Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Love and the Law

I’ve been reading through the gospel of Luke for the past couple of months. Reading through the whole of Luke has allowed me to come to new ways of seeing familiar passages as I read them in the context of what comes before and after them. In January, I heard Brian McLaren teach on how scripture’s meaning can change for us when we read it in context. That has helped me look at what I am reading more from a panoramic viewpoint rather than in isolation.

Luke 14 begins with Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Jesus then teaches us that discipleship demands that we be completely committed to him, willing even to give up all our possessions (note that this is said to all, not simply to the rich young ruler). Luke 15 gives stories about hospitality and welcoming, and in the first part of chapter 16 Jesus teaches about faithfulness with money. What follows are these five verses:

14 The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus. 15 He said to them,“You are the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God. 16 Until John, there was only the Law and the Prophets. Since then, the good news of God’s kingdom is preached, and everyone is urged to enter it.17 It’s easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest stroke of a pen in the Law to drop out. 18 Any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and a man who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (CEB)

What follows is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, teachings about faithful service, and then Jesus heals ten lepers, and the only one who returns to thank him is a Samaritan. Through the passages before and after these verses, Jesus has done what is offensive to the Pharisees. Healing on the Sabbath violated the Law, giving up all ones possessions went way farther than the tithe prescribed by the Law, as did Jesus’ teachings about divorce. But Jesus also taught grace and forgiveness in the parable of the prodigal son and the manager who changed the accounts of his master’s debtors. Jesus also reached out to those whom society used the Law to avoid when he healed the ten lepers.

So in reading the familiar verse about how it’s easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for the smallest part of the Law to drop out, I wonder if Jesus is speaking more to the rigidity of the Pharisees than he is praising the Law. The Pharisees highly valued the Law and often seemed to revere it over people. They seemed more concerned about preserving the Law than they did about extending love and grace and healing to others. Reading this verse in the context of this whole section of Luke causes me to wonder if Jesus was saying that the Pharisees were so unmovable in their adoration of the Law that even if they were shown a higher and better way, they would not let go of the Law.

Jesus says that what is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God. I wonder what it is that I might value highly that God finds offensive. What “values” blind me from being a bearer of good news to others? The Pharisees did not get singled out because they valued the Law, but because they put the Law ahead of compassion. I wonder if God is more offended by those who claim to be Christian but spew forth hatred and name-calling than God is by those who do evil without any claim of being a follower of God.

I don’t presume to know the “right” answer, but I believe with all my heart that because Jesus loved me enough to give himself for me and for all people—all races, all religious faiths, all nonreligious, all sexual orientations, all evildoers-repentant or not, and even those who offend me—my only response is to fall to my knees, exclaim, “God have mercy on me, a sinner” and then to love others without exclusion in humility and gratitude for the grace given to me. Jesus did not withhold his love from anyone and I am called to go and do likewise. I cannot take in the magnitude of God’s love for all creatures, but I will humbly try to share God’s love with others.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Discipleship in Community

Every week, I look forward to Sunday worship. To be able to go and sing and pray with my church family, to hear the scripture read and preached, and to express my love, praise and gratitude to God alongside others who are similarly overwhelmed by God is joy and excitement for me. So when I knew I would miss worship this past Sunday, I was disappointed, but instead decided to be more attentive to worshipping God through the activities of the day, which were centered around moving Nick, our younger son, out of the house he’s lived in for the past year.

Nick is an intern with the University of Georgia Wesley Foundation, about to begin his third year in ministry there. UGA Wesley is a huge ministry, with over 1000 students a week participating in worship, small groups, and discipleship meetings. (You can find out more about UGA Wesley here). Other than the director, Rev. Bob Beckwith, the leadership is comprised exclusively of young adults. Students may serve in leadership roles beginning with their second year of college. Some who have served for several years as leaders may offer themselves in service as interns, where they are treated as full-time missionaries in the mission field of Athens. These interns raise their own support, living by faith on a day to day basis. Associate Directors, who are still young adults, have invested their lives in the UGA Wesley ministry for a longer term. They receive a small stipend but still depend on support.

Yesterday I saw an example of the church lived out in the world. The community that is UGA Wesley is an embodiment of the church at its best. There is love, mutual support, prayer, and sharing of resources among this group of young adults. Although leases commence and end the middle of this week, intern training also begins this week, so Nick and others could only move on the weekend. When we arrived to help Nick move out, Nick shared the plan for the move. He was moving out of the place he’s been in the past year, moving all his stuff into the garage at the home where other Wesley interns live, staying with yet another group of interns for the week, then moving into his new place next weekend. The other guys he will be living with, also interns, have all made similar arrangements through the Wesley intern family.

I know this is just a small example of the hospitality and generosity among this group, and Jim and I have experienced it many times, from the times we’ve attended worship at Wesley on Wednesday nights to the care and support we and Nick received through Nick’s ongoing lung collapses, his surgeries to correct these, and recoveries afterward. As parents, we’ve been confident that Nick was surrounded by a community of care and love when he needed it, and he has participated in caring for and loving others. There is a spirit of mutuality among these disciples that gives without keeping score, and receives with grace and gratitude.

So while I was not able to worship as I typically do on Sunday, I spent a hot summer moving day in the presence of God in the Kingdom of God. I saw the Word alive and active. Praise God!

Monday, July 16, 2012

Singing My Authentic Song

During the summer months, my morning walks put me outside as the sun is beginning to rise and the birds begin to sing. There is a particular sparrow whose song is one of my favorites to hear. Last week I was at Lake Junaluska for SoulFeast, and I noticed that every time I was walking back and forth to Morning Prayer or to workshops, I heard that same sparrow’s song. It’s a simple, sweet song, with a few variations, sung over and over again.

I wonder if this sparrow ever gets tired of singing its song. I wonder if it ever wishes that it could sing the songs of other birds. I wonder if it ever wishes to be a mockingbird, which loudly and enthusiastically sings the songs of other birds and even mimics other sounds it hears. (Once, I heard a mockingbird singing the backup beep sound. It was so authentic sounding I began looking for the vehicle that was producing it!)

I wonder how much I am like the mockingbird, listening to and singing the songs of others, rather than sticking to my own song. In an effort to please others, I can end up singing what I think someone wants to hear, rather than singing with my authentic voice the song God has given me to sing. The problem with trying to please others is that I can end up sounding like the mockingbird, singing only little bits of each song, so that I sound disjointed and scattered. While God created the mockingbird to string together the songs it hears, God did not create us to speak with every voice we hear.

Over the past couple of months, I have been discovering my authentic song. I’ve examined my spiritual gifts, thought about my deepest desires, and looked at how my choices either move me toward my deepest desires or take me away from them. Through this process, I realize that I have spent a large part of my life as a mockingbird, singing whatever song meets the expectations of others. Because different people have different expectations, I’ve switched songs depending on my audience. Trying to keep up with so many songs created much dis-ease within me, and I did not realize how much this was affecting my relationship with God until I began to peel away the layers of songs that were hiding God’s authentic song for me from myself.

I don’t believe the process is complete, but I have come to understand that for me to be who God created me to be I need to be a sparrow, not a mockingbird. I need to sing the song that is uniquely mine to sing. Some may like my song, some may not. That’s okay, because ultimately, the one for whom I sing is God. Not everyone will hear my song, and it’s not up to me to make sure that my song is heard. It is my task to faithfully sing my song, trusting that God will use it however God desires. And that is certainly sufficient for me!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hearing the Right Voice

This week, I'm recycling a column I wrote several years ago for a magazine. It has been on my mind, so I thought I'd pull it out, re-read it myself, and share it with you.

One of the birds I enjoy hearing is the wood thrush. It has such a melodious song. As I listen for it, I realize my effort to hear it sing relates to my effort to hear God’s voice.

You need to know what you are listening for. If I didn’t know what a wood thrush sounds like, I wouldn’t know when I hear it among the chorus of bird songs. Someone had to share it with me so I knew what I am listening for. In the same way, I needed someone to teach me how God’s voice sounds so I could distinguish it from the other voices I hear.

Once I know what the wood thrush’s song sounds like, I still must listen in order to hear it. I’ve noticed I can miss its song by listening to a robin or a mockingbird or a wren. If my ears are tuned to another song, I don’t hear the wood thrush. Even looking at the full moon causes me to tune out the bird songs. But if I focus my hearing on the wood thrush’s song, all the other distractions fade into the background. If I want to hear God’s voice, I need to be an active listener. I must make an effort to listen for it or I will lose it among the competing voices in the world. When I do actively and attentively listen for it, I often find that the other voices fade away.

It also helps to be in the right environment. As its name implies, the wood thrush lives in the woods. I won’t hear it in the grocery store parking lot. Even in our neighborhood, I only hear it in certain places, where there are more trees than grass. God is not limited by environment, but if I am in the wrong environment, it will be harder for me to hear God's voice.

There are times when I cannot hear the song of the wood thrush. I may be travelling or sick and unable to get outside. I know the song well, so I can sing it in my head. I can enjoy it even when I cannot hear it. There are times when I’m struggling due to illness, family crisis, or some other life circumstance. I may find it hard at those times to listen for God’s voice. By knowing it well enough, I can hear it in my head even as I go through difficulty!