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Friday, June 11, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Colossians 2

I’m a person who has always enjoyed being a student. That’s because I love the experience of having another person share her or his passions with me – thereby opening another realm of the human experience to me.

It probably wouldn’t surprise you then to learn that I really enjoyed attending seminary. For the first time in my life, however, I discovered that as much as I loved to learn – there was a point at which I encountered some real frustration in the classroom.

At what point was that?

It was the point where we were talking about material in both my biblical studies class and Christian history classes where we were talking about material that most lay people weren’t familiar with. Some of it was difficult and unsettling material in terms of its implications.

“So how would you preach or teach that material on a Sunday morning?” one of my classmates asked.

“I don’t know,” the professor said. “It’s your job to figure it out.”

In that brief exchange during my final year of seminary, I realized that I was ready to move away from a life spent primarily exploring things in the abstract and begin to put some flesh and bones on those ideas. Instead of simply talking about a word like “sin”, for instance, I was ready to start journeying with those (including myself!) grappling with the effects of brokenness in their lives. Instead of reading about others notions of theodicy, I was ready to take someone’s hand grappling with a tragedy and listen as they cried out, “Why me?!” Instead of talking theoretically about the challenges of religious pluralism these days, I was ready to help interfaith couples explore ways to raise their children with integrity. In other words, my frustration in the classroom came from the fact that I realized it was time to put the thoughts we had spent years exploring into action.

The author of Colossians picks up on this same sense of urgency when he wrote: “My counsel for you is simple and straightforward: Just go ahead with what you’ve been given… You know your way around the faith. Now do what you’ve been taught. School’s out: quit studying the subject and start living it! And let your living spill over into thanksgiving.”

Today I wonder if there is an area of your life in which you’ve lost yourself in the abstract: an area where you’ve spent so much time speculating about things that you’ve become immobilized. If that’s the case, take today’s words to heart and start putting your thoughts into action. As long as you stay connected to the Spirit, you’ll be in fine shape. You’ll have the added benefit of seeing your thoughts transform your world.

Til next time… (PS: Tomorrow I will be attending the Annual Meeting for the Southern-California/Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ in Santa Ana, CA so I won't be posting. I'll see you back on Monday morning!)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Colossians 1

One of the reasons I appreciate Eugene Peterson’s work so much is that he’s able to balance what are often seen as two completely separate streams. As a former seminary professor who spent a few decades working in a local church, he’s able to blend academic pursuits with the practical implementation of those ideas in “the real world”. That blend is evident in the short introduction he wrote to the book of Colossians.

“… it is quite common,” Peterson begins by noting, “for those who consider [Jesus] truly important to include others who seem to be equally important in his company – Buddha, Moses, Socrates, and Muhammad for a historical start, along with some personal favorites… The Christians in the town of Colosse, or at least some of them, seem to have been taking this line. For them, cosmic forces of one sort or another were getting equal billing with Jesus. [The author of the letter wrote] to them in an attempt to restore Jesus, the Messiah, to the center of their lives.”

For many progressives, that summary statement can be challenging – because we’ve encountered those in the Christian community who portray Jesus as a divisive presence that separates – or cuts us off from one another. Hence, we tend to avoid too much Jesus talk.

That’s not exactly the way the author presents Jesus in today’s passage. “So spacious is he,” the author states, “so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that,” the author continues, “but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe – people and things, animals, and atoms – get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies…” That’s the work of the Jesus I know!

These words provide us with a wonderful opportunity to explore the way we think about this Jesus through whom we experience the fullness of God. How do you see Jesus? Do you view him as a divisive force that pits one group against another; do you see him as an expression of the expansive love and grace of God; or perhaps as something else? What a wonderfully challenging question to sit with today!

Til next time…

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Philippians 3-4

When I was home a couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to do dinner with a friend whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. She had not known me since I had left my hometown for seminary and was subsequently ordained. She was intrigued by the idea that her “old friend” was now a pastor.

“So what’s the hardest part of being a pastor?” she asked. “Is it having to come up with a sermon every week?”

I laughed when she said that for it wasn’t the first time I had been asked the question (or heard that anticipated response about the sermon being the hardest part of my position). Lots of folks tend to focus on the sermon and the worship leading part as the most demanding of my call. They probably focus on that area since it’s the most visible piece of a pastor’s call. But that piece isn’t the most challenging (at least for me). “The most challenging part,” I said, “is learning to live with the constant stress that surrounds you.”

“What kind of stress does a pastor have?” she asked innocently.

So I told her. “Well,” I began, “at any given moment you can be: dealing with an individual in the midst of a personal crisis; trying to sort out the challenges of operating the church in a tight budget; dealing with an individual who is disgruntled that you aren’t doing enough (or perhaps doing too much!) in any given area of the church’s ministry; trying to keep up with your pastoral visits; trying to mediate conflict(s) between parishioners; trying to do some effective community outreach... And that’s just a start. Once one area resolves itself,” I added, “you immediately move into a new area of concern/controversy and start all over. You never get much of a chance to catch your breath.”

“So why do it if it’s so demanding,” my friend said.

“Because I love it!” I said – saying something she perhaps least expected.

“How can you love it when it is so intense?” she asked.

A big part of that answer comes from a portion of today’s reading from Philippians. “Don’t fret or worry,” Paul began. “Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it,” he continued, “a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down.”

Those words capture about the only way I know to engage in a sustained practice of ministry. I say that because it is humanly impossible to do even an adequate “job” in serving if you were to rely solely on your abilities. Instead, over the years I’ve grown in my ability to trust that God is in the midst of all things. Once I grounded myself in that reality, my control issues begin to dissipate and I see those words wonderful words of Paul’s – “a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down” – begin to kick in in my own life. That helps me see look beyond the stress and the worry and see the amazing blessings of being in ministry.

Of course pastors aren’t the only ones living with constant stress. Chances are you are live with a tremendous amount of stress as well. The question I would invite you to consider today is this: what do you do with your stress?

Does your stress/worry cause you to ramp up and try to assert your control over everything; or does your stress serve as a warning sign that there is something you need to let go of so you can allow a sense of wholeness to begin to emerge?

Til next time…

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Philippians 2

Like many individuals, I admire my mother a great deal. In fact, when it came to the early formation of my spiritual life she played a bigger role than anyone else. I learned so much from her. I learned what it meant to develop (and implement!) regular spiritual disciplines like daily devotions and prayer. I learned what it means to be a contributing part of a community, and I learned the importance of balancing one’s commitment to missions with the cultivation of one’s spiritual life. All of these were formative lessons for me.

There is one area in which we significantly differ, however. That area has to do with how we view the local church/faith community. Whenever controversies would erupt and people would begin to act poorly, she would say, “It’s disappointing, but what can you expect? The church is full of people – who aren’t perfect - so things like this are bound to happen!”

I could never accept that excuse when it came to accepting bad behavior. I suppose that’s because I take the language in the Scriptures about the church being the body of Christ very seriously. We are called to much, much higher standards than other “organizations”. That’s why I refuse to accept bad behavior in the context of faith community.

Take the language from today’s passage from Philippians. It gives us excellent guidelines for how different our expression of community should be from any other. “Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends,” Paul began. He then went on to add, “Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead… Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” He then added, “Do everything readily and cheerfully – no bickering, no second-guessing allowed.”

Best of all, Paul culminated this section of his writing with these wonderfully clear words that give us our charge as people of faith: “Provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God.”

What a powerful charge for our lives that is! We are to “provide people with a glimpse of good living and of the living God.”

Those final words are words I try use to direct my daily life – in ALL forms of community in which I interact. Today I would invite you to jot those words down – perhaps in your head or on a small piece of paper – and sneak a peak at them throughout the day. See those with whom you interact today get “a glimpse of good living and of the living God.”

Til next time…

Tuesday, June 7, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Philippians 1

Do you remember the very first time you fell in love?

Chances are you do. There are certain aspects of that experience that are pretty universal. For a period of time, for instance, you forget about many aspects of the world and focus in on just that other person. The other person’s interests become your interests. You might even feel an overwhelming sense of pain when you are apart. Those are just some of the feelings that typically accompany one’s first love.

Whether you stay with your first love (or perhaps move on to a long term relationship with someone else), the feelings in a loving relationship eventually evolve to some degree.

And why is that? Why doesn’t a person remain in that initial stage of infatuation for the duration of the relationship?

A lot of the answer has to do with the nature of love itself. While love can start with lots of fireworks, as anyone in a long term relationship can tell you, eventually love evolves into a deeper, more meaningful embrace of one another. You learn to embrace not just the parts of your partner that you like but those parts that can frustrate you as well. In other words, your love for one another matures to the point that it can transcend some of the more superficial aspects of life.

Paul picks up on this theme of love (and, more specifically, mature love) when he wrote: “So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.”

So where are you at with all of this in terms of your loving relationship with God? Wherever you are in that relationship, treat your awareness of where you are with a degree of humility as you recognize that your relationship with God will continue to grow and evolve for years to come as your relationship continues to mature.

Til next time…