet little moments when your life has changed the life of another.

Til next time…