Sunday, July 24, 2011

I Preached! I think that speaks for itself...

This is basically it - you probably weren't there for the children's sermon, for my ad-libs, or to hear me pray, so just imagine those things here and there ... Oh, and like a good Presbyterian, I did indeed quote John Calvin...

In the midst of the debacle of healthcare reform, I thought it appropriate to dabble into it during the children’s sermon … my mother is a dentist. So that piece about cavities hits home for me – I have quite a few of my own, and fear drillings as much as the rest of you. But growing up the daughter of a dentist and beginning work in ministry, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come up with sermon analogies having to do with teeth and comparisons to flossing. I’ll spare you for now from my most intricate ones, but I do want to linger in this idea of our God giving us commandments, the law, and Christ - as ways to help us understand what is good for us, preventative measures for a full and healthy life. I grew up in the church and have seen some of my peers fade out of the ‘church going lifestyle’ as they got older, some because they are too familiar with the ‘do’s and don’ts of the Christian lifestyle’, without really sitting in the ‘why’ – why did God give us these boundaries, these no’s, these ‘thou shalt not’s’. Before we dive in, let’s take a moment and pray.

Lord, your will not mine. Your words, not mine. May your Spirit dwell in our hearts and minds, and may your truth be heard today. Amen.

Today we are moving right along in our exploration through the commandments as taken from the book of exodus. We heard the first of the ‘shall nots’ last week from our Elder Lisa Meyers, with ‘You shall not murder’. And I don’t know if this is some sort of hazing for the new person on staff, but this week I bring to you the word of the Lord from Exodus 20:14, which reads: You shall not commit adultery. I wish I could just say ‘don’t do it!’ with a stern look, and a finger in your face, and then walk away, but I fear that that may be exactly the reason some have left the church. A good finger wagging doesn’t get the job done anymore. Also it seems that we like to shy away from sexual sins as proclaimed from the pulpit. Perhaps it is because our mass media today centers so heavily on sex that this place of worship becomes a respite from the bombardment. But God points out to us clearly, #7 in the 10 commandments (it made the top 10!!), ‘You shall not commit adultery’. I think this speaks not only to those who are married with a wandering eye, but also to the basic fact that we are sexual beings, and we’ve got to take greater care with our relationships.

Now, a Merriam Webster definition of Adultery does go like this: voluntary sexual intercourse between a married man and someone other than his wife or between a married woman and someone other than her husband. Marriage, commitment, vows – we are to take them seriously and fully invest in the relationships we have declared before God, friends and family, with our whole beings. But, if only taken literally, we can march this commandment straight to our married fellows and say that #7 only applies to them. I, therefore, until the time comes, only have to follow 9 commandments. But I think we can all agree that doesn’t sit well. Adultery, much like what Lisa told us about Murder last week, has many layers to it.

In its context of the Old Testament, adultery surfaces over 30 times, with great concentrations of those occurrences in some of the books of the Minor Prophets. These prophets can be found after the book of psalms and Isaiah, and speak a word of warning to the people of God that they have not been living well at all. They have mixed their devotion to God with the pleasures and temptations of the world, and are moving in a downward spiral.

These instances of adultery that rise up in the minor prophets refers to Israel’s infidelity to the covenant that God so graciously provided. The Old Testament covenants were a promise between God and his people, that God would bless them and they in turn would remain faithful, worshiping only Him. But, just as we find ourselves easily distracted and too often bad at commitment, Israel time and again finds itself enthralled with other gods and other kingdoms. Here the admonition to not commit adultery speaks to a disobedient nation. Their hearts are no longer faithful to God. Another translation of the Hebrew word used here for adultery can also be translated as ‘idolatrous worship’, which is akin to our first commandment. Number 7 is looking like a pretty big deal now, isn’t it? But really, having an adulterous heart when it comes to our relationship with God is a damaging thing.

Adultery isn’t called a sin because ‘we say so’, but because it alters and distorts us further away from the people we are called by God to be. Which is Faithful. And God doesn’t ask us to do the impossible, it isn’t as if He sets us up for failure in order to see us crumble, but God sets an example of faithfulness, that we may be assured in HIS faithfulness and try our hardest to be faithful as well. A glimpse of this covenant we have with God is seen in marriages today – for better or for worse God is choosing to stand by us. In our doubts, in our failings, in our sufferings, in our anger, in our joys and in our celebrations – God remains faithful.

This imagery of God married to His people does not end with the old testament, but is only reestablished in the new – as Jesus Christ, our savior and redeemer is also described as the bridegroom of the church. Through all our unfaithfulness, God initiates this sort of vow renewal in the form of Christ. The promises God makes to us through the law are renewed and refined through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God reestablishes His faithfulness. We have to now ask ourselves, what does it mean to be faithful to Christ? This person who laid down their very life for me – what is it that I can do, what can I put in my life, and what should I remove and abstain from in order to stay faithful to Christ?

There aren’t easy answers to this question (well there may be some obvious ‘no’s’ that you need to be implementing), but Christ himself gives us some guidelines to how we should approach this admonition against adultery. And what Jesus says works both in our relationship to God and our relationships one to another. We are not left off the hook to live in an allegorical and philosophical world. Adultery in our day and age is a very real thing, and perhaps more public of an event than we would like it to be. In the Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew 5:27-30, If you’d like to read along with the pew bible in front of you, you’ll find it on pages 4-5 in the N. Jesus says,

“You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.* 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.”

Okay. This sounds a little extreme. Tear out my eye and cut off my hand? You’ve got to be kidding me. I think some would move to say, I cannot control my thoughts over what I see from day to day – I may choose to not see certain movies or go to certain locations, but I can’t control the way people dress in public, or the way they behave around me, and therefore cause my mind to wander.

But here Jesus is holding us accountable. He is taking very seriously this matter of adultery, and that we do have a responsibility regarding what we put into our bodies. My eyes do not have a will of their own, nor do my hands. My mind controls, those, and as the theologian John Calvin says, ‘If the mind were pure, it would find eyes and hands consistent; certainly they have no motivation of their own”. [1] Let’s not get to a point of justifying ourselves for things we know are wrong.

Now, I don’t mean splitting hairs about everything we do, but I mean being aware of what stimulates us. That what we are putting into our bodies has an affect on us – sure cheesecake tastes great now but lets see what my arteries or blood sugar levels look like 50 years down the road if I have ‘just a slice’ every day. I read an online journal entry a few years back and some of the words from that really stuck with me.

The author, Sarah Markley, is a woman who not long into her marriage, found herself in an affair. The way she writes about it is haunting and heartbreaking. She discusses how she had everything she wanted, and in the midst of that became rather narcissistic, really centered on serving her own needs - and was displeased with her marriage. And instead of getting outside of herself, and try to reconnect with who she was and who her husband was, she first began an emotional affair with one of their mutual friends.

It seemed harmless, and so freeing, and somewhat electric. Her act of emotionally bonding with this other man over harmless cups of coffee and lunches in time turned into a full-blown physical affair. What I particularly want to share with you today are these words that she wrote:
“No one wakes up one day and decides to commit adultery. I don’t know what other people have told you, but something like this takes a hundred million tiny poorly-made decisions layered on top of one another.”

It is my belief that essentially, Adultery and fidelity both begin internally. We make a hundred-million tiny choices every day that affect our emotional, spiritual, and physical selves. I titled my sermon God’s Healthcare Reform: Preventative Care because I think that’s what God is about – keeping us mindful of the choices we make that will prevent disease, the disease being a deepening of sin, which in turn pushes us further and further away from God.

So where does adultery begin? Perhaps it is a simple need to escape – not having to deal with the current situation if I bring in something totally new. Am I placing blame on my stressful life and current situation for small outlets of escape? In the case of Bill Clinton, does it matter that he redefines what ‘sexual relations’ are if the heart behind it is diseased? When we begin justifying and redefining the particulars we’ve lost track of the danger. We’ve come close to stepping over the line, and when we get that close, the line looks irresistible.

So where does it begin for you? I recently watched the movie Eat Pray Love, based on the book by Elizabeth Gilbert, about her search for deeper meaning in life – a great idea to contemplate. But while the cinematography was brilliant, I found the storyline rather distasteful if not just for one reason – in the beginning we meet the main character in her marriage, and soon find her seeking a divorce. Why? – she was bored. Her boredom in her marriage sparked this existential crisis, as if boredom isn’t a part of life. As if life should always be an exciting adventure, as if there aren’t stale moments you have to wait out, or that monotony doesn’t happen to people. Sometimes you have to wade through monotony in order to see the fruit of your labor.

This message is everywhere – dissatisfied? Drop what you’re doing and come see what life is really about. You haven’t really lived until insert marketing campaign here. It dissuades us from ever seeing the beauty of commitment and investment, probably because the forerunners of our culture greatly fear commitment.

This mindset also dissolves integrity – we can learn so much about ourselves and the people around us if instead of instantly picking up and leaving, we stop and say –what is going on here, why am I dissatisfied? In the case of adultery, we can ask – why is that other person suddenly so attractive to me? What is it that I have stopped putting into my marriage or relationship that I started adding into this new friendship?

Adultery is a sin. And before we get wrapped up in how condemning that sounds, let’s be reminded of what sin is – it is literally ‘missing the mark’, wandering away from who God has called us and is calling us to be. To think that I have great potential to grow up in the love and grace of God is such a beautiful thing. But we must remember that it takes a constant turning to God that gets us there, we are not capable on our own, or Christ wouldn’t have come. We are indeed given choices every day to choose Christ’s way or our own, and in the case of adultery – serving our own pleasures over the goodness of creation – sin abounds and impedes us.

I want to return to the minor prophets, to remind you of the kind of God we worship. Hear these words from the book of Jeremiah, a prophet to the people of God:

‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the LORD. ‘I will frown on you no longer, for I am faithful,’ declares the LORD, ‘I will not be angry forever. Only acknowledge your guilt – you have rebelled against the LORD your God, you have scattered your favors to foreign gods under every spreading tree, and have not obeyed me,’ declares the LORD. ‘Return faithless people,’ declares the LORD, ‘for I am your husband.’

WHAT A RELIEF – God is the faithful one. Through our mistakes, our faithlessness (you hear he calls to a faithless Israel), our adulterous hearts, possibly actions, He stands ready to forgive. It is always a message to return (we hear the word ‘repent’ all over the NT, but it is really a call to change direction, and this call is to turn back to God). And God is transformative, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit, such that we are not left in our adultery, but we are a new creation. This is what we are reminded of after we are called to confession every week: that God, the faithful one, has renewed our hearts and desires to stand with us to help our eyes and hands from encouraging our sinful hearts. So be mindful of the hundred thousand tiny decisions you make every day, and pray that God will guide you and restore you.

Let us pray.

[1] Jean Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries: A Harmony of the Gospels Matthew, Mark & Luke (v.1) p.189

Sunday, July 17, 2011

And so it begins!

Essentially I meant for that title to be about the start of my new job. But that sparks a million conversations in itself, and really I just had one in particular in mind: I had my first conversation with a congregant regarding the contemporary vs. traditional music controversy.

Coming out of academia I am fresh with wit and wisdom, so as to spout proper ideals and stoic theological perspectives to whoever kindles the flame. But such practice and vigor hardly prepares one for ... compassion.

Now, I didn't start a yelling match, or shove anyone. I only prodded a little, intellectually. The controversy goes that those who prefer traditional music, usually the 60+ crowd but not exclusively, find modern worship music (I'll use that rather than 'contemporary' as that seems to have lost it's definition and sags a bit around the waste) to be: lacking in skill (not required to read music or explore the complex harmonies), theological depth (it's more about me than God), and heritage (hymns have been passed through the ages - Martin Luther, 500+ yrs ago, wrote some of the best!). And in the other direction, 'modern' worshipers find traditional worship to be: stuffy (up down up down, hold the book but don't share with person next to you, up down...), archaic (I already said it, 500yrs old at least), and dead (well, most of the authors ARE physically gone ...).

Now, these are generalizations about polar regions, and I am one who falls happily in the middle. Put me in either worship experience, and God will be worshiped without complaint. Okay okay, I would say at the times that I do complain, it has more to do with the quality of executing worship leadership than what they chose to sing ... we can discuss that later.

So there I was, happily building my knowledge of congregants, logging names away in my brain, when the conversation began. I was eager. I could smell it from a mile away. My seminary degree was pushing it's way up and I had to shove it back down in order to have a tame conversation. I met a member of the choir, which was on hiatus for the summer. I heard the lament of their absence, and the tensions our church has when there are too many 'contemporary' songs used in Sunday worship during our combined summer services. It saddened me to hear that some congregants just choose not to sing when the song is unfamiliar and does not come from the hymnal. I pondered what it is a pastor might be able to say or do to encourage learning in all forms - be it by reading the music or learning the song audibly.

Arguably, my generation seems to have produced more sports enthusiasts than musicians, and reading music is simply not as ubiquitous as it used to be. Moreover, many my age were not brought up in the church, so their presence there may be a new thing. So what are our expectations of worship - as newcomers or faithful returners, and how can they be, ever so lovingly, broken down?

The most interesting point of the conversation, in my opinion, was in utilizing the term 'praise music'. My new friend brought up her feeling that it is the hymns that are truly praise music, for the contemporary stuff is just pushing for an emotional experience while hymns speak of God in intricate language and doctrinal poetry. When I asked her, 'what does it mean to praise?' there was some stumbling, some murmurs of God centered (to which I aptly countered, using my sharp seminarian wit, that while some contemporary songs do seem to be about me, most of what we do in our services, if not all, point to truths about God), and eventually her shoulders released their tension, and I heard something along the lines of 'I'm not sure.' I think we hit a wall because though praise, I can agree, is something more about God than about me, it also deeply attaches to us emotionally. What she liked, when she felt that spark, she felt it to be praise.

Perhaps you disagree, but I find myself equally joyous and uplifted in singing How Great Thou Art as with Desert Song. I don't believe we should only worship when we feel, or that we should worship to feel, or that true worship only comes with feelings ... no, I just want to point out that when we start speaking of the times we feel most connected to God, others may not feel it the same way. And when we start having preferences about 'how' we worship, are we still practicing worship, or a selfish desire for our preferred aesthetic?

I will continue to ponder these things and process what it means to be a whole congregation - intergenerational and worshiping under one roof, praising one God. In the mean time, here's something we can all agree is beautiful: Flowers. Actually, garden tea parties are probably a very welcome activity regardless of age ... snacks and beauty? Priceless. Especially when those lemon tea cookies make an appearance!

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Welcome to the Palouse!

To me, moving means these things:

1) Learning you have way more things than you need, and yet disposing of memorabilia is a painful and lengthy process.

2) Discovering allergies when you have not thought ahead to buy tissues.

3) A love for buying IKEA items, but a budget that keeps you from overdoing it. And the looming reality of #1.

4) Doing things by yourself - okay, maybe simply 'moving' does not mean this, but moving to new places - I went to Costco by myself today, and I was reminded how Costco is not exactly built for singular buyers... I may have overdone it on the kleenex purchase ...

5) Wondering why graduate school leaves you with so many books ... shouldn't they offer us bookshelves as a complementary part of our degree?!?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Should I brew my own coffee?

It is at times like this when you ask questions about what it means to grow up. I'm entering into my first salary position, in which there is not foreseeable end-date, completely moving away from home (or at least trying to box up my room and give 90% of my 25yrs of accumulated 'stuff' away), and there are people relying on me to produce, not just grade me on performance.

So will I brew my own coffee? Will I cook more than 4 times a week? Do I need a smart-phone data plan? Can I afford a flat-screen tv? Will I grow my own vegetables? Can I actually practice living simply? Do I have to buy a whole new wardrobe? Do I have to wear heels more often, or is that a trend worth rebelling against? Do I need to factor in weekly exercise routines? And therefore will I become a member at a gym? Can I compost? Will I compost? Will I have good boundaries between work and play, such that there is a time I will not be working (but preferably no time when I will not be playing ... at some level)? Can I implement the habits I've always said I would once I establish a structured lifestyle? Will I have a structured lifestyle? Do I know how to save for retirement? How do I invest, and save? How much planning can one have for the future?

Okay, well, that's a load off my mind. Here's to the road ahead.

Friday, April 22, 2011

It's finals. I'm procrastinating.

I would like to write a poem with the first line that says: Truth is not palatable.

I'm pretty convinced today's musicians either want to look or sound like Simon and Garfunkel.

Why are Miyazaki's movies never less than $20?

I impulse purchased both Anastasia and a worship/theology book. My worlds collide in an Amazon shopping cart.

Today I spent the remainder of breakfast with 5 friends boisterously watching funny youtubes from Sesame Street. How do puppets maintain humor throughout the ages?

Today is Good Friday, and I have to write papers. Thanks seminary. In any case, I am meditating on these words from Travis Cottrell's song 2000 Years (if you click scroll down and play song):

If I was there the night
Soldiers took Him away
Would I flee the scene
Like most of His friends
Then watch on the cross
What I thought was the end
What would I do then

Would I fall down and worship? Leave all that I treasured behind? For a chance to be closer To the Man who might Be the One who saves my life?

C'est la Fin.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Worship is an ambiguous term, but it's probably best that way.

Derek Webb's album 'Feedback' includes a song that I cannot stop listening to. The project itself is "An Instrumental Electronic Album Based on the Lord's Prayer," and it is quite commendable. In the Christianity of today, it seems we are always exploring new ways of 'experiencing God', spiritual disciplines, and worship, etc. I suppose it reflects the culture of today - trying to experience everything in new ways. Or perhaps that's just a trajectory of humanity - we get bored easily, we don't like to settle, we think there will always be a better way to do things than the way of our parents ...

I'm getting off track. My main thoughts on this are: 1) Awesome. 2) I like worship without words. and 3) public or private?

1) It is simply awesome. I would like to listen to it on repeat while driving. First I need a car.

2) I like it when there isn't someone telling me how to worship. Yes we can learn through the words of a hymn, or center ourselves in certain words of praise, but I am still me, trying to connect with God. The sounds are moving, and engaging, and given the fact that it's a movement through the Lord's prayer, it is suggested at what part of the prayer we are in, but the music opens it to something more than a prayer - or maybe it's what prayer is meant to be ... felt within my bones, moving my spirit.

3) Is this a public or private excursion we should take with Mr. Webb? He's on tour right now with Jars of Clay, and while that sounds awesome, I'm also not enticed to see this in concert ... I don't know, perhaps it falls in line with how we say the Lord's Prayer corporately in Sunday service, but the exploration of prayer by these means seems kind of personal, no? This probably is more of a reflection on art for me - that art is a private event. When I create art, and it's honest art not a craft project, then it feels personal, vulnerable and telling. Prayer can be that way as well, private or public I suppose. I just don't want prayer turning into a concert, although I suppose all of us praying together would be a beautiful concert to God ... ?

I'll have to think about this some more. Listen below for your own time of meditation ...

Your Kingdom Come.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Reverential Treatment?

The small group I lead up at Rutgers University has decided to keep one another accountable in daily devotions, and to do so, we've decided to read a psalm a day. I bought some awesome thin Moleskine journals for us to use, so that we are at least reflecting on something we've read each day.

Today is Psalm 5, which first of all reminds me of a favorite song that I cannot find a fair rendition of (youtube offers either country or 80's ... perhaps I'll have to record one of my own ...), but also brings to light a growing concern I've had recently.

Verse 7 reads: "But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house; in reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple."

What is 'reverence' these days? How does our culture today treat 'holy' things? The evolution of Christian culture has centered on the accessibility of God, that Jesus wants a relationship with us, that God meets me, and is active in my every day. Fair, fair. But what about the fact that we're talking about GOD?!? Creation building, flood loosening, Fire from heavening, bush burning, covenanting, resurrecting, mountain trembling GOD ... I suppose a general observation would be that my peers, myself included, often entertain the idea that I take God with me wherever I go, not that God takes me everywhere ... I want to be of the mindset of the latter ...

I'd like to think that while yes, God is with me, I also must go and discover God in other places. I must go and worship God, "bowing toward your holy temple," reminded of God's great mercy. Reminding myself that this is GOD we're talking about, holiest of holy's, the one with wrath and grace all wrapped up together in a confusing loving parent who is unpredictable and the best at giving good surprises.