Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Update on Prayer Request


To anyone out there who saw the request I put up a couple months ago requesting prayers for my friends who were facing a major complication with their pregnancy: many thanks for your prayers.

As for an update, Joshua Harold Ross was born August 27th, 2008, about 2 1/2 months early (28 1/2 weeks gestation). At birth, he was 2 lbs., 12 oz. He was in the neo-natal ICU, where he went through some ups-and-downs, but overall did fairly well. This past Saturday, November 1st, he got to come home!

Your continued prayers will be much appreciated, though, as I'm sure he will continue to face some challenges due to his situation. But for the moment, things look like they have gone well given the circumstances.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Pastoral Prayer: Oct 12

A Pastoral Prayer for October 12th, 2008, alluding to Exodus 32:1-14 (semi-continuous OT reading for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, RCL Year A)

Faithful God ...
... we give you thanks
that indeed you do not give up on us,
even when we give up on you.

We too make for ourselves
golden calves
that we worship instead of you.

For some of us,
it's money.

For some of us,
it's patrioticness,
that leads to unquestioning allegiance
to our country,
even when you alone, O God,
are worthy of our allegiance.

For some of us,
our golden calf is
our illusions of self-reliance,
while for others of us,
it is the illusion of our worthlessness,
forgetting that we are your beloved child,
formed in your image.

But you, O God, do not give up.
You keep inviting us to turn back to you.
You keep holding out a vision of new life, of a different kind of world.

Oh, how a vision of a different kind of world
is what we need in this moment, loving God.
We keep turning on the news
to a never-ending tale of woe in our world's economic systems.
We open our mail to find bills we struggle to pay
and hard-earned treasures vanishing before our eyes.

But you, O God, run a different kind of economy--
it is always a bull market on the indicies of your love and grace and faithfulness.
You, O God, manage a different kind of investment fund--
an account with our names on it
that you continually grow with the capital of your Spirit,
whose dividends are an invitation to new life in you.

O God, our refuge,
the economy is not the only thing about which we yearn
for a vision of a different kind of world.
We remember that our world is one
where 10 years ago, your beloved child
Matthew Shepherd
laid dying on a Wyoming fencepost
simply for who you created him to be.
You, O God, have given us a vision
where all people are welcome
at your banquet feast--
pour out your power on us as we try to live more and more into that vision.

God our healer, even as we pray and hope for a different kind of world,
we also pray for your work in this world.
We ask your healing on all who are hearing...
We ask your comforting touch on all who are lonely or struggling...
We ask your empowering touch on all who are downtrodden and in chains.

Holy One, we pray all these things
by the power of your Holy Spirit,
that Spirit that interceeds for us with sighs too deep for words,
and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord,
that One who was your different kind of world
walking the face of this one,
the One who taught us to pray together:
Our Father ...

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Need your prayers - an update

Thank you to all who have been praying for my friends and their child. 

As an update, it looks at the moment like things are headed in a positive direction. According to my friend: on Saturday, the day after the surgery, the ultrasound showed 3 cm of amniotic fluid, and on Monday afternoon it showed 6 cm, which is a good sign. ("Normal" is apparently 12 cm or above.) They are in the process of moving the mother from IV medications to oral. 

Although it looks like things are moving in the right direction, they are by no means anywhere near 'out of the woods' yet. Your continued prayers for all of them will be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Need your prayers

Hi all (whoever it is out there that reads this!),

I know that I haven't posted on here in quite a while, but today I've come to ask your prayers.  An extremely close friend of mine and his wife are currently expecting their second child, and are right now at about 25 weeks.  On Friday evening, while my friend was out of town at a conference, his wife had to have an emergency appendectomy.  During the surgery, her uterus was nicked and her water broke, both of which, as one might suspect, have put the pregnancy at extreme risk.  Although she did not start having contractions right away, by Saturday morning, she did.  Right now, she is on I.V. medications to reduce/prevent contractions, and they are hoping that the amniotic sac will re-seal and fluids will begin reforming, but they won't know if that has happened until probably Tuesday.  At this point, she (the mother) is doing ok, but what will happen to the baby--and/or what the effects to the baby will be if he/she does make it--won't be known for a number of days at the very least, and probably longer.  My friend is terrified and preparing for the worst.

Your fervent prayers for all of them will be much appreciated.


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Catechismal Gems

You know, often times among us progressive/liberal Christians, things like creeds, confessions, and catechisms get a bad rap.  There are definitely folks in the UCC who are overly-gung-ho about the idea that the UCC is a "non-creedal" church.  I'm not sure I exactly agree with that claim, but even if I were to give them that, I still insist that this doesn't mean we are a 'non-confessional' church.  We recognize the ancient ecumenical creeds (namely the Apostles' and the Nicene) and the confessions and catechisms of the Reformation as a true part of our theological heritage--it even states this in our UCC Constitution and other foundational documents.

I really do think that some of our historic creeds, confessions, and catechisms have some real gems of faith expression in them.  I've been at a worship service where I've cried (in a good way) through saying the Apostles' Creed, and specifically the third section:  "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting."  I'm sure entire books could be written (probably have been written) on all the wonderful things about God and about us that are implied in and connected to those 27 words.  

Now certainly there is much in the historic confessions that I would certainly not say, or at least not say in the same way, today.  In particular, I don't tend to agree with the Reformation-period Reformed confessions' tendency toward a penal substitutionary atonment theory or their extremely high view of God's providence.  But those caveats don't negate the riches in them.

Anyway, over a few posts, I want to share what I think are some of the greatest 'gems' in the catechisms and other confessions of our UCC heritage.  Today I begin with the Heidelberg Catechism--the primary confession from our German Reformed heritage, although it is interesting to note that an earlier version of Heidelberg (similar to, but not the same as, the version we know now) was originally intended as an attempt at a confession that both the Reformed and the Lutheran sides of the Reformation could agree to.

1.  What is your only comfort in life and in death?
That I am not my own,
but belong—
body and soul,
in life and in death—
to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. ...

Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.

This opening question of Heidelberg may be (in my opinion, of course) the greatest gem in all the confessional writings.  

21. What is true faith?
True faith is
not only a knowledge and conviction
that everything God reveals in his Word is true;
it is also a deep-rooted assurance,
created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel,
that, out of sheer grace earned for us by Christ,
not only others, but I too,
have had my sins forgiven,
have been made forever right with God,
and have been granted salvation.

I really like this question for a couple reasons:  
a) "True faith ... is also a deep-rooted assurance, created in me by the Holy Spirit through the gospel":  the affirmation that even faith itself is not something we do or achieve, but is what God does in us, but also the movement of faith out of the realm of "knowledge and conviction" to "deep-rooted assurance"--the same move from faith as 'intellectual assent' or 'believe' more toward 'trust' that many of us in the late 20th- and early 21st- century are trying to advocate for, away from the excesses of rationalistic Enlightenment thinking;
b) the way it phrases "that not only others, but I too, have had...":  it's so fascinating and yet so poignant how it takes for granted that I understand that others have been forgiven, made right, etc., and that the challenge, the thing that I need to come to grasp is that "I too" have these things; truly I think there is definitely truth in the way it turns that phrase--plenty of people today bear the weight of believing that others are the holy ones while they themselves can't be good enough.  O sister, O brother, not only others, but you too, have had your sins forgiven, have been made forever right with God, and have been granted salvation.  Can it get anymore Gospel than that?

32. But why are you called a Christian?
Because by faith I am a member of Christ
and so I share in his anointing.
I am anointed
to confess his name,
to present myself to him as a living sacrifice of thanks,
to strive with a good conscience against sin and the devil
in this life, and afterward
to reign with Christ over all creation
for all eternity.

I'm not sure I have much to say on this one; it's content seems self-evident.

44. Why does the creed add, "He descended to hell?"
To assure me in times of personal crisis and temptation
that Christ my Lord,
by suffering unspeakable anguish, pain, and terror of soul,
especially on the cross but also earlier,
has delivered me from the anguish and torment of hell.

Part of my own 'high' Christology is that God God's-self experienced the entirety of human experience, including the absolute depths of human pain and suffering, and so stands in complete solidarity with us through all.  Perhaps Heidelberg doesn't completely capture that with this question, but it at least gets at some of it.

49.  How does Christ's ascension to heaven benefit us?
First, he pleads our cause in heaven
in the presence of his Father.
Second, we have our own flesh in heaven—
a guarantee that Christ our head,
will take us, his members,
to himself in heaven. ...

This sort of goes along with the previous one (44), particularly the 'second' benefit.

52. How does Christ's return "to judge the living and the dead" comfort you?
In all my distress and persecution
I turn my eyes to the heavens
and confidently await as judge the very One
who has already stood trial in my place before God
and so has removed the whole curse from me.

Now, I don't necessarily identify with the substitutionary atonement implied in this question, but I like the way it points to that wonderful passage from Romans 8 (here with my own interpolation):  "Who is to condemn? It is [only] Christ Jesus, who [already] died [for us], yes, who [already] was raised [for us], who is [already] at the right hand of God [for us], who indeed [already] intercedes for us." 

81. Who are to come to the Lord's table?
Those who are displeased with themselves
because of their sins,
but who nevertheless trust
that their sins are pardoned
and that their continuing weakness is covered
by the suffering and death of Christ,
and who also desire more and more
to strengthen their faith
and to lead a better life. ...

This is not the feast for the perfect, but for the sinner!

95. What is idolatry?
Idolatry is
having or inventing something in which one trusts
in place of or alongside of the only true God,
who has revealed himself in his Word.

Oh how this is not any less of a danger today, even if our choices of what to 'have' or 'invent' are different!

105 - 107. What is God's will for you in the sixth commandment?
I am not to belittle, insult, hate, or kill my neighbor—
not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture,
and certainly not by actual deeds—
and I am not to be party to this in others;
rather, I am to put away all desire for revenge. ...

Does this commandment refer only to killing?
By forbidding murder God teaches us
that he hates the root of murder:
envy, hatred, anger, vindictiveness.
In God's sight all such are murder.

Is it enough then that we do not kill our neighbor in any such way?
By condemning envy, hatred, and anger
God tells us
to love our neighbors as ourselves,
to be patient, peace-loving, gentle,
merciful, and friendly to them,
to protect them from harm as much as we can,
and to do good even to our enemies.

Hmm... perhaps a much needed corrective on our attitudes toward others, not only individually, but as a society or nation.  

110. What does God forbid in the eighth commandment?
He forbids not only outright theft and robbery,
punishable by law.
But in God's sight theft also includes
cheating and swindling our neighbor
by schemes made to appear legitimate,
such as:
inaccurate measurements of weight, size, or volume;
fraudulent merchandising;
counterfeit money;
excessive interest;
or any other means forbidden by God.
In addition he forbids all greed
and pointless squandering of his gifts.

Hmm...  I'm thinking of credit card interest and oil-industry profits!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sermon: "Sacred Conversation" - Trinity Sunday - May 18, 2008

Ok, I know I haven't put a sermon up here in a while, but given this whole "Sacred Conversation on Race" thing, I thought I'd put today's sermon up--I guess to enter the blog-o-sphere conversation.

Sermon: “Sacred Conversation”

A 'Sermon' for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year A

Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a; Matthew 28:16-20

By The Rev. Matthew Emery

Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois

May 18, 2008

I’m guessing that you’ve noticed, as I’ve pulled out a chair to sit down here on the floor level with you all, that I’m choosing not to occupy the traditional place of preaching here this morning. Well, what I’ve set out to do here today is not a traditional ‘sermon’ as such.

The national setting of our church, the United Church of Christ, together with the folks at the National Council of Churches, which represents 35 denominations across the spectrum of mainline Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, and historically African American churches, they have invited us to use this Sunday to begin what they call a “Sacred Conversation on Race”.

This comes out of some of the controversy over the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, but really it’s larger than that. This isn’t about Dr. Wright, it isn’t about Barack Obama (or Hillary Clinton or John McCain, either). This is about realities we face in this country and conversations we too often shy away from.

I want to emphasize a couple things:

First, I said begin a sacred conversation—what I have to say today is not the end-all, be-all on the matter. I hope, as does the UCC and the National Council of Churches, that what happens today is just the beginning of us together addressing these issues of race and racism.

Second, this is supposed to be a conversation—sure, I will have plenty to say to you myself this morning, but you have voices and views too, and together we have views and voices to share in dialogue with people in other churches and in no church. We all must come to the table with what we bring.

And thirdly, this will hopefully be a sacred conversation—a conversation that is born out of mutual respect for one another; a conversation that takes seriously that all of us, with our gifts and our brokenness, were created in God’s own image; a conversation where we bring our own views, yes, but also one where we try to listen for God’s views, for the voice that God is still speaking amidst our lives; and a conversation where we seek out what our calling—our vocation, our job—might be in response to what happens.

All right—so, were does a sacred conversation on race and racism begin? Well, I’m inclined to think that such a conversation has to begin with truth-telling, authentic truth-telling, and first, authentic truth-telling about ourselves. I don’t think we can come to something like this simply by stating our views about concepts in abstract. And I really don’t think we can come with just our feelings about other people. We gotta start with ourselves, our real selves and our experiences—both the good and the bad. So that’s where I’m going to begin—I want to model the work of truth-telling about ourselves by being vulnerable and open with you about experiences.my own

To begin with this truth-telling about myself, I might start by saying that I want to be on what most people would consider the ‘good’ side of things. I want to not be racist and I want to believe that I am not racist. Going further, though, I want to be an ally to people of color, be they Black or Latino or Arab or Asian. I want a person of color to know not only that I don’t have prejudices against them and that the communities that I am a part of would welcome them, but that I want to be an advocate on their side.

But, you know, if I were to just leave you there, that wouldn’t be truth-telling. The truth is that it just ain’t that easy, folks. These things I’ve said may be what I want, but to borrow some words from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans “For I do not do the good I want, [and] the evil I do not want is what I do.”

The truth is, no matter how much I hate racism and want to be an ally to people of color, I still catch myself thinking things and doing things that reflect the ever-so-subtle prejudices in our society. For instance, I know that I have caught myself—not all the time, but occasionally—locking my car doors when driving through a poor black neighborhood. And I can ask myself, ‘now would I have just done that if this were just as poor a neighborhood that was mostly white?’ And the answer, quite frankly, I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not.

Or, as another example, when I’m getting out of my car here at the church and I see someone walking toward me that looks a bit disheveled or poor, maybe seeming like they’re drunk or on drugs—does the question ‘are they going to ask me for money?’ come quicker to my mind if that person is Black or Latino than if they are white? I don’t know; sometimes probably yes. And I hate that—working here at the church, I of all people know that we get just as many white people in here asking for money as black or Latino—and yet I know I still every once in a while have those thoughts, and I hate that. I hate that about myself, and I hate what our society has done to me that causes that.

I want to widen my truth-telling, though, beyond these more obvious things. In some ways, those were the easy things to see. What’s a lot harder to get at is how as a white person I bring certain assumptions to things that come out of what’s called “white privilege”—the things those of us who are white can assume and count on that, for the most part, people of color just can’t take as givens. First I want to do so by way of a story of an experience I had while I was in seminary.

My second year in seminary, I was part of a program that had 15 of us seminary students working part time in one of three different UCC churches in Chicago—a fairly poor black church, a sort of economically-in-the-middle Puerto Rican church, and a fairly affluent white church. I myself was working at the Puerto Rican church.  As part of this program, the 15 of us students also took half of our academic coursework together, drawing on what was going on with our work in these three churches as part of our ‘source material’ for the classes.

Oh, and I need to point out that of our group of 15 students, 4 of us were white, 1 of us was an international student from the Philippines, and the other 10 of us—fully 2/3s of the class—were black.

One of the classes we did together was called “The Bible and Economic Ethics” and early on in the semester, our professors—who were both white, I should add—had asked us to read a book titled What are they saying about Scripture and Ethics? The class day came for us to discuss the book, and for the first 45 minutes or so of the 3-hour class, we had a good discussion on what was presented in the book, but something seemed a little odd that morning, almost like there was an ‘elephant in the room’, so to speak. Really, that whole time, it had only been the professors and the 4 white students and the Philippino student talking. Finally, one of my African American classmates had the courage to speak out and name the ‘elephant in the room’, and over the remaining 2 hours of class many of us had our eyes widely opened to a new reality.

You see, in the book we were discussing, in one of the chapters the author talked about how a field called “liberation theology” had affected the conversation around scripture and ethics. Liberation theology, which came into serious view starting in the late 1960s, is a way of talking about theology and ethics that starts from the assertion that God is on the side of the poor and marginalized and oppressed. There are different kinds of liberation theology, drawing on the experiences of different groups of poor or marginalized or oppressed people—there’s Latin American liberation theology, black liberation theology, Asian liberation theology, feminist liberation theology, and even lately gay liberation theology. Really though, the two kinds that are recognized for starting the whole liberation theology movement in the late 60s were Black liberation theology and Latin American liberation theology.

Anyway, in this chapter about liberation theology, the author mentioned these two roots—Latin American and Black—and then went on to basically dismiss Black liberation theology as not as interesting or fruitful for his exploration and pretty much never talked about it again. My black classmates couldn’t believe their eyes. In that class, they told us that for many of them, this was the first time in their lives that they were in a serious academic setting where they as African Americans were in the majority—remember, they made up fully 2/3s of our class—and yet, yet again they had been asked by white professors to study something that dismissed their experience, one of their most prominent theological traditions.  The white people got to set the agenda yet again--and these are liberal, progressive, social-justice minded people at a UCC seminary, and still this kind of thing happened.  And we white students just played along—we didn’t question it; we had to wait for them to bring up the issue. As I remember, one of us white students—it may have even been me—asked why someone didn’t speak up earlier. But you see, as they then pointed out, as a white person, and especially as a white male, I have been enculturated to believe that of course I should speak up, and of course I’ll be listened to when I do. Black people, women, people with disabilities don’t have that luxury. Too often, and sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly, they are told to keep quiet, and when they don’t, too often they aren’t listened to.

This whole story is just one piece, one example, of what white privilege can mean. As a white person, if I’m in a store somewhere and I get treated poorly by the clerk, I almost never have to ask myself the question of whether they treated me that way because of my race. A Black woman or a Latino man faces that gnawing question in the back of their mind every time. Sure, the clerk may have very well been a jerk who treats everyone badly. But they don’t know that. And it’s those sorts of back-of-your-mind questions that can eat away at your soul.

So, I’ve done a little bit of truth-telling about myself, but to tell the truth about myself also includes the groups and communities that I’m part of—which includes this congregation and this city of Rockford. Together, we too have some good things to say. I’ve mentioned before, but I think this congregation is to be commended for taking the risk a few years ago to build the activity center, and to invite in the kids of this neighborhood—who for the most part do not look like us.

But to tell the harder truths, we also have to admit that we can be very quick to judge when something goes a little bit wrong. Like when the window by the parking lot got broken in to. Like when we wonder why some of the parents aren’t more involved, when in reality some of them are single parents working two or three jobs just to stay afloat—and, I know, not all of them, some of them do have issues with drugs or alcohol and the like, and I’m not giving them a pass. But gosh, we can be awfully quick to judge. Like when we criticize for things maybe not being kept quite as tidy or clean as we’d like—even though our community of Rockford doesn’t exactly set any good expectations, when we let the streets and infrastructure of downtown and the West and South sides decay and crumble while we spend plenty of money building streets for subdivisions of expensive houses out on the far East side—we’re not exactly keeping their places tidy either. And even in the sentence I’ve just said, I’ve fallen into a tendency that we sometimes get caught in here, of talking about “us” and “them”. Many of us, and I’m not excluding myself here, sometimes get caught talking about how we do so much for ‘them’, the neighborhood kids, and not enough for <quote> “our” kids—forgetting that when we decided to stay downtown after the ’79 fire, we were making the decision that the ‘neighborhood kids’ are ‘our’ kids.

Ok, so I know I’ve spent quite a bit of time here talking about some of the harder truths about myself and about us together when it comes to race and racism. I guess if I can get across nothing else today, I want to say that this stuff is hard. There aren’t any easy answers. We can’t just say something that will erase 400 years of history. We can’t just imagine that ‘not being racist’ changes the inequalities that creep around the shadows of our society, like the reality of white privilege and decades of educational and economic inequalities. Myself, I’m not going to wake up tomorrow and never again occasionally have those thoughts in my mind about the disheveled guy walking up to me in the church parking lot.

Where is there hope? Where is there hope? Well I have to say, from my experiences in seminary in particular, that there may be few other things that I find myself turning to God about than this one, throwing myself on God’s throne of mercy, pleading for the Holy Spirit to come and work within me and within all of us. The story I told about that book in my seminary class, that was definitely not the only time our group had conflict that involved race that year. Voices got raised. Tears were cried. And yet somehow in the end, we still managed to be in community with one another, to care for one another. Looking back on those times, I have no explanation of how we were able to do it, other than by God’s providence and Christ’s grace and the Spirit’s power.

Really, I shouldn’t be surprised by that. When it comes right down to it, this has a whole lot to do with what the Holy Trinity is all about. I can’t explain the Trinity, and I’m not going to try, but what I do know is that by speaking of God as Trinity, we’re recognizing that community—and not just community, but community with both diversity and unity at the same time—this is inherent, central, to God’s being. And if we all are created in the image of God, as our Genesis story proclaims, then this sort of community is inherent to us too as humans. In the ‘Creator – Redeemer – Sustainer’ community, in the ‘Father – Son – Spirit’ community, in the ‘Compassionate Mother - Beloved Child - Life-giving Womb’ community, we have a glimpse of a true diversity community and we have the promise this possibility is in us, too. The creation story is all about God bringing order out of chaos, and in continuing to engage in truth-telling and join with others in sacred conversation, we join with God in bringing order and beauty into the chaos of this world. We join with God in creating the sort of community that indeed is God. And so, may almighty God, the blessed and holy Trinity, pour out power and grace and mercy upon us for the work set before us.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Daily Journal - April 16

Today's Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-8
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the Lord. (vs. 1-4)

Other readings:
Matthew 20:17-28 (Jesus came to serve) and Psalm 100 (We are the sheep of God's pasture)

Hymn: "Gather Us In" by Marty Haugen
Prayer: O God, we confess that religion can be divisive and leaders more contentious than compassionate.  Banish fear, engender healing, and restore trust to those who have been damaged by religious manipulation.

It is so interesting that this reading from Jeremiah would come up in the daily lectionary this week, given how well it connects in with something that has happened this week here in my congregation. 

My sermon this past Sunday, which I will post at some point, was titled "Gatekeeping".  I worked off of Jesus' statement in the John 10:1-11 reading that "I am the gate".  I said that, if Jesus is the gate, then perhaps that means that we, the Church, are the gatekeepers. I played that two different ways:  first that, in fact, we have all too often made ourselves into gatekeepers trying to slam the doors shut, keeping people from an experience of God, from entering into the realm that Jesus opens.  But then, also, even as we repent of that kind of gatekeeping, perhaps we are being invited, called, into another kind of gatekeeping, into being the kind of gatekeepers that see someone coming down the road and call out to them, 'hey, let me hold this door open for you.'  Perhaps 'usher' is an image we better connect with this than gatekeeper, but either way, we the Church are supposed to be the ones inviting people to enter through the Jesus gate.

In talking about being this kind of welcoming, ushering sort of gatekeeper, about being an "open-gate community", I mentioned that we in the United Church of Christ have been at the forefront of opening the gates of the church to gay and lesbian people, who for too long have had to deal with far too many of that 'other' kind of gatekeeping Christians (the gate-closing ones).  I later received an email from a individual for whom this past Sunday was their second time visiting our congregation, and they wrote to thank me for my sermon, because they had been waiting 35 years to come to a church where they were welcome.

So, thanks be to God, that I have the privilege of being among those of whom Jeremiah says "I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them," at least in as much as I get to be so and do so for anyone who walks through the doors of this community and finds welcome.  And thanks be to God that people do indeed find a home and a place to journey with God, that "they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed".  And long we still await that day when "nor shall any be missing", because indeed, we know that many, many folks have still not found that place where the gatekeepers are doing their real jobs, the hold-the-door-open, welcoming-in, ushering job.

Oh, and I just love Marty Haugen's "Gather Us In":

Here in this place the new light is streaming, now is the darkness vanished away; see in this space our fears and our dreamings brought here to you in the light of this day.  Gather us in, the lost and forsaken, gather us in, the blind and the lame; call to us now, and we shall awaken, we shall arise at the sound of our name.

We are the young, our lives are a mystery, we are the old who yearn for your face; we have been sung throughout all of history, called to be light to the whole human race.  Gather us in, the rich and the haughty, gather us in, the proud and the strong; give us a heart, so meek and so lowly, give us the courage to enter the song.

Here we will take the wine and the water, here we will take the bread of new birth, here you shall call your sons and your daughters, call us anew to be salt for the earth.  Give us to drink the wine of compassion, give us to eat the bread that is you; nourish us well, and teach us to fashion lives that are holy and hearts that are true.

Not in the dark of buildings confining, not in some heaven light years away--hear in this place the new light is shining, now is the kingdom, and now is the day.  Gather us in and hold us forever, gather us in and make us your own; gather us in, all peoples together, fire of love in our flesh and our bone.

(Marty Haugen, copyright (c)1982 GIA Publications, Inc.)

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

My Book Library

You may have noticed not too long ago the appearance of the "Random Books from my library" section in the right-hand column on this page.

I'm using this pretty cool site called LibraryThing to catalog my library of books. I'm still working my way through, probably only a little over half-way done (certainly not yet to 2/3rds).

You can see my whole library at:
and my LibraryThing profile at:

Check it out!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Daily Journal: February 21st

Today's Reading: Psalm 95
O come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods.
In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also.
The sea is his, for he made it,
and the dry land, which his hands have formed. (vs. 1-5)

Other readings:
Exodus 16:1-8 (Israel complains of hunger in the wilderness) and Colossians 1:15-23 (Christ, the reconciliation of all things)

Hymn: "Let All Things Now Living"
Prayer: Creating God, give us eyes this day to see the wonder of what you have made. Help us to appreciate this awesome beauty in everything that lives and breathes and moves around us.


Giving thanks to God for creation is perhaps a little bit difficult this time of year in the upper Midwest, as we are in that point of the winter when we are all very sick of cold and ice and snow, and yet we know that spring is still a bit too far off. This winter here in Rockford, when we're not suffering through single-digit or even sub-zero temperatures, we're getting overly-generous amounts of snow (or occasionally ice, even) dumped upon us.

But alas, it is still a creation that supports and sustains all life, include our own, and for that we are thankful to God. Perhaps in our complaining about this year's winter weather, we are inching ever too close to the whining Israelites in the wilderness that we find in the Exodus reading given for today.

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Bible Versions/Translations

So I have been a die-hard fan of the NRSV for as long as I can remember. (For those who might read this that don't know what NRSV stands for, it is the "New Revised Standard Version" translation of the Bible.) I think this is probably reflective of the fact that I have been a "mainliner" my whole life--the NRSV is by far the preferred translation among clergy, publications, scholars, and other resources in most mainline Protestant denominations. It's one of the few recent English translations whose translation committee was not dominated by evangelicals. (Other notable exceptions would be the New Jerusalem Bible, which is Roman Catholic, and the Revised English Bible, which is British--and these are both translations I appreciate as well, especially the REB.)

In the last year or so, though, as I've been doing a lot more work with high school youth and 8th-grade confirmation students, I've been finding that the reading level of the NRSV is simply too complicated for many of my youth. Now, it is the case that some of my high schoolers struggle some with reading, but I think the NRSV may be a bit challenging for most high schoolers, particularly the 8th, 9th, and 10th grade levels.

So, I've been exploring the idea of finding an easier-to-read translation and getting a new set of Bibles for our youth room and confirmation classroom. This has been perplexing, as there aren't great options. Do I forsake much of biblical language and poetry and go with an overly-simplistic translation like the CEV? Do I go with one of the evangelical translations that clearly has theological biases--some even come right out and state their theological biases in their forwards, like the "Holman Christian Standard Bible"? I definitely don't want to go with a complete paraphrase like The Message, or even the almost-complete paraphrased New Living Translation. What to do, what to do...

Well, in the midst of all this, I came across this brand new audio Bible called "Inspired by... The Bible Experience". Check out the website: http://www.zondervan.com/tbe This audio Bible is a really high quality production, and its reading is really engaging. I thought, 'hey, maybe this is an answer, to utilize something like this so as to not challenge their reading abilities so much, but also to add the really engaging presentation it offers.

So, this new audio Bible uses the text of the TNIV, the Today's New International Version. For those who don't know, this is a recent revision of the practically-ubiquitous NIV translation that was released in 1979. In part because of the marketing power of Zondervan, the NIV has become the most widely-available and most-purchased English translation out there. I've kinda had a bias against the NIV for a long time. Part of this is because I preferred the language of the NRSV, and I resented how dominant the NIV has become while the NRSV has to practically fight its way to get one or two copies onto a bookseller's shelf. The NRSV is probably a more 'accurate' translation than the NIV. And, the NRSV was a more inclusive-language translation.

This new revision, though, the TNIV has addressed much of the inclusive language issue that you find with the NIV. There are some places where they've fixed some things to be more 'accurate'. And, given that this TNIV seems to be quite a bit easier of a reading level than the NRSV in many places, it's actually fairly amazing how much of a 'traditional' biblical-language sound it still manages to maintain. Now, I am still conscious of the fact that this is primarily an evangelical translation, although the committee at least is truly interdenominational, spanning all of the different denominational/theological traditions. I will still probably find myself 'watching' things in comparison to the NRSV, but I think I'm actually coming to like this TNIV.

So, Monday I went ahead and purchased this audio bible I'm talking about, along with a print TNIV that goes along with it (it has references at the top of each page to which CD and Track numbers to go to). Having surveyed everything for the past couple of days, I'm pretty sure I'm going to go ahead and get some of these TNIVs for our youth room and confirmation classroom. It was time for new Bibles there anyway, as we had some paper-back NRSVs that are practically falling apart, and the rest were old RSVs!

Daily Journal: February 20th

Ok, so sorry again for the long delay. I have been partaking of the daily Lent devotional emails from http://www.uccvitality.org/ which have been pretty good, and also based on the RCL Daily Lectionary.

Today's Reading: John 7:53-8:11

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ (8:3-7)

Other readings:
Ezekiel 36:22-32 (God will renew the people) and Psalm 128 (God promises life)

Hymn: "Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling"
Prayer: Forgiving God, how is it that we are so ready to condemn others even when we are obviously convicted of wrongful behavior ourselves? Help us to refrain from questioning your mercy and imposing our own moral judgments on the lives of others.

First, and this isn't a reflection so much, but I think it is interesting to note simply that this story, the famous "let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone" story, is considered by most scholars to not have been an original part of the Gospel of John. The footnotes in many Bibles indicate that many ancient sources lack the passage, some have the passage at this location, and some have this passage at other locations, such as following John 7:36, John 21:25 (which is simply after the end of the gospel), or even after Luke 21:38. It's clearly a well-known and, for the most part, well-liked story; I'm not sure what to make of this detail of textual criticism, or whether it is even important to 'make' anything of it.
I think the lesson/teaching we get from this story is an important one. Even for me, as one who is not often caught up in trying to make judgments of personal morality against other people, certainly this story may have something to say to me when I find myself too easily criticizing the efforts or work of another.
In the UCC's email Lent devotional today, David Powers offers a very poignant question, I think: "But Jesus simply bent down and wrote with his finger in the dust. Was he stalling for time as he considered what to do? Or was he offering a moment of grace by doing and saying nothing?" This is an important word to hear for those of us, myself often included, who can get caught in the addiction to the need to "do something".

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Daily Journal: January 31st

Today's Reading: Psalm 2
I will tell of the decree of the Lord:
He said to me, ‘You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron,
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’

Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
(vs. 7-12)

Other readings:
Exodus 6:2-9 (God promises deliverance through Moses) and Hebrews 8:1-7 (Christ, the mediator

Hymn: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus"
Prayer: Almighty God, creator and ruler of the universe, the powers and divisions of this world melt away before your glory. We humbly thank you for calling us your children and showing us that nothing can separate us from your love.

There's a double-play with psalm language like this, "[The Lord] said to me, 'You are my son; today I have begotten you.'" We can read this as though it refers to Christ--which is I suspect the reading implied by the lectionary gurus, with this being the Psalm specified for the Transfiguration, when Jesus' status as God's beloved son is again proclaimed by the voice from heaven. This sort of 'christological' reading of the Psalms is more typical of the Lutheran tradition than it is of the Reformed. Then, on the other hand, we can read the psalm as though we ourselves are speaking/praying this language. 'I, Matt, will tell the decree of God: God said to me, "You, Matt, are my child, today I have begotten you.'
I think there can be a danger in tending too hard one way or the other on this. To empower people to pray the psalms as their own, this can be a great and gospel-bearing thing. On the other hand, it can be too easy to always claim God's blessing for ourselves (see, for instance, that whole 'Prayer of Jabez' hooey). Of course, if we open up all the Psalms in our voice, then there is great diversity--sometimes we are the blessed ones, and sometimes we are in the pit.
The message that we are God's beloved children, it can be disheartening to think about still how many people in our world need to hear that simple gospel message. And, in large part, this is because of the way that Christians have distorted the gospel over the years. I'm not even just focusing on conservative/evangelical/fundamentalist types here. For a good part of the 20th-century, even the liberal mainline churches turned the central message of Christianity into moralism. You were a good Christian if you were a good citizen, a "good" person. I'm sorry, but I thought the central message of Christianity--the reason it's good news--was about God's grace, and what God did through the cross, and God incorporating us into Christ, and all that. Not so much about us and how good we can be. And I don't care if your form of works righteousness is that of the fundamentalists (the conservative moralisms against sexuality, drinking, swearing, etc.), that of the old liberal mainline (being a good upstanding citizen and a good person), or that of the social justice / progressive style liberals (working for justice, not buying things from unfair labor or from eco-insensitive production, etc.). All three forms are still works righteousness, if you've come to think any of it is a measure of how 'good' a Christian you are. There are days when I think conservatives and liberals alike need Martin Luther to come nail some theses on their doors.

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Daily Journal: January 29th

So, I'm doing really well with this daily thing, aren't I?

Today's Reading: Philippians 2:12-18
Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world. It is by your holding fast to the word of life that I can boast on the day of Christ that I did not run in vain or labour in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you— and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.

Other readings:
Judges 7:12-22 (God leads Gideon to victory) and Psalm 27:7-14 (Take courage in God)

Hymn: "Rejoice in God's Saints"
Prayer: Father of light, through the ages your prophets, saints, and martyrs have taught us by their lives of dedication. Shine through us, too, that we may make a difference in the lives of others, encouraging them in your word.


The line in the Prayer, "Shine through us, too, that we may make a difference in the lives of others, encouraging them in your word" strikes me today. Probably because we did our annual "Snow Camp" winter retreat weekend with the middle- and high-school youth this weekend, and I do hope that indeed these things make a difference. Actually, I feel pretty good about this one that it in fact did.

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Daily Journal: January 21

My apologies folks for my week or so hiatus.

Today's Reading: Psalm 40:6-17

Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt-offering and sin-offering
you have not required.
Then I said, ‘Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.’

I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
from the great congregation.

Do not, O Lord, withhold
your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
keep me safe for ever.
For evils have encompassed me
without number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
until I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails me.

Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;
O Lord, make haste to help me.
Let all those be put to shame and confusion
who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
who desire my hurt.
Let those be appalled because of their shame
who say to me, ‘Aha, Aha!’

But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’
As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God.

(The italicised part is the section offered in Bread for the Day)

Other readings:
Exodus 12:1-13, 21-28 (The passover lamb) and Acts 8:26-40 (Philip teaches about the lamb)

Hymn: "Lord of Glory, You Have Bought Us" by Eliza S. Alderson (1818-1889)
Prayer: Life-giving God, when we consider the sacrifice you have made to bring us back to you, the reality brings us to our knees. How can you love us this much? You have redeemed us, and we are truly yours forever.


I'm finding myself without a lot to say today, which seems to happen more often when the reading for the day is the Psalm reading. Hmm... probably something to think about there.

Today's selection of readings, the psalm featured above and also the additional readings listed, are supposed to be in some way a 'reflection' back on this past Sunday's (yesterday's) readings--particularly the gospel reading from John. I preached yesterday--I should be able to put the sermon up tomorrow--and I was interested in how most of the folks reflecting/commenting on the John passage seemed to weigh in much more heavily on one half of it or the other: either the first half, where the emphasis is the title of Jesus as "Lamb of God" (this being the only place in the Bible where that language is used so directly), or on the second half of it, where it would seem the emphasis is on the disciple's question "Where are you staying?" (actually more like "Where do you abide?") and Jesus' invitation-as-response "Come and see." I myself was guilty of this in my sermon, as I pretty much didn't address the whole Lamb of God issue at all, other than exploring the action dynamics of John yelling things every time Jesus comes near (you can see what I mean when I get the sermon up here). As much as I am one within the UCC who thinks that UCCers are far too hesitant to deal with issues of Christology, and generally speaking tend to have far too low of a Christology, in this case, given the two possible emphases here, even I am inclined to think that in today's context, the issue of where Jesus 'abides' (a more accurate translation of what we read as 'staying') and the gospel news of Jesus' invitation to "Come and see" are probably more important that christological titles. Although perhaps this is because I'm not entirely sure what to make of the 'Lamb of God' title, or I'm a bit hesitant around it because I worry about how one uses this language with run-of-the-mill non-theologian laypeople without descending into bad sacrificial substitutionary atonement sorts of theologizing. But, on the other hand, I still think it's important language.

But anyway, all this has been interesting because it's been pretty apparent that most of the Lutheran commentators and resources have focused on the Lamb of God part than the 'Come and see' part. (Some people will be very impressed at this point that I've found something in which I'm actually not going along with the Lutherans!)

Well, anyway, none of that was really so much about today's readings, hymn, or prayer, but oh well!

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Daily Journal: January 12th

Today's Reading: 1 Samuel 7:3-17
Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’ So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. The towns that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath; and Israel recovered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites. (Verses 12-14, as given in Bread for the Day)

Other readings:
Acts 9:19b-31 (Barnabas introduces Saul/Paul in Jerusalem) and Psalm 29 (The voice of God upon the waters)

Hymn: "Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing"
Prayer: Almighty God, you grace us with strength in the midst of turbulent days, and where you are, peace abides. Grant us the wisdom to recognize your presence in others, that we may never exclude others who also call you Lord.


Well, first of all, I guess this gives a clue finally to the ponderous lyrics at the beginning of the second verse of "Come, Thou Fount...": "Here I raise my Ebenezer: 'Hither by thy help I've come'". That would be a recasting of verse 12 in this passage, where Samuel set up a stone and named it Ebenezer, "for he said, 'Thus far the Lord has helped us.'"

The point in the text--at least as implied by the prayer of the day--is that God provided peace for the Israelites. It's a little troublesome to me, though, because when you read through the whole passage for today (I only have verses 12-14 above, following the lead of Bread for the Day), the "peace" seems to be simply that the Philistines were scared witless to attack the Israelites because "the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel. And the men of Israel went out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, and struck them down as far as beyond Beth-car." (v. 11) It would seem to be the sort of peace of the Cold War--not so much a "real" peace, but a peace based in the fact that either side was afraid to attack the other. Of course, 'history is always told by the victor', and I think that applies even to (perhaps especially to) biblical history, and the Deuteronomistic history in particular (1st Samuel is part of a larger section of the Bible known as the "Deuteronomistic History", extending from Joshua through the end of 2nd Kings, excluding Ruth and arguably including the book of Deuteronomy; it is so named because biblical scholars believe these history-telling books come out of the same tradition or community as the writer of Deuteronomy). So, in this case, as long as Israel is not being attacked, or not losing, from Israel's perspective there is peace.

This is perhaps the classic error in American history, and especially that chunk from the end of the Cold War until 9/11. In America during this time, the overall concern for "world peace" was, in my estimation, pretty low--we, after all, were not getting attacked and lived in little fear of being attacked. So for us there was already peace. As my own seminary Hebrew Bible professor, Dr. Ken Stone, pointed out in a Convocation address the semester after I graduated, one of the things in our present context that the Deuteronomistic history may best do is shine back a not-too-flattering reflection on our own actions (he was speaking specifically of the book of Judges, but it could apply to much of it). This is particularly true of our all-too-often desire to claim God's blessing upon our country or our actions--or at least to say that if we are not getting attacked, for instance, it is because of God's protection (and thus, if we are, that God has removed that protection). Here I share some interesting quotes from Dr. Stone's address:
[D]o those of us who are committed to fostering peace in our world need to consider the possibility that the normalization of violence in the book of Judges, a book that associates violence with both God and the people of God, has some complicated but nevertheless real relationship to the conflicts that continue to rage among branches of the Abrahamic traditions?
[O]ne way of reading difficult biblical texts is precisely to read them as a mirror. If we read Judges as a mirror, we may find in it, first of all, not an occasion for condemnation of either the text or our neighbor, but rather an occasion for critical self-reflection. That is to say, in a world of conflict, how do we, who long for justice, find ourselves acting just like these judges? Where do we see, in the book of Judges, reasons for caution about our own worst tendencies, particularly those of us who, as Christians, wish to heed Jesus’ command in Matthew 7:1-2 not to judge?
For the case of Jephthah, in particular, may suggest to us that being involved in a just cause and being used by the spirit of God are no guarantees against doing terrible and foolish things. Indeed, Jephthah’s story indicates that those involved in just causes and acting under God’s spirit are quite capable of sacrificing persons close to them while refusing to take responsibility for their own harmful acts.
I encourage you to read the whole address (follow the link above).

But that academic tangent aside, where does that leave us with the claim in today's prayer of the day, that God "grace[s] us with strength in the midst of turbulent days, and where [God is], peace abides." What kind of peace is this? A 'personal' peace? A 'real' peace? A respite from hate and violence? What are the signs of God's peace breaking into the world already?

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Daily Journal: January 11th

Today's Reading: Acts 9:10-19a
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,

Other readings:
1 Samuel 3:10 - 4:1a (Samuel receives the word of God at Shiloh) and Psalm 29 (The voice of God upon the waters)

Hymn: "Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound"
Prayer: O God of truth, your light will always banish darkness. Let us never be afraid to speak your word in the face of opposition, for it is your power--not ours--that will save your children, through Christ our Lord. Amen.


As I think I mentioned a couple days ago, I've been reading through Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism by Martha Grace Reese. The areas of new nember welcome/inclusion and 'evangelism' are supposed to be one of the 'focus areas' of my particular position as associate pastor. It also so happens that I've been prepping for our next set of "Inquirers' Classes" or "New Member Sessions" (I recommended the former name to our Membership Board about 6 months ago or so, to encourage the idea that people should be able to come to these sessions to learn more about our congregation before they have to decide if they want to officially join).

So, it is striking to me that today's scripture reading would be given the title/tagline "Ananias receives Saul into the church". In the passage, the actual 'joining' of the church is mentioned fairly quickly: "Then he got up and was baptized". There are certainly people in my congregation who think the new member joining process should be as quick, easy, and non-involved as possible--as few 'classes' as possible, as soon after someone inquires as possible, and so forth. This applies to people being newly baptized too. I'm not casting any particular judgment on those in the congregation with this thought, as their attitude reflects what was in fact the practice here at my church for many, many years. I've been told by someone who joined maybe 15 to 20 years ago that there weren't any sessions/classes for new members when they joined.

But it may be easy to miss in this passage from Acts that Saul/Paul has most definitely had a significant, life-altering encounter with the risen Christ. Now, I don't believe anyone is probably going to have such an encounter in new member classes, regardless of how many we have or what we include. But we do believe, as Reformation Christians (this is my term that groups together the Reformed and Lutheran traditions), that God / Christ are encountered in the life, work, and witness of the gathered people of God, in the Word and Sacraments proclaimed and celebrated amidst a real-life worshiping assembly. So, I'm not sure the impulse to have people join the membership at the earliest possible moment, maybe even if they've only been here a couple times, is the best idea. And, it would seem anecdotally that we have seen some evidence in our own congregation. Due to a variety of factors, about a year ago we waited some 7 or 8 months between inquirers/membership classes. Most of the folks that joined in that class had already been attending here some 4 to 6 months, and were already becoming integrated and committed into the life of the congregation. We've seen a much higher "retention" rate (new members remaining active) with that class than with many others over the past 4 or 5 years.

The narrative of Saul's conversion together with this text makes me think about what we in the churches are doing that will lead people into a Saul-like encounter with the risen Christ. Sure, theologically we claim this can/does happen in Word and Sacrament, but practically speaking, there is a lot of what passes for mainline Protestant worship, things that look like Word and Sacrament, that do everything but provide an encounter with the Gospel and with the risen Christ. Or, for those who come to us having already had some call/encounter, can we reach out like Ananias and heal the blindness/brokenness they come with, thereby opening them up to the full life that God has called them to? Can we be the hands of healing and transformation, even if God or others have already worked the call / encounter?

Aside from reflecting on the mechanics of how we welcome new members and new Christians, though, there is something else of challenge in today's reading. Ananias complains to the Lord because he knows of "how much evil [Saul] has done to to your saints in Jerusalem". This is the last guy we should go healing! And yet God affirms that "he is an instrument whom I have chosen". We have a hard time believing that those with whom we disagree might be being used by God. Conservatives have a hard time with the claim that liberal-progressives or gay clergy or any host of others could be ones God is using. But we liberal-progressives have a hard time seeing that God might use our opponents, too. Of course, in the story, Saul undergoes a conversion, so the claim is not that God was using him as an instrument while he was still persecuting. Is the lesson not so much that God may be using our opponents, but instead that by the grace of God, the door for transformation is always open?

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Daily Journal: January 10th

Today's Reading: Psalm 29
Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name;
worship the Lord in holy splendour.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’

The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
the Lord sits enthroned as king for ever.
May the Lord give strength to his people!
May the Lord bless his people with peace!

Other readings:
1 Samuel 3:1-9 (Samuel, a boy, says "Here I am") and Acts 9:1-9 (Saul on the road to Damascus)

Hymn: "Before You, Lord, We Bow" by Francis Scott Key
Prayer: God, you called the young boy Samuel from his sleep, and you called Saul, the persecutor, out from his darkness--and their lives were never the same. Teach us to recognize your voice, and make us bold in following your commands.


I'm finding myself without a lot to say in this journal today. The psalm reading, which is the psalm for this coming Sunday, was selected because of the "voice of the Lord is over the waters" phrase--it is the Baptism of Our Lord this Sunday, after all. I do love that voice upon the waters language, and I love a song by Marty Haugen that echoes it:
Wind upon the waters, voice upon the deep,
rouse your sons and daughters, wake us from our sleep,
breathing life into all flesh, breathing love into all hearts,
living wind upon the waters of my soul.
What does it mean for God's voice to be upon the waters? We as Protestants--well, us non-Lutheran, non-Anglican Protestants, anyway--have for too long domesticated, ignored, or lost faith in the sacraments. So what would it mean if we truly believed God's voice, God's word, was upon, within, amidst the waters of baptism?

It seems that the other readings for today all have the theme of hearing God's voice. In my own experience, though, the hearing of God's voice is one of those areas where Luther's (and others) 'hiddenness of God' is very applicable. When I was sensing the call to pursue seminary and ordained ministry, I definitely thought that it would be much easier of God sent emails or made phone calls, rather than trying to make me figure out why I had a knawing in my stomach and a lump in my throat whenever I thought about the issue of ministry. I think we can never actually be sure it is God's voice we're hearing, and yet we still have to act on the voice we hear, deciding whether it is God's or not. I'm sorta Bonhoeffer-ian here--in an actual instance of ethical decision-making, we can never know (or at least never be sure) what the right choice is, and yet we still must choose, and throw ourselves upon the mercy of God.

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Daily Journal: January 9th

Today's Reading: Luke 13:31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Other readings:
Micah 5:2-9 (One who is to rule Israel) and Psalm 72 (Prayers for the king)

Hymn: "When Twilight Comes" by Moises B. Andrade, tr. James Minchin
Prayer: God of the ages, your word is at once powerful and gentle, ancient and new. Your children pull together and tear apart, loving each other and causing each other pain. Gather us under your wing, O Lord, and renew us.


I must confess that among my first thoughts in reading today's text has to do with the killing prophets theme and last night's results from the New Hampshire primary. Yes, I am a Barack Obama supporter, and no, not just because he's UCC (although that certainly adds to it). Up until about a month ago or so, I was sort of non-committal about the whole thing: yeah, maybe leaning toward Obama, but not all that strongly, and not with any particular dislike of Mrs. Clinton. Quite frankly, I found Obama's speech at our UCC General Synod this summer a bit disappointing. Something changed, though, in December, and I came to have a certain distaste form Mrs. Clinton's campaign and became increasingly electrified by how I perceived Obama. I really think if we want substantial change in our country, Mrs. Clinton is just too establishment for that to happen. (Now, that said, if she wins the nomination, I'll still vote for her, just not with the same fervor as I would Obama.)

Now, I want to be clear that Obama is not the messiah and Mrs. Clinton is not Herod. But I can't help feeling a certain parallel from the prophet getting killed to the potential for Obama's campaign to fail. Mrs. Clinton is not Herod in this case, rather "the system" is--the 'establishment', the American electorate that buys into fear about a potential terrorist attack and the question of whether someone like Obama would not have enough experience in that event, and all the other factors that contribute to "the system". 'Jerusalem' is the system: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!" And this is all the prophets, lest anyone think I'm reducing this all to electoral politics or trying to make Obama the prophet extraordinare (which he's not--remember, I was actually disappointed in his General Synod speech, and while I think he's the best choice, I'm not expecting any divine miracles if he gets elected).

I'm not really sure what to make of Jesus' statement that "it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem."

The 'gospel, as well as the judgment of 'the law', in this passage seems to be Jesus expressing his desire: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under wings, and you were not willing!" How do we hold on to that promise, that Jesus wants to gather us in? How do we communicate--evangelize--that gospel message to the un-churched / potential new Christians?

Bread for the Day's suggested hymn, "When Twilight Comes" by Moises Andrade echoes the language from today's reading in it's first and second verses.

When twilight comes and the son suts, mother hen prepares for night's rest.
As her brood shelters under her wings, she gives the love of God to her nest.
Oh! what joy to feel her warm heartbeat and be near her all night long;
so the young can find repose, then renew tomorrow's song.

One day the Rabbi, Lord Jesus, called the twelve to share his last meal.
As the hen tends her young, so for them he spent himself to seek and to heal.
Oh! what joy to be with Christ Jesus, hear his voice, oh! sheer delight,
and receive his servant care: all before the coming night.
(Moises B. Andrade, tr. James Minchin, tr. ©James Minchin, admin. Asian Institute for Liturgy & Music)

For a while now, I think we in the liberal/progressive Mainline have been uncomfortable with language like "Oh! what joy to be with Christ Jesus, hear his voice, oh! sheer delight". I have often shared that discomfort. For me, the discomfort is partly a reaction to evangelicalism, and their tendency to use a lot of so-called 'personal relationship' language and 'Jaezzuss' language. But I also think this discomfort is to our detriment. Indeed, it should be good and joyful to be with Jesus, the one who loved us before we could love. Sometimes our 'head' religion has gotten in the way of the response of our hearts. Over the last few years, I have become a little more comfortable with this kind of language. It's interesting to note how some of this same more emotively connective language permeates a lot of those old 16th, 17th, and 18th century Lutheran chorales, albeit in some different kind of verbiage: "Jesus, priceless treasure, source of purest pleasure, truest friend to me: ah, how long I've panted, and my heart as fainted, thirsting, Lord, for thee!" or "Lord, thee I love with all my heart; I pray thee, ne'er from me depart; with tender mercy cheer me. Earth has no pleasure I would share, yea, heav'n itself wer void and bare if though, Lord, were not near me." I don't know if its simply been some maturing in my faith, or my exposure to this latter kind of language (again, thanks to the Lutherans!), some combination thereof, or something else entirely that has lowered my resistance to more emotive, relational faith language.

Sure, there's the danger of descending into maudlin sentimentality, but for those of us in mainline Reformed tradition churches, with our typically intellectual Theo-centric expressions, we benefit, I think, from opening ourselves a little more emotional Christo-centric language. God is relational and compassionate, after all, and we as humans are emotional, relational, and embodied beings.

O Christ Jesus, I believe, help my unbelief. Help me to love you and trust in your promises. Open me, all that I am, to you. Amen.

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Daily Journal: January 8th

Today's Reading: Ephesians 4:7, 11-13
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Other readings:
1 Kings 10:14-25 (Solomon's splendor) and Psalm 72 (Prayers for the king)

Hymn: Lord, You Give the Great Commission
Prayer: Sustaining Lord, you equip each of us with specific gifts for the building up of your kingdom. Grant us the wisdom to identify these gifts in ourselves and others, that your church may be empowered for service in your name. Amen.

What an interesting juxtaposition to think about the 'gifts' for ministry we have been given right next to the story of the magi bringing their 'gifts' to the Christ child. It really is a reminder--one we need often--that all the gifts we have to bring were in fact gifts given to us first. We pastors are sometimes just as much in need of that reminder as anyone, perhaps more so. I want to think that I am capable, I am good at what I do, I am gifted. Well, indeed, I am "gifted", but not in the way we normally say that, rather I have received great gifts--everything, really--from God.

Daily lectionary readings from Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings, ©2005 Consultation on Common Texts. Hymn suggestions and prayer for the day from Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers, ©2007 Augsburg Fortress.

Why I want to some daily journals

So, I've been reading Unbinding the Gospel: Real Life Evangelism by Martha Grace Reese, and one of her strongest emphases, particularly in part two of the book, is on the critical importance of prayer--within the congregation, on the part of the pastors and evangelism leaders, and all around. This is connected to the idea the way churches operate and do evangelism is connected to a "trinity of relationships": individuals' relationships with God, relationships between church members, and relationships with people outside the church. Although she tries to describe it as a "trinity" of interdependence, it is clear from what she says that there is a certain priority to the 'relationships with God' part: stronger relationships with God will contribute to better relationships between church member, which in turn will help with relationships with people outside the church.

Importantly, she writes, "If we pastors don't talk about our lives with God, if we don't have substantial prayer lives, it is not likely that members of our churches will develop much of a spiritual life, either. If members are not afire with love for God, it is inconceivable that they will do much to share their faith."

So, I figure I'm going to try to be more intentionally disciplined in doing some sort of daily (or at least rather frequent) "devotional"/reflectional scripture reading and prayer. And, as much as I have usually been resistant to "journalling" through my school life, I figure trying to be committed to doing a regular daily blog post might actually keep me disciplined.

My 'discipline' or guide for at least a while is going to be based on the fairly new Daily Lectionary of the Revised Common Lectionary. While the Revised Common Lectionary has been out since 1992, it was only in 2005 that the Consultation on Common Texts finally released Revised Common Lectionary Daily Readings. The readings for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are intended to reflect back upon Sunday's readings (esp. the gospel reading) and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday's readings are meant to be in preparation for the coming Sunday. There are two readings for each day, as well as two psalms each week (one for Mon - Wed and a different one for Thurs - Sat).

Augsburg Fortress (I love the Lutherans!) has taken this daily lectionary and prepared a devotional book called Bread for the Day 2008: Daily Bible Readings and Prayers. On each day's page, they give the text of one of the readings, list the other readings, and also provide a hymn for the day and a prayer for the day. It's really quite neat, and so I'm going to work with that.

I'll let you know the reading(s) for the day, give the hymn and prayer, and then share some reflections, prayers, or whatever comes to me to share with you. Some days my reflections might be a bit more prayerful/devotional and other days they might be a bit more intellectual/theological in nature, but indeed the intellectual can be a prayer path too.

“What Child is This?” - A Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A

“What Child is This?”
A Sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, Illinois
December 23, 2007

Now, I’ve titled this sermon “What Child is This?”, but something tells me that was probably not Joseph’s first question. Just because Matthew is rather brief and to the point in telling this story, that shouldn’t let us miss the real scandal and drama here.

“When Mary … had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” So, imagine yourself in Joseph’s place here. You’re engaged to this young woman, and you haven’t quote “lived together”—and now, all of a sudden, she’s quote “found to be with child”. In other words, the two of you have not had sex and yet somehow Mary’s pregnant. I myself have never been in this position, but I’m inclined to think that Joseph’s first question was probably less “what child is this” and more “who’s child is this”? I mean, if we think this situation would be a little scandalous today, how much more so in a society 2,000 years ago where not simply your relationship, but your entire honor and status as a man, could be ruined by such a turn of events.

As if life weren’t already getting complicated and strange enough for Joseph, pretty quickly—while Joseph is figuring out how to minimize the damage—this angel shows up. The angel seems to have the answer, though, to the question of whose this child is: “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Huh? Now it seems like we’ve moved from the realm of daytime soap-opera drama into an episode of Dr. Who. The Holy Spirit? God has made her pregnant?

As Stanley Hauerwas, one of Pastor Mike’s favorite teachers, points out though, this shouldn’t be so surprising to us. If we affirm that God created the whole world, the whole universe, without needing our involvement—and we do affirm this as Christians, even if we don’t all agree on how God creates—then creating a single new baby certainly is not outside the realm of possibility. (Hauwerwas, 34)

Hauerwas goes on, though, to say to us “What should startle us, what should stun us, is not that Mary is a virgin, but that God refuses to abandon us.” (Ibid.) Like the angel speaking to Joseph in the story, Hauerwas’s observation moves us from the question of who’s this child this to who this child is. This child is God coming to us in human flesh. This squirming little embryo in Mary’s uterus is the clear statement in cells and blood, flesh and bone that ‘God refuses to abandon us.’

I will admit that I have been at the mall and in other stores a number of times recently—and, no, I’m still not entirely done with my Christmas shopping yet. Of course, in some of these places they have been playing holiday music since well before Thanksgiving. Some of these songs are, shall we say, more annoying than others. While there are many candidates to pick on, the song “A Holly, Jolly Christmas” struck me yesterday as both fairly annoying and so utterly disconnected from this story in Matthew, or really anything else biblical about Jesus’ coming. I mean, imagine this scene in a movie: Joseph finds out his supposedly-virgin fiancĂ© is pregnant, starts making plans to break off the engagement, and then this angel shows up, saying that the child is God’s. Then maybe some other hosts of heaven show up in the background and break into song: [singing] “oh by golly have a holly, jolly Christmas this year”.

Obviously, that is not the scene Matthew paints. No, the angel shows up to tell Joseph that this child is from the Holy Spirit. And then the angel goes on, not to some maudlin, sentimental “holly jolly Christmas”, but to say not only that this is a sign, a proof, that ‘God refuses to abandon us’, but that this child will save his people from their sins. As one commentator puts it, “If Jesus is Immanuel [—God with us—] then we realize we don't have to go anywhere to meet him other than the hurly-burly reality of our Monday mornings and our Thursday afternoons. We don't have to go find him in some other realm because he has already found us in exactly this realm and this world. Immanuel is God-with-us in the cancer clinic and in the Alzheimer’s ward at the local nursing home. Immanuel is God-with-us when the pink slip comes and when the beloved child sneers, "I hate you!" Immanuel is God-with-us when you pack the Christmas decorations away and, with an aching heart, you realize afresh that your one children never did call over the holidays. Not once. Immanuel is God-with-us when your dear wife or mother stares at you with an Alzheimer's glaze and absently asks, "What was your name again?"”(Calvin CEP, n.pg.) And I say, there’s a reason these angels that appear to announce Jesus’ birth keep having to say “do not be afraid”. This is big stuff, stuff of life and death, hope and salvation, fear and redemption.

I suspect Joseph was still a bit perplexed. Perhaps he was even more confused after this angel had shown up than before. Maybe he was satisfied with this apparent answer to whose this child was. Or at least he dared to trust the angel dream enough that he didn’t follow through on his plans to dismiss Mary quietly. But, even with that, I bet he was still wondering about this other question, ‘what child is this?’ It’s like the contemporary gospel song by Mark Lowry, recorded by dozens of others, that asks of Joseph’s counterpart “Mary, did you know?”

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know
that your Baby Boy has come to make you new?
This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know
that your Baby Boy will calm the storm with His hand?
Did you know
that your Baby Boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little Baby you kissed the face of God?

Joseph and Mary may not have known all these things, but as Christians, we do know the rest of the story. We have been invited in to the whole story of Jesus the Christ, that same gospel of God that Paul wrote about to the Romans: God’s promises through the prophets, Jesus’s as truly human as a son of David and truly God as shown in his resurrection, the gifts of grace and discipleship that is offered to each of us and all of us as we people called to belong to Christ. We get to follow one who gave sight to the blind and water to the thirsty. We get to know the inside scoop on the One who came that we may have life, the One who came—and still comes—to save us from our sin. We hear the psalmist cry to God “let your face shine upon us and we shall be saved” , and then we get to give our witness, our testimony, back in response, “we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

Indeed, we do get to know the rest of the story. We do get to bear witness to the world to something more, something life-giving, something about what child this is that we celebrate. Knowing the story, we trust in the One who welcomed the outcast and advocated for the poor. Knowing the story, we have the privilege of being the ones who long for and await Christ’s coming again, the ones who have hope in the promise that God’s reign is in fact coming to transform and renew this world.

And yet, even we ourselves are invited to learn the story ever and ever again. We are called to be one standing with Joseph asking ‘what child is this?’. Even knowing the story, we can join in yet another Christmas song—we are still the voice that sings:

(singing)I wonder as I wander, out under the sky,
how Jesus, the Savior, did come for to die:
for poor ord’n’ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander, out under the sky.

Citations: [1] Stanley Hauwerwas, Matthew, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006). [2] From the comments on Advent 4A, 23 December 2007, on the “Center for Excellence in Preaching” website of Calvin Theological Seminary: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php; accessed 22 December 2007.