A Worship Service that Changed My Life

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     One March in 1993, my pastor asked me to come to a worship service, but it was unusually on a Thursday night.  “Why Thursday night?” I asked.  “Because it focuses on the Lord’s Supper and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.” she responded.  As soon as she said, “Gethsemane” she had me hooked.  I had spent 1989-1992 up in Alaska and and one things I had done during their long winters was to get back into all my old music I loved growing up.  I had repurchased albums I had lost long ago on those new fangled compact disks!  And one of those CDs was Jesus Christ Superstar.  And, of all the songs from that musical, “Gethsemane” was the song I listened to and re-listened to over and over again as the snow fell.  I felt that it packed the most punch.

     The early nineties was a time in my life where I was trying to get back in touch with more than just the music I loved early in life.  It was a time when I was trying to re-engage my faith.  I had, as many twenty something Christians regularly did in my days, wandered away from the church.  I always would have described myself as a Christian.  But my practice of my faith, my relationship with God, was spotty at best.  There was something really missing (beyond my lack of participation in a Christian community).  I increasingly became aware than even my thought out teenage theology was lacking.  I had seen enough, even in my twenties, to know my pat answers to complex questions was lacking.  And “Gethsemane” brought that into focus for me.

      I knew all of the orthodox teachings about Jesus growing up.  I could have recited all the facts.  I had learned them and spent many an hour in the pew, in classes, and even reading the Bible on my own.  But, what was lacking, I increasingly realized, was a human Jesus.  My young self had, for all practical purposes, envisioned a “superman Jesus” who really wasn’t humanity as God intended but an almost other worldly being.  Infinite power and infinite knowledge were at this Jesus’ fingertips.  Yes, he loved us.  Yes, he died for us.  Yes, he rose for us.  But, I wondered, with such knowledge and power how could he really empathize with us – really empathize with me?  That Jesus was a magical figure and that was less and less satisfying to me as an adult.

     But Gethsemane in the musical (although not totally Biblical) captures what must have been a poignant moment in Jesus’ life.  Here he was outside of Jerusalem.  He had done everything he was supposed to do.  And now, he could leave, and everyone would be happy with him (from his friends to his enemies).  All he had to do is go back to Nazareth.  If he stays, he is going to die (and it isn’t going to be quick either). And, he is less than clear on why he must die in this way. But he stays because he knows he has made this commitment to God.  He stays because he believes it to be the will of God.  He doesn’t quit when he so easily could have.  To me, every time I read the Gethsemane story in the Bible, knowing human nature, I think this proves his divinity more than any of the miracles.  He stayed, even without all the answers, when anyone else would have left.

     The worship service that helped changed the course of my life was called a Maundy Thursday service.  It took this feeling I had of a fully human Jesus struggling in the Garden of Gethsemane and the service not only affirmed it but began to widen that view to earlier in the night during the Lord’s Supper (which, to me, had been pure ceremony before that).  It opened my eyes that Jesus never was this superhero, otherworldly person, with powers like the Greek gods come to save the day.  He was one of us.  I have never wavered in my belief that God gave Jesus miraculous powers, that he was able to heal the sick, multiply loves of bread, turn water into wine, and the like.  But, the older I have gotten, the less important all that is.  What is important about Jesus is he taught us how to love.  He taught us not how to be a superhero, but how to be people – real people.  He showed us how we can help others (and help ourselves) just by being the people we are all now capable of being.  And he showed us that he so wanted to correct our relationship with God that he stayed the course when any of us wouldn’t have.

    And my journey really pivoted after that Maundy Thursday.  I stopped missing Sundays.  I stopped trying to be a “lone ranger’ Christian.  I rebuilt who Jesus was in my mind.  Prayers came again more naturally and less terse.  And I began to make friends anew in the church and not just try to retain old friendships as I had been doing at that stage in my life.  I didn’t see it in 1993 but seminary was in the future, the pastorate, the chaplaincy, my future family, and so much more.

     What got me thinking about all this?  Today is Maundy Thursday (as I write this).  I hope you will look out such a service tonight.  If you are in greater New Orleans, Kenner Presbyterian is hosting a joint service tonight with Parkway Presbyterian.  Kenner is located on Iowa Street.  But, whenever you read this, and wherever you are, I hope Jesus become more real and less otherworldly to you on this day.  I deepens our journey on the road of life when we do.

What do you think?

Tom

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Age, Relationships, and the Bible

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A funny thing happens to me these days when I listen to pop songs.  In many ways, they are no different than the pop songs I grew up on.  They are filled with lyrics of love, passion, sadness, betrayals, and recoveries.  But what is different as I listen to them today, is I no longer think of my situation.  Instead, I think of my children and youth in the church.  It isn’t that my kids (or many of the kids in church) are yet old enough to be falling in love, or someone falling in love with them.  But some are and within a few years the time will be coming for the rest.  And I consider the advice I will offer when those days come.

But, the pop songs situation, to a degree, parallels the Biblical stories.  I once remember a pastor saying, “I wonder what Jesus would have said if he had lived into his 50s or 60s.”  I was 30 at the time and the idea sounded strange to me then, but much less so today. Almost all of our Biblical stories feature people as children, in their teens, twenties, and thirties.  Even the “old” prophets probably weren’t so old by today’s standards.  There are some characters though that are older.  There are even those whose age seems extreme to us (but that might have been a literary device to say they were really old.  I struggle with believing people literally lived 900 years and so).  Nevertheless, the main focus of stories in the Bible are on people who are younger than forty.

Therefore issues that we face as forty plus Christian people in the 21st century (living also as parents, step-parents, grandparents, and even wise men and women in our various communities), is really breaking new ground. Even in the 19th century, people did not live as long as we do (or wait to get married so long).  People got married in their teens, not their late twenties, in Biblical times.  People certainly didn’t consider marriage optional as some younger people do today.  So, what advice should we offer?  We can’t just pick up a Bible and find a law or a story with a direct answer.  We need to talk it out, pray over it, and discern what God is calling on us to say.

In Biblical times, elders often would gather at the gate to give advice to younger ones going to and fro the cities.  In the end, I think we in the church may be tasked to do something similar, at least conceptually.  God is blessing us with more years.  What does our age and experience have to say as we look out at younger generations today?  How can we be the “men (or women) at the gate” to advise those starting out?  There may be nothing new under the sun in regard to the human heart but lifestyles are increasingly different from previous generations (more-less from life millennia ago).

And again, we can’t just look up rules in the Bible for an answer.  How many monogamous relationships can we list in the Bible?  Not many. And yet we all know that that is the most sound footing for a long and lasting relationship.  How did we come to believe this?  And today, how should people handle birth control?  Whose advice on relationships should people listen to when contradictory advice is everywhere?  Is marriage a must?  Is living together morally equivalent to being promiscuous?  When should couples get married?  Are the standards for divorce and remarriage the same as in the first century?  The Bible is not going to give unambiguous guidance on any of this because it isn’t a 21st century book but rather a 1st century library of ancient sacred texts.

The Bible may not give us 21st century black and white answers but it surely continues to inspire 21st century people.  God speaks to us through prayer and the study of Scripture.  What passages should we study when thinking of modern relationships?  Where does that inspiration lead us to say?  We can only find the answer together.  And together, we can plot the way ahead and give our best moral advice to our younger counterparts.

The challenges of 21st century life are many and complex.  But the potential blessings are even more.  Let us face the challenges as God’s people – together.  And let us help as many as we can as we travel The Way.

Until next time,

Tom

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Who Speaks for Us in God’s Name?

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“Who among you wants to be a modern day prophet?” one of our seminary professor’s asked a group of us back in the mid-90s.  I didn’t raise my hand because I thought it was a baited question.  But his answer surprised me, “Be prophetic, but remember, the people didn’t treat the prophets too well during their lifetimes.”  As I dug into the Bible I found it to be just so.  Jeremiah,  Hosea, Ezekiel, and many others had a rough road during their lifetimes.  Another important lesson I learned was that, unlike the popular image, prophets weren’t primarily holy future tellers of the distant future.  More often than not, the prophets were talking about their present and what could soon occur. Prophets looked at the world around them and said what God thought of it, what we should be doing, and what God would (or would not) be doing soon in response to human action (or lack thereof).

The problem I see is that we have many people today who seem to have appointed themselves as God’s prophets in the church and in the political arena don’t seem to have the same focus.  Instead, they often appeal to is fear – fear that society is changing, fear that the people are soon going to lose something, fear of a person (or persons) in power, and fear of their neighbors.  And they do so for popularity and to advocate for some issue they feel strongly about (which coincidentally, so does God (or so they say)).   

Jeremiah, Hosea, and Ezekiel and many others challenged the leaders and the people of their world based their prophecy upon the people’s fidelity to God (or lack thereof), their treatment of the weakest among them (which often wasn’t all so good), and where the people were ultimately putting their trust.  But so many of our “modern day prophets” do not sound like this at all.  They argue not for the weak but for the strong.  They do little to challenge their base’s religious practices or what they are placing their trust.  And they often do so at minimal personal risk.

I do believe in modern prophets.  I believe they make me uncomfortable.  They make me uncomfortable because they make me realize I am often complicit in the problems of this world. They make me realize we can all do better.

However we stand on social and political issues, I think it is important for us to distinguish between them and what our faith tells us.  Is our position really really really what Jesus would say in this situation?  I think it is fine to take a political or social stand if we simply say that is what we personally think.  But I find it hugely problematic if we couch our support in theological terms. We need to be very careful when we say we are on God’s side of an issue (more-less that we are speaking for God).

The church shouldn’t be timid.  We do need people to speak up and take a stand.  We need prophets!  But if they aren’t challenging us (personally and collectively), we need to ask ourselves if they are really prophets at all.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

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We Still Need the Garden of Eden

I watched with trepidation the big debate in the media this week between Bill Nye (of Bill Nye the Science Guy fame) and Ken Ham (a “young earth creationist” who is involved with the Creation Museum south of Cincinnati). The reason why I wasn’t happy with the debate is because I believe that it was an attempt by some to make it a believers v. non-believers argument which it clearly was not. Nye himself in the debate pointed out that many believes accept the scientific record of the age of the earth. But it didn’t stop some wholesale attacks on faith itself and I believe will make some believers draw the conclusion that there is no longer value in reading the creation and many other stories in Genesis.

Ken Ham’s problem is not that he has faith that God is relating truth to him in the Bible. Where he errs is in the type of truth he thinks God is revealing. But, likewise, I fear that we can walk away from the debate thinking the creation and other stories in Genesis are just for people of by-gone days and not needed in our modern sophisticated age. That idea is as much in error as Ken Ham’s dating of the earth.

Years ago, when I was in seminary, my Old Testament professor explained that Genesis is a book of origins. It was to answer people’s questions – “Why are we here? Why do people do bad things? Why are there rainbows? Why are there thorns when I farm? Why do I hate snakes?” Bill Nye would have technical answers to all these questions. But Genesis addresses our hearts and deep yearnings. It sets forth an archetype of humanity and explains, more importantly, who God is. It explains we aren’t accidents but we were intended. It explains why we are all morally flawed but loved anyway. Most of all, it explains the origins of the people who were to become the Jews.

Genesis wasn’t written at the dawn of time. Traditionally it has been attributed to Moses (who lived around 1300 BC) but modern Biblical scholars believe it to come from four main sources and later complied either during the United Kingdom (under David and Solomon (800s BC)) or maybe even as late as during the Exile (500s BC). What is hard to wrap our minds around is that such times were just the blink of an eye ago in the course of time. Even if Ken Ham is correct (and he isn’t) about the Earth’s age, that still places Moses closer to living to our time than Adam’s (whom, again, I believe to be a figure in a story to make a point to us rather than someone who we’ll find the skeleton of one day). The Genesis story is meant to relate truth to us for today, not as a history lesson, but rather why humanity is the way it is and where our answers might lie.

We live in an age where more and more people are populating our planet whose resources are finite. We live in an age where our standard way of living is not sustainable. We live in an age where it is growing impossible to simply stay away from people who are different from us. We live in an age of terrifying weaponry which often far eclipses our spiritual maturity. And yet, at the same time, we live in an age where people’s actions parallel those in the book of Genesis to a remarkable degree (interesting for a work of “fiction” as many would assert today). Can we still learn lessons from it still and not toss it into the dust bin like a old outdated textbook (that it was never meant to be)? That is the real question.

I am grateful that Bill Nye and many other scientists stand up to people like Ham and say that the minds God gives them, and the evidence God places around us, shows that particular reading of the Bible (and understanding of our natural world) is untenable. We are misreading the Bible (any part of it) if we think it is given to us to technically describe what God has done. But in our quest to better understand this incredible reality we find ourselves in, let us remember that long ago spiritual truths were discovered that have not just helped, but also saved many people and can still do so today.

Let us not stop reading Genesis, and considering its implications and callings to us, even as some misuse it and others place no value in it. And let us learn from scientists about this remarkable creation we live in and find ways to be better stewards of it.

Until next time,

Tom

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Other People’s Sins

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In the 1991 movie “Other People’s Money”, Danny DeVito, playing anti-hero Lawrence Garfield (a lawyer who represents groups who try to buy up businesses to liquidate them) says at one point, “I love money. I love money more than the things it can buy. There’s only one thing I love more than money. You know what that is? OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY.”

While money is something we all need at least some of in our society as it is structured, sin is something we know we do not.  We go to church, we pray, and we turn over a new leaf to try not to sin because we have all felt its negative ramifications.  Sin leads to trouble.  The Bible teaches us that it leads to death.  The whole topic of sin is uncomfortable.  That is why when the topic comes up, it is far more interesting to consider other people’s sins rather than our own.  We want to voice our opinion, our disdain of it, and even our judgment over it because it makes us feel better.  We are on the side of right, not wrong when we speak against sin.  It throws the spotlight on someone else.  It can even make us feel better about ourselves.  “Well, with all my challenges, at least I don’t (fill in the blank).”

But have you ever wondered why we go to movies and watch heroes (not anti-heroes) do things that most of us consider sinful?  We watch people kill other people.  We watch people enact vengeance on each other. We watch people jump in bed with each other. I grew up watching movies like “the Hot Rock” and “the Thief Who Came to Dinner” which both were about the heroes being thieves trying to steal various items.  And you list the sin and I bet we can think of a movie where the hero, not the villain, does it.

What is lost on us, and largely not reflected upon in society, is that we enjoy sinning.  As my high school Bible teacher once asked us rhetorically, “Who ever told you sin wasn’t fun? People would never sin if it wasn’t enjoyable, would they?”  We might know the long term ramifications of it are not good but in the moment, it is very appealing.  We each are attracted to different types of sin.  But some sin (or sins) are alluring to all of us.

The key is to recognize that we are flawed, that sin, despite its allure, leads us down dead end paths, and that the way out of our problems is the straight and narrow path that looks difficult and not nearly as fun in the moment.  It is also to recognize that pointing out how other people aren’t on the path (something we are notoriously bad at evaluating) doesn’t put us any closer to being on the path ourselves.  Jesus spent precious little time pointing out other people’s sins (except for the hypocrites, which seemed to really punch his buttons, and he would go out of his way to point out that sin when he encountered it).

If sin is a topic which engages us, and it should, we need to focus upon our own challenges (or the challenges we see in our family, community, or among our immediate friends).  If what gets us worked up are the sins of people we don’t know, don’t hang around, and who we don’t socialize with – we are getting further and further from the path rather than closer to it.

What we need to collectively confess is this:  “I love to sin. I love to sin more than the things which I often should be doing. There’s only one thing I love more than sin. You know what that is? OTHER PEOPLE’S SIN.”  It is not admirable that we are like this but it is what it is and we need God’s grace to find the way out. It should not be lost on us that Jesus probably turns a jaundiced eye toward us today when we do it just as much as he did two thousand years ago.  Maybe more so.  And we do this as conservatives.  We do this as liberals.  We do this as this faith group.  We do it as that faith group.  We do it as this nationality or as that nationality. This is human nature.  There is no way out of it but to recognize it, fight against this pull, and ask for God’s help.

Let us seek God’s grace.  As followers of Jesus, let us be a people of grace.  And let us stop focusing on other people’s sins and try to get ourselves on a better course.

Until next time,

Tom

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Thanksgiving

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The above portrait, “The First Thanksgiving” by William Lockhart (1863-1930) offers us a very traditional image of Thanksgiving.  There’s only a couple of problems with it.  First, the first documented Thanksgiving Services were conducted by Spaniards in the 16th century and the first documented ones were accomplished at Jamestown in 1610.  The Plymouth Plantation Observance in 1621 is likely what Lockhart was trying to capture above but pilgrims didn’t dress like that in that time period.  Also, the Native Americans shown above are dressed as Plains Indians versus those who lived in the northeast.  And, of course, the peaceful meals often portrayed stand in stark contrast to the relations between settlers and native Americans in the years to come.  So, what should we do? Ignore, or even mourn, the origins of Thanksgiving?  I don’t think so.

First, I think it important to remember that the founders of our nation took pause – not to thank one another – or just to have a big meal together – but to thank God.  They came from a smorgasbord of religious beliefs. The colonizers were not trying to escape religion. They all simply wanted to worship in their own way.  It is important to remember these pluralistic origins.  And for the record, the native Americans also believed, completely independently from any European influence, that we were created.  Their theology/mythology surely different from Europeans but they didn’t believe we just happened to be here.  They saw spirituality often in more than their European counterparts.  Second, just because we messed it up, at least we see the ideal of diverse peoples living together, and depending on one another, occurring early on.  The natives did help the Europeans.  And the Europeans introduced so much to the natives, including horses, which transformed the continent.  We can start it right and continue it right today, even with the terrible errors of history.  We need to rally together as Americans, even with the diversity of origins and beliefs.  Third, it is important after a hard year of work to get together and celebrate.  In our modern world we isolate ourselves so much.  There is value, outside of work, to get together with folks and laugh, dance, eat, and have a good time.

I love Thanksgiving.  It is far less commercialized than other holidays.  And I think there is value in following and remembering the traditions of our ancestors.  Even with the skewed history in most Thanksgiving portraits, let us gather together and share in God’s blessings.

I hope you and yours have a very happy Thanksgiving.

Until next time,

Tom 

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Taking Sides

Marc Gungor, the author of “Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage” has a tool in his seminar called “The Flag Pages.”  In it, it highlights people’s areas where they are most comfortable.  And one area I scored high in is the “Peace Country” (a bit ironic with all my military duty).  What the focus of people in this category is that they like folks to get along and they do not like conflict.  The more I have reflected on my own life, the more I know this has always been true about me.  My motto has been that if I run into a barrier, when possible, I will find a way around it rather than try to go through it.

What’s the old saying?  If we do not take a stand for something, then we will fall for anything.  Or what about the Bible verse about wanting to spit out that which is neither hot nor cold.

My only issue is that while I acknowledge, and I am increasingly trying to take a stand on some issues, is that I refuse to fall into the monochrome arguments that are often presented.  For example, if I think member X is right on an issue in the church that she disagrees with member y over, that doesn’t mean I always see member x as right and member y as wrong.  Likewise, to use a real world example, I really dislike what I see the House Republicans doing in this budget battle and government shut down.  Does that mean I think the Republicans are always wrong and the Democrats are always right?  No.  There is so much of this, “You are either for us or against us” mindset in some sectors of our country right now.  It is not that simple.

I have two children.  I don’t like it when they fight.  But if one does something unfair in their fights, it is wrong for me to gloss over this or say it is unimportant.  But likewise, if I point out that it is wrong, it doesn’t mean I love one child more than the other child.

In our world, I simply see an increasing importance for us to voice our opinion while at the same time resist being categorized by others.  They will categorize you anyway (they already have) but we don’t have to agree with their labels (the Wimmocks story comes to mind which I heard read again recently).

So, that is where I am on this day.  I commit to leaving my comfy confines of “peace country” while still loving those times that we are there.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

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