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Saturday, September 4, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: 2 Peter 1-3

Nearly every person I know has a strained relationship with at least one member of his or her biological family.

Some will admit to this; others won't.

I am one of those individuals who will admit to it. My relationship with my sister is less than satisfying for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons have to do with long-standing jealousies; other reasons have to do with the fact that we are so much alike.

For the better part of twenty years now, we have shoved each other into our pre-conceived boxes and refused to budge much in terms of our attitudes and actions toward one another.

Our intransigence with one another stems from the fact that we are both convinced that we know the other so well that we can predict what the other will say or how the other will respond. Some times this is true. More often than either of us would like to admit, however, it's not. Nevertheless, we keep trudging on year after year locked into our same patterns of assumptions – refusing to open ourselves to the notion that maybe – just maybe- the other person might have matured a bit and perhaps even (gasp!) changed.

"It's been twenty-years of tension in our relationship," I tell myself. "Why would I expect anything to change after all this time?!"

Because I refuse to open myself to the possibility of change, our relationship has been stuck in neutral for many years.

Just as I feel entirely justified settling into my relational rut, along comes a passage like today's passage from 2 Peter and tells me the thing I least want to hear. "[God] doesn't want anyone lost. [God's] giving everyone space and time to change."

"If God has the patience to allow everyone the space and time to change," the question becomes, "then wouldn't that mean God wants us to give each other the space and time to change as well?!"

You would certainly think so.

The hard part for me is taking that question from the abstract and putting it into the concrete circumstance of my relationship with my sister. Just because the dynamic in our relationship hasn't changed in our relationship for the past twenty-years doesn't mean that it won't. I have to dig down deep and draw on my faith to believe that anything is truly possible. Even more so, I have to want the change in our relationship to happen more than I want to be right about my assessment of our relationship. That's the hardest part for me!

Today I would ask you to search your heart and see if there is someone in your life with whom you are struggling: someone whom you don't want to give either the space or the time to change. Someone whom you would prefer to simply write off.

If you have someone like that in your life, remember the words from today's passage and see if perhaps you can discover what I believe is one of the most important qualities of any relationship: patience.

Til next time …

Friday, September 3, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: 1 Peter 3-5

Over the years, I've noticed that I tend to live my spiritual life in three stages. I wish I could say there was a logical sort of progression that propels me from one stage to another, but I can't. I've noticed that I tend to jump from one stage to the next – often in seemingly random order.

"So what are these three stages?" you might be wondering. Well let's see if I can spell them out for you.

When I lead my life from stage one, I am focused exclusively on those things that I want out of life. This means that I tend to see the entire world through the lens of personal preference; that's about all I consider. I should note that I don't believe the first stage is inherently a bad place to come from. After all, there are times when an individual needs to pursue her or his wants or needs as a means of self-care. If a person spends too much of your time in the first stage, however, it greatly stunts an individual's spiritual growth.

The second stage of my spiritual life takes me to a place where I am primarily tuned into the will of the community. When I'm in this second stage, I find myself spending a lot of time taking the "temperature" of the group in order to help build consensus within the group. I find that I have to quiet my own voice in order to ensure it blends with other voices in the community and doesn't drown them out. In my leadership position, I also spend a good deal of time trying to quiet other domineering voices in order to help the group achieve a sense of harmony.

Occasionally, I have moments of absolute clarity/bliss when I reach the third stage in my spiritual development. This stage is where I find myself successfully discerning the leading of the Spirit and work to align my own life in this direction as well. The third stage of this developmental process is the hardest because I not only have to bring my own voice into harmony with others, but I also have to work to balance the preferences of the community with what I believe is the leading of the Spirit. This is a tremendously difficult thing to do since it requires holding many egos and agendas in check.

Some of the words in today's reading from 1 Peter reminded me of these stages. Those words also helped clarify what stage I should seek to spend the bulk of my time. As Peter talks about the issue of suffering, for instance, he wrote: "Think of your sufferings as a weaning from the old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way."

This is akin to leading your life from a stage one.

"Then you'll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want."

As you negotiate your way through your day today, I would ask you to consider in which stage you spend the majority of your time. Do you spend the bulk of your time in stage one – pursuing/demanding your own way; do you spend the majority of your time in stage two – playing peace-keeper and working to build consensus in the community; or do you spend a good deal of your time in stage three –aligning your life with the movement of the Spirit?

Til next time …

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: 1 Peter 2

Lots of folks will read the language that culminates today's passage from 1 Peter – the language about Christ using "his servant body to carry our sins to the Cross so we could be rid of sin, free to live the right way" (1 Peter 2:24) – solely through the lens of classical atonement theory. By this I mean they interpret the verse to mean the primary work Jesus did was to sacrifice himself so that his blood would pay the price for our sins/transgressions.

That's certainly one way of thinking about the work of Christ.

I tend to think about the work Christ accomplished with the verse just before (1 Peter 2:23) and just after (1 Peter 2:24b) the section I began by quoting. 1 Peter 2:23 reads, "He suffered in silence, content to let God set things right." 1 Peter 2:24b reads, "His wounds became your healing."

Let me tell you why I tend to think of it this way, and how this way might differ from a more traditional position.

As an ordained spiritual leader of a faith community, I am asked to wear at least two VERY different hats during the course of my days. One hat I'm asked to wear is an administrative hat. By this, I mean I am charged with making decisions that drive the organizational/structural life of the faith community. The other hat I wear is a pastoral hat. By this, I mean I am charged with providing loving and grace-filled care for those individuals within our faith community.

While there are many times when it is possible to wear both hats simultaneously, there are other times when it is impossible to reconcile those hats – and I am forced to choose which one to wear. Let me give you an example of one situation where the two hats proved incompatible with one another.

There was a time when I worked closely with a lay person who was charged with providing leadership for the community. The individual was going through a great deal of turmoil in the individual's life. It started showing up in a variety of ways. The individual started getting into interpersonal conflicts with other members of the community. Eventually, the individual started pulling back from participation in the community life all together.

Lots of folks interpreted the individual's actions as if they were a reflection on the life of the community. More specifically, they thought the individual was disgruntled with my leadership of the community.

I could have chosen to break confidentiality and clue folks in on what was really happening with the person. I chose not to. Not only would such a breach of confidentiality been inappropriate – it would have violated the very essence of my call to be a pastoral presence. I chose, therefore, to keep my mouth shut (1 Peter 2:23) and let people in the community think what they wanted – even if that meant they thought less of my as an administrative leader. I ended up getting wounded (1 Peter 2:24b) in order to let another person have the time and space that person needed to heal.

I don't mean to make myself sound like a saint here. Believe me I'm FAR from sainthood! And besides, lots of folks make those same sorts of sacrificial gestures all the time in a variety of roles. Parents often take some heat for their children during their children's maturation process. A well-established co-worker will sometimes protect more vulnerable colleague in order to help their colleague through a learning curve at work. The list of examples I could give is endless. What matters in all of this, however, is a sense that what it means to be Christ-like is to make oneself vulnerable for another as a means of empowering the other individual on their journey toward wholeness. That – in many ways – is the lens through which I see Christ's work for us.

So how do you wrestle with the challenging notion of atonement theory? Do you see it in its most literal sense (i.e. Jesus' blood paid the price for us), do you see it in a more figurative sense, or do you avoid it all together? May your exploration of that question take you to new levels of understanding in your faith life.

Til next time …

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

What I'm Reading today: 1 Peter 1

I had a few moments to kill today, so I sat down and started flipping channels. There was nothing on any of my favorite channels so I decided to continue further down the listings and see what new viewing experience I might stumble upon. Right away I saw a listing for a program that I had never seen – so I turned to the channel.

The program I stopped on was Glenn Beck's television show. He had been in the news a good deal the past week due to the event he sponsored in Washington, DC so I thought it might be interesting to see what he was up to.

I managed to watch about 3 minutes of the program before I found myself reaching for the remote. What frustrated me during those 3 minutes was the way he was talking about some people's reaction to the event he organized.

He set things up in such a way where he said, "Some people have said that the group I pulled together was made up of extremist wackos." Then he would show a serene picture of a grandmother from Iowa. "Now let me show you a picture of the group that made this accusation." Then he would cut to a mob scene from an undisclosed location.

"Others have said my event was attended only by uneducated, rabid white racists." Then he would cut to interviews with an articulate twenty-something white woman, and a well-informed African-American man. "These are the people who made the accusations," he would say. Then he would cut to the audio of a spastic white man ranting against Beck on the air.

Beck's "analysis" got old after a while so I turned the channel.

I know there are some moderates and conservatives who would suggest that folks on the other side of the political spectrum do the same thing as Beck – take things out of context. I suppose that if you flipped into programs like Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert for just 3 minutes (like I did with Beck) it would probably seem that way.

Lost in the steady stream of accusations is the fact that the way we deal with life these days is incredibly broken. We have allowed ourselves to get to the point where we resort to name-calling and innuendo to discredit those who have the nerve to disagree with us. We also tend to focus our energies on the personalities involved and ignore the real issues. All the while we get further and further off track.

I suppose that is why the words from 1 Peter struck a chord with me today – words that promised "the day is coming when you'll have it all – life healed and whole." I LOVE the way Peter talks about what it means to have it all. He equates having it all to having a life healed and whole. A life that doesn't depending on sound-bites taken out of context to prove a point. A life that transcends the superficial labels we impose on one another in order to justify our decision to marginalize "them" (whoever the "them" of the moment happens to be).

I long for such times!

As you move through your day today and encounter those voices that push your buttons and make you feel ready to resign yourself to live a life that is diseased and broken, remember the words from 1 Peter and aspire to something more.

Til next time …

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: James 5

The last five months have been a bit of a roller coaster for me. While that's been true on several fronts, there's one area in my life where that's been particularly true. That area has to do with a special celebration the local church I serve has undertaken.

On January 15, 1961, our church welcomed a guest preacher. It was a gentleman who happened to be celebrating his 33rd birthday that day. You might have heard of our guest preacher – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This January 15 will mark the 50 anniversary of that special experience – Dr. King's very first appearance in the San Fernando Valley!

In order to celebrate the occasion, our church wanted to pull together a series of events that would be open to the general public. Our thinking was it would be a great opportunity to collectively recommit ourselves to the vision that Dr. King lifted up for us all. So last March we started pulling together folks from throughout the community to start the planning process for the celebration.

Since we first started the planning process, there have been lots of ups and downs.

We started our planning process by dreaming big. We explored the possibility of bringing in keynote speakers for the weekend like First Lady Michelle Obama or the President and General Minister of the United Church of Christ, Rev. Geoffrey Black. Both individuals politely declined our request. That triggered a change in our thinking as we began to prepare for a smaller opening dinner event.

Then we started pursuing the idea of pulling together a Saturday morning service project that would tie in with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service on January 15. We explored the idea of working along the canal that snakes through large portions of the Valley. The logistics of such a project soon became overwhelming so we started exploring other opportunities.

We even had visions of pulling together the first march on MLK weekend in the Valley. Despite some curveballs that have been thrown our way, thankfully that dream is still alive.

While it has been impossible to realize all of the ideas we first brainstormed last March, there will still be a wide range of events offered to the community that weekend.

All of this has taught me the importance of being balanced in my approach to projects such as this. Several times in the roller-coaster planning process, I've had to stop and connect myself with the sort of energy the book of James points us toward. "Take the old prophets as your mentors," James advised. "They put up with anything, went through everything, and never once quit, all the time honoring God. What a gift life is to those who stay the course!"

Through the planning process I've learned to do a better job living into the wisdom of those words. For while things may not be unfolding in exactly the manner I would have anticipated, there have been plenty of wonderful surprises along the way that have convinced me that the final product will be even better than the one I was anticipating last March.

Perhaps there is a project or a relationship that has been causing you extraordinary levels of frustration – so much so that you are on the verge of giving up. If that's the case, take a few moments and think twice about your decision to throw in the towel. Ponder the gifts that might reveal themselves if only you have the strength to "stay the course."

Til next time …

Monday, August 30, 2010

What I'm Reading Today: James 4

The past five weeks have been a very intense time for me. In that period of time, I have lived through the loss my best friend Eric and ministered with families through the losses of John, Daria, Leo, Ginny Lou, and Kyle. Death has been more present in my life these days than at any other period.

Some of my loved ones have asked how this wave of losses has affected me.

There isn't one simple answer I could give to that question. The best way for me to answer that question has been to say, "It has better taught me how to live in the moment."

As someone who was a classic overachiever in life, I spent most of my early years living with my attention always focused on the future. I was obsessed with planning for the future. That advice has served me well – up to a point. The advice has its limits, however.

Those limits were pointed out in today's passage from James, where the author stated: "And now I have a word for you who brashly announce, 'Today- at the latest, tomorrow—we're off to such and such a city for the year. We're going to start a business and make a lot of money.' You don't know the first thing about tomorrow. You're nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing." Strong words, indeed.

As you negotiate your day today, I would invite you to find moments to slow down and ask yourself, "What tense am I living in at this moment – the past, the present, or the future?"

If you find yourself answering either past or future, stop and ground yourself in the present. As difficult and challenging as life can be at any given moment, remind yourself there's a reason they call this moment "the present". It truly can be a gift – if you are open to that possibility.

Til next time …