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Saturday, July 3, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Matthew 1

When I was single and dating, there were two criteria I used to help me decide whether or not I was interested in continuing to see the person.

The first thing I used in my process of evaluation was the length of the friendships in my potential suitor’s life. If the person didn’t have friendships from various stages of their life (i.e. high school, college, work, etc.) it suggested to me the person was prone to re-inventing himself every couple of years – and chances are our relationship would just be a part of this re-definition process so I wouldn’t pursue the relationship further.

For those who made it through the rigorous first stage in my process of evaluation, the second stage involved an assessment of their relationship with their family. I certainly knew that not everyone has a great relationship with their family. That’s why I didn’t expect them to be best friends with all of their family members. As long as the individual continued to maintain contact and made a conscious effort to stay connected in some way, shape, or form, then that was fine by me. The person’s relationship with family members was important to me because it gave me insight into how the person managed relationships that were most important/formative in his development. It told me whether the person would hang in there and try to work things out with loved ones, or if he would be content to simply walk away when things got tough.

Those were the two yardsticks by which I measured potential suitors. And you thought the beauty pageant process was rigorous! 

I was reminded of those yardsticks this morning as I read today’s opening words from Matthew – for the Gospel of Matthew kicks off with the author(s) of the Gospel listing a relatively intricate genealogy of Jesus.

Some folks wonder why the author(s) would include such boring details right out of the gate. It’s not exactly page-turning kind of material that draws the reader in immediately.

True. But the material is important because it suggests Jesus’ life and ministry did not exist in a vacuum; it was the product of generations and generations of faithful journeyers who helped create a context for Jesus’ life and ministry.

So if I were to bump into you today at Starbucks (yes, I am obsessed with Starbucks!) and said as we sat down for a cup of coffee, “So tell me your story” I wonder how you would begin telling your story. Would you edit your story and focus solely on those elements that would present you as a self-made individual; or would you put your story into perspective by placing it within the context of those who have come before you?

Til next time…

Friday, July 2, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Philemon

Of all the books in the New/Greek Testament, probably the most challenging one to deal with is the book of Philemon.

“Why is that?” you might ask.

Because the social context of the book goes completely against our modern values. In the letter, Paul wrote to a slave owner named Philemon - asking him to take back his slave named Onesimus who had run away. Paul asks Philemon to be gracious and Christ-like in taking back Onesimus.

Many of us modern readers might read the book of Philemon and be shocked to see one of the foundational figures of our faith supporting the institution of slavery. The book is one more reminder about the role the historical and social contexts played in the formation of Scripture.

“If the book of Philemon is such a strong expression of a distant culture and alien set of norms, does that mean there is nothing that we can take away from the book?” some have asked me over the years.

The last time I preached on the text, there was one message that I took from the text. Let me see if I can help put that message into context for you.

In the course of our lives, many of us think to ourselves, “God, I could get my life together if only the circumstances of my life radically changed.” By this, we mean things would fall into place if only we got a better job, if only we had less debt, or if only we had a more supportive partner. In other words, we lose ourselves in the phrase “if only…”

The book of Philemon challenges us to do something else with our energies: make the most out of the circumstances we currently find ourselves in. In the case of the book, this means Paul challenges the person Philemon to be the best (i.e. most compassionate and Christ-like) slave owner he can be. For Onesimus, Paul challenges him to make the most of his limited circumstance. My sense is that if Paul were writing to you today, he would encourage you to do the same: make the most of your present circumstances as well.

Perhaps you have grown use to investing a great deal of time and energy losing yourself in the “If only’s”. If that’s the case, I would invite you to use the spirit of Paul’s writing and do something radical this 4th of July Weekend: declare your independence from those “if only’s”. Take the energy you previously invested in exploring the “if only’s” and redirect it to a new phrase: “How can I make the most of ...”

Til next time…

Thursday, July 1, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: Titus 1-3

Last winter, my friends Bruce & Maria shared with me an article from Time Magazine about one of my favorite television shows, Glee. The title of the article raised a question that instantly got my attention – “Is Glee Anti-Christian?” So I read on…

The author raised the question because some individuals had labeled the show anti-Christian for a couple of reasons. First, the television show had the audacity to talk about things that – for some – were considered unacceptable. One of the teen age girls on the show, for instance, got pregnant. If that scenario wasn’t bad enough, they complained that the writers of Glee did not use the girl’s pregnancy to judge or isolate the character from her peers. Another storyline had the nerve to explore a teen-age boy’s coming out process. This bothered others because homosexuality, they would suggest, should never be portrayed in a positive light. It was because of storylines such as these that some felt Glee was anti-Christian.

I’ve struggled for years with those who want to cordon off the world into separate compartments – putting those things they consider sacred on one side and putting those things they consider secular on the other side. I’m not a fan of compartmentalizing things like that. I suppose it’s because I believe in a God who is too big to be contained in just one label – even if that label is “sacred.” That’s one reason I love brining popular culture into worship as much as possible.

I have a feeling that I have an advocate of my position in the author of the book Titus. For in that book the author wrote: “Everything is clean to the clean-minded; nothing is clean to [the] dirty-minded…”

There is a lot of truth in those simple words.

I suppose that’s why someone like me can watch Glee, see the kids in school continue their friendships with the pregnant teen and not view that as an endorsement of teen pregnancy. Likewise, I can watch Glee, see a young man overcome his self-hatred and self-loathing in order to see himself as a worthwhile human being and celebrate that as a sacred journey. In other words, I guess that’s why I don’t watch Glee and consider it anti-Christian.

I would encourage you to explore various facets of your life today and see if there are places of the world that you were quick to declare devoid of God’s presence. If so, upon further examination you just might be surprised to find God not only present in that area but active as well.

Til next time…

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: 2 Timothy 2-4

When I was in seminary, I had an amazing colleague who came from a political background much like I did. She was one of the most gifted individuals I have ever met. Shortly after meeting her, however, it was clear that she had no plans to engage in a traditional practice of ministry (i.e. parish ministry, chaplaincy, etc.).

When people asked why she came to seminary, she would reply, “So I can become the Religious Left’s answer to Jerry Falwell.”

At first this sounded like an exciting goal – and certainly having someone with such intelligence and charisma to respond to the Religious Right was something that many of us thought was long overdue! Just being around her made me wonder if that might be a piece of my own call too!

As time passed, however, I began to wonder if such a response was the best way to advance the causes I held close to my heart. Was it really good for me to build my ministry based primarily on what (and whom) I opposed?

It was readings like today’s passage from 2 Timothy that caused me to ask that question. In today’s reading, for instance, the author wrote: “Run after mature righteousness – faith, love, peace – joining those who are in honest and serious prayer before God. Refuse to get involved in inane discussions; they always end up in fights. God’s servant must not be argumentative, but a gentle listener and teacher who keep cool, working firmly but patiently with those who refuse to obey.”

Over time, a subtle – but profound! – shift began to occur in my life. Instead of leading with negative, confrontational energies that drew me into conflicts; I started leading with positive, conciliatory energies that drew me into something else. Relationships!

Don’t get me wrong. I still held the same positions I did before. What changed was how I went about holding them. Instead of railing against those who were labeled anti-immigration, for instance, I simply adopted practices in my life and ministry that extended God’s love and care to all people (whether or not they had the documentation to prove their legal status). Instead of calling individuals who stood in opposition to reproductive rights names, I began offering myself as a spiritual resource to individuals and family who were discerning the options before them. Instead of shouting down those who believed the institution of marriage should be reserved only for couples of opposite genders, I simply offered the full range of my ministerial support to all loving couples in need of my support and guidance. In other words, I focused my energies on what I stood for – and not against. That helped me live into the words from today’s passage.

So how are you at living into those words? Have the polarized (and polarizing) energies of the world caused you to become an argumentative person; or has the Spirit allowed you to be a gentle listener and a teacher who is able (on most days) to keep your cool?

Til next time…

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: 2 Timothy 1

I was very blessed to be raised in a family where one’s faith life was considered to be a very important thing that required a good deal of attention. Not only did my folks talk about the importance of faith – they modeled its importance to us in a variety of ways. For that, I will always be grateful.

Some of the most important moments of my faith life, however, came later on in my life when I had to make the faith I had heard about from others my own in very deep and profound ways.

My first experience of this happened when I came out at the age of 25. My second experience was when my home church discontinued my candidacy for ordination – once again, due to my sexual orientation.

Each of those situations was absolutely crucial in my spiritual development – for they caused me to bump up against other people’s opinions of God and come to my own conclusions about God (and where I stood in relation to God). Even though those experiences were some of the hardest experiences I’ve lived through, I wouldn’t change either one for anything in the world. For it was in the midst of those circumstances the faith I had changed from being the faith of others (i.e. my loved ones and my Sunday school teachers) into my very own faith. What a powerful transition that was!

Needless to say, I had some mixed emotions when I read the words contained in today’s passage from 2 Timothy 1 where the author wrote: “The precious memory triggers another: your honest faith – and what a rich faith it is, handed down from your grandmother Lois to your mother Eunice, and now to you!”

As I read those words, a part of me knows exactly what the author meant – for there is nothing like being able to receive the roots of your faith from those whom you love deeply. On another level, however, I feel a twinge of sadness that the author didn’t include talk about encouraging the individuals to make their loved one’s faith their own faith.

Today I would invite you to examine the substance of your faith. As you do so, ask yourself where this faith came from. When you find those parts that were passed on to you by others, give thanks for the life and witness of those individuals who helped shape you. When you find those pieces that are uniquely yours – pieces forged through your own personal experiences and encounters with God – don’t forget to give thanks for those as well.

Til next time…

Monday, June 28, 2010

What I’m Reading Today: 1 Timothy 6

Over the decade or so there has been an interesting phenomenon that has swept through lots of non-denominational and mega-churches. Many of these faith communities have embraced something called the Gospel of Prosperity. What the phrase means is that they believe that if you are in right relationship with God, you will be blessed financially and materially.

I can sure understand how such an approach would be seductive to some people – at least from a human perspective. That’s because it sounds like a two-fer deal. Not only do you get to wallow in personal riches, you get to feel good because you are told, “God wants it that way.” Wahoo!!!

In case you can’t tell, this approach pushes my buttons like no other theological approach on the planet because it is counter-intuitive to much of what I believe Jesus represents. Even today’s reading presents a challenge to such an approach when the author wrote: “Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough.”

“So are you suggesting that God wants us to be dirt poor?!” might come a response from some quarters.

Nope. In fact there is a kind of riches that I believe God would want us to pursue. That kind of riches happens to be spelled out in today’s reading from 1 Timothy. In that passage the author wrote: “A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God.”

What a richness that scenario represents – simply being yourself before God. That sounds much better than a Lamborghini to me!

Today I would encourage you to explore your view of money. Is it something you see as a reward for being a faithful person; is it something you need to survive; is it tool that allows you to help others; or is it something else for you?

Til next time…