Saturday, January 27, 2024

Concerning Food...


 Concerning Food…

 

1 Corinthians 8:1-13
8:1 Now concerning food sacrificed to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge." Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.

8:2 Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge;

8:3 but anyone who loves God is known by him.

8:4 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "no idol in the world really exists," and that "there is no God but one."

8:5 Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth--as in fact there are many gods and many lords--

8:6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

8:7 It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

8:8 "Food will not bring us close to God." We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.

8:9 But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

8:10 For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?

8:11 So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed.

8:12 But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.

8:13 Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall.

 

 

Food has become a sort of preoccupation with me since last Easter. You see, I like to eat (don’t we all?), and since COVID invaded, I have been learning how to cook—something I had initially planned to do as a retirement activity. I never thought I was  “big” eater, as some might say, given I’m married to a dietitian, who has tried to give me good “food” vibes over our 46-plus years together. But as a pastor, with a more sedentary lifestyle that comes with this calling, I had slowly added material to my body that gravity seem to really appreciate. Over the past few years, at each of my annual physicals, my Doc would say something like, “You could stand to lose a few pounds,” to which I would smile and respond, “No, I CAN’T stand it!” I went several years resisting his suggestion, buoyed by the evidence that I had not gained weight between those office visits. Then came 2023: I was up four pounds. I had been noticing that my ties seemed to be getting sorter, and my suit jackets were “shrinking,” and those four pounds set off an alarm. I started “being more careful” with what I was eating in the days following, and then we were off to Louisville to spend Easter with our daughter and her family.

 

At our first meal together, I made a comment about how I was “trying to cut down.” This prompted a response from my daughter, who reported that she had lost almost 25 pounds of “baby fat” she had been carrying around after having her children. She DID look good, so I asked if she had a secret—of COURSE she did. She told me about a free app she used to keep track of her daily calorie intake, demonstrating how it had a convenient database of most foods (making this easy), and settings that one could dial up a goal of like losing a pound a week. Dara always said that weight loss was best done gradually like this, and that any resulting loss would be more sustainable, if this was the method used. I downloaded the app, and began my anti-blimping journey,

 

The rest is history, as they say. I was able to stay with the app, was painfully honest with each food item entry over the following months, and by Thanksgiving, had reached my target weight, which was over 40 pounds less than what I had weighed at my Doc’s office in February. My target weight was decided by consulting the BMI/health charts readily available on the Internet. A “healthy” male my age, height, and weight should weigh between 155 and 165 pounds, with a BMI of 25 or less. I settled on the upper number (165), given that I do a bit of weight and resistance training, with the help of our “Silver Sneakers” gym membership and a Bowflex unit here in my study. After reaching this target weight, I set the app to “maintain,” but only have added in half the calories it suggested, as I know myself, and how my body handles food. So far, so good! I’ve been several weeks now, right at 165. By the way, the app I used is called, “MyNetDiary.com” It is free, although they do offer a “premium” edition that performs all kinds of “food contents” analyses, such as levels of carbohydrates, fats, sugars, etc. I was personally never interested in these things, as I just wanted to track basic calorie consumption in the food I was consuming. My favorite dietitian always preached moderation—eat whatever you want, just don’t eat as MUCH of it, and stay away from routinely eating “seconds” (or thirds…). 

 

How do I feel? Great. I DID have to buy several new pairs of pants, new blue jeans, and a few new shirts. My ties are suddenly longer, and my polo shirts are no longer making me feel like a breakfast sausage. At retirement, I donated several of my best suits to Goodwill, only keeping two that were too tight, with the hope they would encourage me to engage a weight-loss program. Now, at the successful conclusion of one, I pulled out the “tightest” of those two suits to wear to a funeral service this week. Believe it or not, it was WAY too large on me, not even wearable, honestly! I guess my recent “battle of the bulge” is what triggered my interest in this I Corinthians 8 text from the lectionary.

 

Weight loss was not what was troubling the folk the apostle is addressing in this scripture. In question was meat that was from animals sacrificed to idols by one of the pagan groups that were common in the Greco-Roman culture. Since Peter and Paul had both “heard” from the Lord through the “kill and eat” vision and the big sheet coming down from heaven, the “doctrine” of the faith was that there was no longer anything that was restricted, in terms of cuisine. Paul would argue, however, that if eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols would cause some to “stumble” or otherwise be disillusioned in their faith, one should refrain from doing so in their presence. Note that Paul doesn’t have a problem with eating this meat, per se, but only when it may produce a negative witness to those for whom it would be anathema. 

 

In our day, this might be like refraining from drinking alcoholic beverages in the presence of those who could be negatively affected by its consumption, or by the temptation it may offer. A majority of committed Christians have come to believe that persons who are attracted to those within their same gender is a perfectly normal manifestation on the spectrum of human sexuality. However, there are those for whom this “sin” is counter to their understanding of scripture. Might this be the same kind of thing? Some think so. The problem with this comparison, however, is that what is “caught in the middle” are human beings and their lives, not alcohol or meat. Is it appropriate to ask persons in the LGBTQ community to disregard what is normal or natural for them—for the rest of their lives—just to placate other believers, or to affirm their interpretation of scripture and moral “law,” especially when how to interpret scripture is a much debated and varied science? Might it be prudent for LGBTQ individuals and their allies to be more sensitive to the faith and related “beliefs” of those who struggle with their “acceptance?” Probably. As is often the case in human affairs, one of the great “equalizers” is a close affiliation with a person who has publicly stated their LGBTQ status. It may be a close friend, family member, or even a sibling, child, or grandchild. This may be a good example of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “life together,” where such a close relationship breaks down our prejudices and necessarily causes us to rethink what we at one time believed to be immutable principles. 

 

Throughout the history of religion, new vistas discovered by human knowledge required such a rethinking of doctrinal positions. Galileo was excommunicated by the church because he dared hypothesize that the Earth revolved around the Sun, and not vice versa. It wasn’t until 1992 that Pope John Paul II stated that Galileo “may have been unjustly treated” by the church. Medical and psychological science have affirmed that human sexuality is on a continuum, not merely and “either/or,” as some believe. They have taught us that whether a person manifests a heterosexual attraction or a homosexual one—or anything in between—is normal, and should be accepted as a very personal and life-long orientation. Laws, too, should fairly allow for normalization of personal human sexual orientation as an individual right, protected BY the law. Fifty years from now (hopefully MUCH less!), this will be the case, as science and medicine continues to learn and society evolves, but for now, members of the LGBTQ community suffer harassment and alienation, at the least, and legal persecution or even a death sentence (in some countries), at most. About this gap in knowledge—or at least the acceptance of it, Paul would say, “It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge…” Like Galileo’s heliocentrism, it may take a while for the church to come around.

 

In our politically polarized and charged time, those with a greater degree of emotional intelligence are appealing to us all to be in dialogue about our differences and stop the name-calling and labeling the “other side” as just plain wrong, or proclaiming them “ignorant.” As one of my reading group partners said the other day, the dialogue will only be fruitful if our goal is not persuasion, but relationship fostering and nurturing. Like it or not, we ARE in this together. If we just keep choosing sides, nothing good will come of it. History will record that “final solutions” such as the mass-disaffiliation movement that has crippled the United Methodist Church will not ultimately serve the Body of Christ. Deciding to end dialogue and “taking their ball and bat and going home” will cost money, sever precious relationships, hurt our Christian witness, but will eventually cause us to eventually wind up right where we are now. Some wise souls have already predicted this, and have tried to build into the “permissions” that made disaffiliation possible, the seeds of reconciliation. Only time will tell if these will bear fruit.

 

The issue of meat sacrificed to idols didn’t plague the church for very long, as we don’t hear much about it beyond this text in Corinthians. The church seems adept, however, at finding other issues over which to fight, split, and reconcile, although there have clearly been fracturing issues that still haven’t “matured” to the reconciliation stage! (Witness the continued existence of the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches.)

 

One wonders what Jesus Christ must feel about these squabbles and divisions? Is it not true that he CAME to absolve us of the sins that fracture us, and to heal and restore the love (agape) originally gifted to humanity by our Creator? Of course, it were these very issues that took him to the cross at the hands of persons who feared his efforts to exorcise our hatred and lust for personal power, wasn’t it? I’m guessing Jesus understands the cross was just a launchpad, not a final winner’s platform, and that his efforts to reconcile humanity to God and to each other are still ongoing and current. We can pray so. We can hope so. And we can work like we believe it to be the will of God, that this reconciliation is the end game.

 

May we be guided by what Paul tells us in verse one of today’s passage: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Amen!

Friday, January 19, 2024

The God With a Malleable Mind

 


The God With a Malleable Mind

 

Jonah 3:1-5, 10
3:1 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying,

3:2 "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you."

3:3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across.

3:4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!"

3:5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

3:10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind about the calamity that God had said would be brought upon them; and God did not do it.

 

 

The story of Jonah and his “battle” with God over the people of Nineveh is one of the richest—and one of my most favorite ones—in the whole Bible. Jonah didn’t LIKE the people of Nineveh, and the LAST thing he wanted to do was to give them God’s word of grace that if they were to just repent of their sin, God would forgive them. Jonah was in the “fry ‘em, Lord” school, and grace was not part of that equation. We all know the “juicy” part of the Jonah story that involves a “big fish,” or WHALE in good storytelling vernacular, and that a brief “submarine ride” changed Jonah’s travel plans, but NOT his hatred for the people of Nineveh. We also know that when he gave a half-hearted “message” of repentance to the Ninevites that they passionately DID repent and embrace the divine grace being afforded to them, much to Jonah’s chagrin. But there are other interesting things to consider from today’s lectionary text out of this fanciful book. Let’s examine a few of them.

 

First of all, God must have liked Nineveh, calling it a “great city,” in his call to Jonah to go there and deliver a message. Did God just mean it was a “large city,” as is related in the next verse? Or did God see the POTENTIAL for what Nineveh could be, coupled with getting their moral acts together and accepting God’s offer of forgiveness? I’m guessing the latter. God has a way of seeing the potential in God’s people, if given half a chance, and God seems willing to give CHANCE after CHANCE! In sending God’s Son into the world, even with the threat of retribution against him and his message, even knowing the devil would have easy access to him, even knowing that there was a cross on a hill called Golgotha for him, God was giving God’s people, created in God’s own image, a fresh chance to experience reconciliation. We often think of Christ’s “sacrifice” on the cross as a big deal—and it is—but the ultimate sacrifice was God “baring” Godself to all of humanity and the dark forces of the universe, just so “save” us. You see, God saw something “great” in us, just like Nineveh. And God knew that to get the message across, a death and resurrection would be necessary to drive the point home. Is this not what happens in the story of Jonah? No one could survive in the gullet of a sea-going mammal for three days. Jonah died in that beast, and God didn’t just have the animal spew him out onto the beach like a reluctant passenger. Jonah was spit out like a piece of dead bait, and God must have raised him up from the dead to bear the message to that “great city.” One look at Jonah, and those people KNEW what God had just done, in order to offer redemption to them. And as reluctant as Jonah was to give the “word of the Lord,” Jonah knew, too.

 

However, the other thing I want to focus on in this message is this idea that God CHANGED GOD’S MIND about the “calamity” that God was going to inflict upon these people for their behavior, and spared them. Verse 10 introduces two unique ideas here for us to ponder:

 

*God HAS a “mind”

 

*God—a divine being—CHANGES God’s mind

 

On point number one, isn’t it a bit strange to think about God having a “mind”? What does that mean? Our minds help us understand our “place” in the universe, to form thoughts and words to both understand AND to communicate with the world around us, and to linearly and logically order our lives. Our minds are like a personal computer that interfaces with our “real world” bodies, and “interconnects” us with others in whatever forms of “community” we may find ourselves. Regarding the first two descriptions of what our mind does for us, if we apply these to the divine, we might come to the conclusion that God IS a mind, pure and simple. In terms of the “computer” descriptor, including the “interfacing” and “interconnecting” parts, we can see how Jesus Christ performed these functions as his part of the Godhead, via the incarnation. Still, it’s rather stifling to comprehend the idea of God having a “mind” like we do—a center of consciousness and a place where our inner dialogue takes place. Is this what’s happening in the scriptures when we read—such as in the creation story in Genesis—“let US make…”? (Most theologians do NOT believe this language is a reference to the Trinity, by the way.) 

 

Paul talks about us being able to tap “the mind of Christ” as part of our Christian discipleship. Is the “mind” of Christ kind of a virtual “placenta” between the divine “mind” and our more finite minds? Like the writers of scripture, we are reduced to anthropomorphizing our understanding of God and how God “thinks” and acts in God’s dealings with the creation. The danger is that in doing so, we “limit” God to the linear, time-locked abilities and functions of the human mind. If we believe in the existence of some all-encompassing, all embracing, limitlessly creative divine “being,” we must realize that such an entity would NOT be thus limited to “thinking” like we do. Trito-Isaiah gets it right here:

 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
 (Isaiah 55:8)

 

But it’s not just the “bigness” or scope of the divine that makes this hard for us to fathom, but the timelessness of God. God is necessarily a being outside of time. God has the “ability” to see ALL time, simultaneously, OR to enter a moment in time to relate to US. This is precisely what Jesus Christ represents—God entering into a moment in time. Galatians 4:4 says that Christ stepped into our world “in the fulness of time.”

 

How God’s “mind” works is a difficult thing to ponder, but it IS an interesting endeavor. We are nudged into it by interesting passages of scripture such as this one from Jonah. Storytellers and screen writers have had a field day with how God “thinks,” and how God has connected with humans, as witnessed by such films as “Oh, God” and “Bruce Almighty,” both comedies, because this may be the only “safe” way to approach an unanswerable question! Fundamentalist/Evangelical friends might suggest that all we can EVER know of the mind of God is what is in the scriptures, and what has been revealed in Jesus Christ. I can buy the second idea, for the church has largely affirmed the concept that God’s “fulness” is demonstrated in the person, witness, and ministry of Jesus. However, even here is a mystery, for how we interpret the teachings of Jesus, and the historical and theological ramifications of the totality of the Christ Event from Bethlehem to Calvary, to resurrection and ascension, and even through the apocalypse, have always been open to debate. A timeless God stepping into history with eternal consequences—wrap your mind around that!

 

It gets worse. Look at the second asterisked point—here in Jonah (and numerous other places in scripture, such as God’s dealing with Moses and the people of primitive Israel), God is said to CHANGE God’s mind! Flippantly, we could say that God can do whatever God WANTS to do, including change the divine mind, but if we embrace the intricacies of the possibilities we have already raised, HOW and WHY would God ever NEED to “change” God’s mind? This, again, may just be a case of over-anthropomorphizing what is really happening, on the part of the author here. (I know this is hard, if not impossible, for those of you who take a much higher “inspired” or “revealed” view of scripture to accept this possibility.) Here's one way to think about it: if WE are created in the “image” of God, maybe our ability to weigh what is before us, study the facts of a situation, apply the great gift of reason to it, and change OUR minds about something, based on our analysis, observation, and where necessary, a loosening of our “immutable” views or beliefs, why can’t God? Maybe the variable at work here is not just TIME, but FREE WILL? 

 

When you give someone freedom to choose—whatever this encompasses—you also give up control of the choice they will make. Unless you are some sort of a Svengali, your only recourse to “affect” their choice in a direction that you would like to see them go is discourse—making an appeal. Some might say “persuasion,” but this can—and often is—manipulative, even controlling. If we love and respect the one we have given the choice to, we will let this love guide and govern the way we make this appeal, with its motive being the GOOD of the person in question, not that of our own. Oh, we may be appealing for a given choice that we believe would benefit the wider community, as well, but we must first come to terms with our own motive, and how strongly we feel about it. Rules and mores are adopted to provide boundaries. In the best of worlds, they nurture and empower persons and communities to live their best lives in peace and harmony. In the less-than-best scenarios, they provide protection, offering practical resistance between those who might use their choices to exploit for their own benefit, and those who may be the targets of this exploitation. Now, let’s go back to that “mind of God” business…

 

The writer of this text wants us to believe that the “evil” done by the people of Nineveh had God so upset that God was going to bring calamity upon them. (We don’t have the details of this “calamity” here like we do in the Exodus narratives, where God tells Moses that God is so TICKED at the people, God is considering wiping them out, keeping Moses, and just starting over!) But the text tells us that when God “saw” how the people repented and changed their ways, God changes the divine mind to offer pardon and acceptance. (Again, in Exodus the language is stronger, where it says that “God REPENTED of the evil God was going to do against Israel”—now THERE’S one to look at sometime—God REPENTING!). 

 

The Good News is that God, however God does it, sorts this all out and reconciles with the human creation. It’s a good thing, for this is what we believe God is all about, at least in the community of faith!

 

Maybe all of this “God bringing calamity” and “God changing God’s mind” about the “evil” God is thinking of doing to people who have committed evil themselves ARE just creations of the HUMAN mind, trying to make sense out of cosmic and eternal issues. How DO we understand our relationship to the divine AND the “Mind of God”? It IS a fundamental belief of the world’s major religions—certainly at least for the three “biblical” ones—that God IS a loving, creating, and forgiving God, and that the one thing that God wants of us—especially in light of God having given us the gift of FREE WILL—is to live together in harmony with each other, and at peace with God. Parsing through the sometimes crude language of scripture, this is what we “see” as the end-product of the divine/human relationship. And this is CERTAINLY easier to see in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus made it very clear why he came, and what the “mission” of God would be through the totality of the Christ Event, and in the work of the Holy Spirit of God. One wonders what the Christian church might look like if we took John 3:16 HALF as literally as we have other passages of scripture we take to mean God has set US up as judges on the earth. And Christ’s proposition to “Love thy neighbor” doesn’t come with qualifiers, does it?

 

Still, there is something quite comforting about believing in a God whose mind is capable of change, and of pondering how even GOD has to rely on “an appeal” to us to make wise choices, instead of threats or “calamities.” Process Theology is a model of “God-thinking” that imagines God “out ahead of us,” both illuminating our pathways, and “luring” us toward better choices and harmonious relationships with each other and Godself. In this model, our missteps are not “punished,” but just little alarms that bring the benevolent, prehensive God to us to help pick up the pieces and get us back on the journey and headed in a less chaotic direction. 

 

I’ll say “Amen” to that! Keep the faith, Dear Ones! Shalom!

Friday, January 12, 2024

Search Me?


 Search Me?

 

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
139:1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me.

139:2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

139:3 You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

139:4 Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely.

139:5 You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.

139:6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

139:13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb.

139:14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

139:15 My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

139:16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

139:17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them!

139:18 I try to count them -- they are more than the sand; I come to the end -- I am still with you.

 

When we were kids, and were being quizzed about something that had “transpired,” (usually something bad, or at least mischievous), and asked if we had anything to do with it, our answer was often, “Search me?” It was a very non-committal way of being defiant, and not “ratting” on a friend, or admitting guilt, personally. In today’s text—one of the Bible’s Psalms—it begins with the psalmist saying, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” It’s hard to hide any of ourselves from God, especially since God has a built-in “body camera” within each of us—the human heart and conscience.

 

The Psalmist here was either very paranoid, or just quite aware of both the scope of God’s ability to keep tabs on each of us—at a very intimate level—and God’s interest, in doing so. The “fingerprint” individuality of God’s human creature is something to behold. Even Jesus told us “every hair on your head is numbered” by God (I used to tell my bald parishioners that this meant the hair follicles, for them). 

 

I don’t often pick a Psalm to write a sermon about, probably because I have typically seen the Psalms as very personal “meditation” texts. When I have something to cry out about—in anger, joy, or just frustration—there is a Psalm that cries with me. When I am inspired to marvel at some aspect of God’s creation, there is a Psalm that marvels alongside me, and even offers language that may not arrive at my tongue. Or when I just need to know “You are HERE,” like those directory signs in the shopping malls tell you, but about my life, not my physical location, there is a Psalm that shows me my “current reality,” thusly. This Psalm is one of these “You are HERE” Psalms.

 

I hope it is a comfort for you to know that God knows all of this stuff about you and keeps track of you, day by day. It should be, even when you or I engage in thoughts, activities, or temptations that aren’t on the “approved” list, as these are the times when we most need God’s presence, watchful eye, and Holy Spirit who nudges our conscience to wake up and do something about it. By watching us and convicting us of these moments, God is also automatically pardoning us, which is exactly what Jesus said God would do. Even when we are in that childish “Search me” denial mode—and even when it is with full awareness and an attempt to deceive that we are—God’s grace prevails. The only danger to us comes when we persist in rejecting the promptings of God’s Spirit to straighten up our act, and we follow through on some action that causes harm (physical or emotional) to ourselves or another. Then we REALLY need to believe God is still watching and “searching” us! For without God in these more extreme, “sinful” moments, we might very well perish.

 

There are two things that some have taken away from this Psalm that I truly believe are in error. The first is that Psalm 139’s “you knit me together in my mother’s womb” assertion is a prohibition against abortion, as most anti-abortion activitsts do. I do not believe this Psalm is saying that God is “predetermining” our destiny from the moment of conception, nor that God is already planning our lives at this stage. Like the Reform Jews, I believe that these activities only begin when we arrive on this side of the womb and begin interacting with those nurturing us, and building relationships with them, and God. As a United Methodist, I ascribe to our denomination’s view that abortion is something to be avoided, if at all possible. Science and medicine has given us numerous ways for women and men to avoid pregnancy, if this is not in their plans at the time, and even our own moral choices may help us be more careful with our sexual urges and activities to this end, if we are not yet in a covenant relationship. (Don’t take that I’m advocating for “abstention” as a substitute for the other medical or physical means of birth control—I’m not—but our moral choices MAY help us not behave like our backyard bunny rabbits all of the time!) However, there certainly ARE times when a pregnancy results that is NOT prudent, and the circumstances of it—either medical, financial, or emotional—lead to a termination of it as the best choice. We United Methodists believe this choice is best left to those involved, and not the government, and that it is between them and God. We do not condemn persons for making these very hard choices, and I am in agreement with this. There are those in the anti-abortion movement who propose carrying a child to term and putting it up for adoption is an “easy” way to end the medical practice of abortion, but they have little knowledge of the financial and emotional pitfalls on both ends of this “solution.” Carrying a child to term so often leads to a “bonding” process that is very hard for an emotionally compromised woman to ignore, which is essential to do, if she is to give up the newborn for adoption, AND, our legal and social structure does NOT make adoption an easy thing for any couples wishing to adopt. It is a beautiful thing when it happens and meets the needs and realities of both parties, but it is nothing that should ever be forced, or EN-forced by laws and courts. Again, Psalm 139 is not fodder for outlawing abortion. It is merely a statement that part of what “brought us into the world” was this miraculous process of procreation, for which the Psalmist is engaging in wonderment. It is NOT an assertion that God is pre-ordaining the life of a ovum, zygote, or fetus. The Psalmist is just grooving on the fact that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as an act of gratitude and praise.

 

The second thing Psalm 139 is NOT is a statement of predestination, in my Wesleyan, “free will” mind. In words of verse 16, and in the totality of the context of the other verses, it is easy to see how one could get this idea. However, we must remember that the Psalmist is “reviewing” her/his life, and taking stock of the myriad ways God has been “searching” it. It stands to reason that, as a living, breathing person with years of experiences and history behind it, one would “look back” and postulate that God was in it, all along. This is the real “bugaboo” about the ”free will vs. predestination” argument—it depends on one’s perspective. We Wesleyan Christians believe God has given humanity free will to make our own choices, and God’s wisdom and grace to guide us. However, when any of us looks back on our life as does this writer, it is easy to “see” how God HAS been leading, guiding, and even (we may believe) intervening along the way. The real theological questions are: has God been “pushing us” along a predetermined pathway? Or has God been “luring” us and lighting options along our pathways to keep us from stumbling in the darkness? I think of how I raised my own children. I never attempted to “predetermine” or “predestine” what direction their lives would take. I loved them too much to do what would have been an almost exclusively self-serving thing like that! Instead, I did my best to protect them from harm, provide for their basic physical and emotional needs, offer them as many options as our circumstances and checkbook could afford, and guide and encourage them to make the wisest choices they could, along life’s way. When they stumbled, I was there to help them back up, comfort them in their pain, and help them move on to “what’s next.” And I also did my best to offer them my faith, not just as I believed it, personally, but as I best understood it, and as I attempted to live it in an exemplary fashion. I also never shied away from admitting my WAY too often unknowing and error-filled ways of fatherhood. I was fond of saying, “I really don’t know what I’m doing, because I’ve never done this before, but I DO have to do this ‘Dad’ thing…” They would chuckle at this, it would break the ice, and we could have an honest conversation over whatever the issue was. Might our God—the God of Psalm 139—be just this way, too? Only in God’s case, it would probably not be that GOD was “unknowing” or “inexperienced,” but that God would not condemn US for the fact that WE were! THIS is what I see the Psalmist rejoicing over in Psalm 139.

 

This year I will turn 70 years of age—the Bible’s “three score and ten,” which are my “numbered” days. In short, I’ll graduate to what the vernacular often calls “borrowed time.” This Psalm is shouting out to me that: 1. God’s interest in continuing to “search” my life and persist in offering guidance to it is as abundant as the grains of sand in the sea; and 2. Even to the very end of my life, we will walk this journey together. How wonderful and rich is that? Talk about a promise that will not “allow” me to fear either life OR death! Psalm 139 is such a promise, Dear Ones!

 

I end this week’s sermon with a “modern” hymn that for me completely summarizes what the Psalmist is trying to tell us. This hymn showed up when our United Methodist hymnal supplement called “The Faith We Sing” came on the scene, and I STILL can’t get through singing it without breaking down into tears of joy, for the promise it offers, akin to this Psalm. It was written by John Ylvisaker:

 

I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry

 

I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old.

I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold.

 

I was there when you were but a child, with a faith to suit you well; 

In a blaze of light you wandered off to find where demons dwell.

 

When you heard the wonder of the Word I was there to cheer you on;

You were raised to praise the living Lord, to whom you now belong.

 

If you find someone to share your time and you join your hearts as one,

I’ll be there to make your verses rhyme from dusk till rising sun.

 

In the middle ages of your life, not too old, no longer young,

I’ll be there to guide you through the night, complete what I’ve begun.

 

When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes,

I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise.

 

I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old, 

I rejoiced the day you were baptized, to see your life unfold.

 

And now, through tears yet again, I say, “Shalom, Dear Ones,” and Amen!

 

Friday, January 5, 2024

Well, Is it RE-Creation, or Recreation?

 


Well, Is it RE-Creation, or Recreation?

 

Genesis 1:1-5
1:1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth,

1:2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

1:3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light.

1:4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.

1:5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

 

In the hymn, “Morning Has Broken,” we sing this line:

 

“Praise with elation, praise every morning, God's recreation of the new day…”

 

Cat Stevens sang his version as “God’s recreation,” while most congregations seem to sing “God’s RE-CREATION, of the new day,” like God is doing something NEW with something very, very old. What do you think?

 

Today’s narrative from the lectionary is the opening lines of the great “myth symphony” in Genesis of the creation of the universe. Anyone who mistakes it for a factual, journalistic account of how things came to be must think the Mona Lisa is a photograph of a peasant woman, taken for her passport. We revisit it at the beginning of the New Year because it is something beautiful that reminds us that the stirrings of new life began with the very beginning of all things, and that our faith asserts it was not a great cosmic accident, but the stroke of the celestial artist. We could argue that all that we know, see, and experience in this magnificent universe (or “multiverse?”) was and IS, God’s RECREATION. God creates and sustains the creation like I might play tennis, wield my camera, bang on a computer keyboard, or drive my convertible. I like this concept, as it is a marvelous statement of God as not just love, but also JOY. Believe me, as one who is now retired from the responsibilities of EARNING a living, I am now ENJOYING just living. “…praise every morning, MY recreation, of the new day!” I like getting up to see what opportunities the day will produce, for newness, “re-creation,” and joy! If this is what God is up to in the daily care of the universe, I get it.

 

The hymn is melodic and inspirational. “Praise with elation” is an amazing phrase. Oh, that all could experience praise with elation! It sounds so spontaneous and invigorating, and life-giving! But just look at the simple words from Genesis—even less of them than in the hymn, and they paint the picture of the origin of light, day, and night. From “formless voids” and forbidding darkness came FIRST the light, and then the heavenly bodies that now make it and reflect. Interesting. God must have had a blast doing that! The compact narrative makes the point that the “chicken came before the egg.” Light before what we now understand as its sources in the cosmos. Part of God’s “recreating” during the creation is casting FIRST the vision—in this case, light—and only later, that which will sustain it. The church could learn a lesson from this, couldn’t we? Our processes of goal-setting, funding, and managing our missions and ministry seems a bit more drab than “Let there be light.” Think of it this way: when God says it, becomes a reality-producing logos, or WORD. When we say it, we make it a prayer, but is it not calling forth something we want to have happen? Ministries and mission that grow out of the fervent prayers of the people of God have a much longer shelf-life, and like the Genesis story, could very well lead to “praise with elation,” both from the congregation engaging in ministry and the benefactors. Wouldn’t THAT be exciting?

 

Friends, the New Year IS upon us, and being reminded by the Genesis myth that we believe in a Creator God who lovingly and “playfully” created all that we know as existence, including our fragile selves. It began with a recognition of darkness and the need for light, both things that still stump our greatest scientists and theorists! “Dark Matter,” what it IS and ISN’T, WHERE it is (or isn’t?), and what power it has over the universe is one of the hottest (or coldest?) topics in cosmology. And light? We’ve NEVER figured THAT out! Is it a particle? Is it a wave? OH, it’s BOTH…maybe. It’s fast (186,272 miles per second, give or take), and according to Dr. Einstein’s best work, nothing can travel faster than it, as it is a kind of universal constant known as “C.” So, the Genesis narrative tells us that God started with two mysterious factors, called forth light to push away the darkness (or at least send it into hiding), and creation began. And this was a wonderful form of RECREATION—like a kind of divine Pickleball match—for God and the two other whatevers of the Trinity. God grooved on creating all we see, and US, who can see, although we are often flummoxed by the darkness. In the New Year, we have the privilege of praying for God to RE-create—to make “all things new” once again. 

 

That “dark matter” seems to have settled like a pall on the earth. The light is having trouble getting through the mass shootings, partisan hating, wars and rumors of wars, and the various “isms,” along with the human bankruptcy and poverty they create. We NEED new! We pray for God to get out her Pickleball racquet once again and hit the courts. We’ll serve. 

 

Am I having some entertaining word games with our misery? Maybe. But the meaning I’m trying to paint with my rhetoric is that only the one who CREATED us has the power to RE-create us, and this loving, grace-giving, and visionary God has passed that power on to Jesus Christ the Son, and to the Mother Holy Spirit to both stir us to action and to become the novel canvasses for what they may paint for 2024. 

 

We must always remember that the light was GOOD, and it separated us from the darkness. Darkness--as Barbara Brown Taylor suggests in her book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark”—is not necessarily BAD. It’s just very hard to navigate. In a time when the world, the church—and particularly the United Methodist Church—needs God’s “recreating” Spirit to RE-CREATE us all, we would be wise to embrace the darkness, as it points us toward the light. And it will be the light that finds us and redeems us. Remember that Jesus first declared HIMSELF the “Light of the world,” and then pronounced US the light of the world. Light is apparently transferrable! 

 

So, Beloved, let us follow the divine example to take time to RECREATE in this New Year; have some fun; find healing, where needed; create something. And may our prayers be heard that God in Christ and through the Holy Spirit will invest anew in US, RE-creating a “right spirit” in us that may provoke us to change and to MAKE change in the world around us. May THIS be the year of God’s favor! Praise with ELATION! Amen, and Amen!

What's Next?

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