Friday, December 1, 2017

Advent One: Turned the Right Way

On a walk in my neighborhood this week, I noticed the lawn and home decorations for Christmas have arrived in earnest.  Some folks appeared to change to Christmas just after Halloween, but most waited until Thanksgiving dinner leftovers were parceled into twelve days of Tupperware.
One yard had two familiar decorations: an inflatable lawn ornament and a Nativity set.  For the former, I find the daytime walk a bit disconcerting, as the family is not home, so the decoration’s fans are shut off.  At night, you will see a jolly old St. Nick standing on the lawn with a bag of presents over his shoulder.  During the day with the power turned off, the decoration’s fabric is a misshapen lump on the ground, as if Santa stepped out of the sleigh at 30,000 feet and met his untimely end.
The grace of the Nativity set thankfully saved me from other distasteful imaginings.  The plastic form of the Holy Family, the Three Kings, a Shepherd and a couple of cows returned my mind to more sacred matters. 
While my beloved New Testament professor Dr. David M. May (Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City) has reminded a generation of students each year in the Intro to the Gospels course, the Magi likely did not arrive anytime close to Jesus’ infancy, nor was it likely that the cows paid much attention to the family suddenly taking up the corn crib for a makeshift cradle. 

The reality is that the Nativity took place in the midst of an overcrowded small village, the cacophony of strangers from the hinterlands grumbling about being summoned by the Romans and laughing uproariously at the inn’s tavern likely overwhelmed the newborn cry of little baby Jesus. 
The Nativity set can be “lawn decoration”, but I suspicion in our less religiously adherent times, the sight of one usually marks a household wishing to honor devotion rather than custom or cultural expectation.  Nativity sets are not common in my neighborhood, located in Albany, New York, part of the “Capital District”, which is one of the leading “less religious” metropolitan areas in the United States. 
Around these parts, beholding the Nativity in front of a private home tends to signal more intention to share faith than decorate like the Griswold family of cinematic lore.
Curiously, this Nativity set was arranged differently than I had seen in the past.  The Manger is at the center, but the “grown-up” characters of Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the Magi are not positioned in a way that you might expect.  Instead of sprawled out to show the scene to the passing car or pedestrian, the figures are focused on the Manger in the middle.  You are more likely see the backs of some figures, all turned inward to direct one’s gaze to the baby.
With the candles of Advent ahead of us, the “12 Days of Christmas” already playing on repeat in the aisles of box stores praying for your brick and mortar commerce, and the sugar shock of various holiday gatherings for home, family and workplace still to tempt us into weight gain, I hope we too will find ourselves turned in the right direction.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Christ and the Powers that be

Of late, we have had much conversation about the role of power and authority in the world, mostly because we are looking for better examples of human beings using such things wisely and without grievous result!

For Christians, we ponder the words of Jesus, who teaches he is “the way, the truth, and the light”. We take strength in this teaching and use it as a compass for our way forward into a world of competition and contradiction.  The last Sunday before Advent begins is a celebration of that power:  Christ the King, or Ruler, is proclaimed by the church even as the world thinks of Christmas as one long season of retail magic!

Yet, we must also realize Jesus said these things about power and God's reign in the midst of the same world we know, where some ancient yet distressingly familiar "powers that be" type worldly forces ultimately conspired to do him harm.

Rome and the Temple have their own teachings, and they are not in step, or in remote agreement, with Jesus’ claim to truth. Jesus is not a king of this world. His disciples will not turn to violence. Indeed, these are strange words for Empire to hear, a kingdom deeply vested in having the right amount of troops, weaponry, and control at all times.

When brought before the Roman authorities, Jesus found himself with Pilate, whose questions want to know what sort of king and kingdom Jesus claims. Jesus’ answers are lost on Pilate, as Jesus is not the sort of king of a kingdom that Pilate can understand. Pilate’s career was built upon the dominance of empire. The Temple elite vested their authority through mostly economic maneuverings. In his fine robes, Pilate seems the epitome of “the ways things are to be”, whereas Jesus, roughed up from his captors’ handling, appears to bear the consequence for speaking against “the way things are to be”.

Indeed, Pilate’s question about kingship is turned to a question of truth. Not the “truthiness” of Empire or Temple, the sort of truth that is good for the moment, Jesus seeks to witness, to embody even, the truth of the world as God intends it to be. The truth of Pilate and the Temple will unveil itself within the next generation as a local uprising will result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple itself. As for the Church, the early Christians will experience great hardship and persecution themselves, yet it will be the truth Jesus offers that shall allow them great strength and endurance. Pilate’s cynicism demonstrates the hard heart of the world. In hearing the truth, Pilate only hears what he wanted to hear. “What is truth?” is not the beginning of a new sort of conscience taking root. Indeed, with a dismissive sneer, Pilate sends Jesus away for the next step toward the cross.

What sort of people, what sort of “kingdom” is formed by this story? It seems to end with tragedy, yet the gospel reshapes the status quo in the resurrection of Jesus. The kingdoms of Rome and Temple, the “middle men” of Pilate and the Temple elite, shall not stand, even though they seem to hold all of the cards right now. What sort of people does this story intend to empower?

I recall the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian whose career as a gifted theologian and teacher was cut short by the tumult of the Second World War. Bonhoeffer saw the effect of another sort of Empire on the rise, growing in power and might, rising above the reproach of question and fashioning its own “truth” as the way things ought to be.

 While Bonhoeffer would die in the last days of the Second World War at a concentration camp (sentenced to death as part of a failed plot to kill Adolf Hitler), his writings remain as a counter-witness to the powers of his day. While living in the turbulence of the times, Bonhoeffer offered a counter-witness to the “way things are to be” being impressed upon his nation.

As he taught seminary students in the mid-1930s, he offered lectures that became his book called “Discipleship”. Therein, Bonhoeffer mentions this same Johannine text in passing as he describes what sort of discipleship is required by the gospel. He writes, “If it engages the world properly, the visible church-community will always more closely assume the form of its suffering Lord” (Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 4, English translation. Fortress Press, 2003, p. 247-8).

The same question that confused the powers is the same question that challenges (perhaps “haunts”?) the Church. How do we hear this story? Is through ears and hearts shaped by the world, or by those shaped by the gospel? There are stories at competition within us, being of the world and not of the world.

What does it mean to take leave of “the ways things are to be” and “more closely assume the form of [our] suffering Lord”?

Monday, October 16, 2017

Building and ReBuilding: A sermon on the occasion of the 200th year of First Baptist Rome, New York

Preaching at church anniversaries is an occasional duty of Regional ministry, yet I also take great joy in the opportunity!  The First Baptist Church of Rome, New York, celebrated its 200th this past Sunday, and this fall, we have also had churches celebrating 175th and 250th anniversaries as well.

The spread of Baptists across New York State is often told in tandem with NYS Civic History.  The Erie Canal's 200th anniversary is underway in 2017, and among the festivities and retrospectives is the excellent exhibit at the New York State Museum in Albany, NY:   Enterprising Waters New York's Erie Canal.  The exhibit will run until October 20, 2019. (For more information, click: http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibitions/enterprising-waters-erie-canal
         
I was invited to speak at the Sunday morning worship service of FBC Rome, and I noted quickly the connection of FBC Rome's formation a few months after the Canal's section in Rome began excavation and construction.  I wove the sermon around the theme Scripture:  1 Corinthians 12:4-7, 12-14 along with excerpts from a historian's retelling of the Canal's start in Rome and the memories shared within the church's own historical narrative.  My thanks to Rev Cedric Broughton, pastor of FBC Rome, for his work along with the lay leaders serving on the committee for planning a festive celebration in honor of 200 years of ministry and mission!
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           Grace and peace be with you this day!  I am grateful for the privilege and honor of serving as the preacher for this celebratory Sunday morning, recalling the past and committing anew to the future of this congregation. 

To the congregants and friends of First Baptist gathered here this day, to the clergy past and present, especially Revs. Broughton and Htee Gay, and to your former minister and later on our Region’s Executive Minister, the Rev. Dr. William Carlson, I bring greetings to you in the name of Jesus Christ and on behalf of the 294 churches of our upstate New York regional family.

With the words of Paul to the church in Corinth in mind, I begin with a moment taken from the pages of local history:

On July 4, 1817, a boisterous throng of citizens paraded out of their small village in central New York before sunrise.  They were armed, but not for war.  Many had been up all night celebrating the holiday and the impending grand event.  They proceeded to a flat, marshy meadow studded with hemlock and birch a mile south of town.  Each carried a shovel.

These words are from the historian Jack Kelly, who researched the development of the Erie Canal as well as the changes the Canal project brought to upstate New York all across its eventual path.  Here Kelly recalls what happened two hundred years ago when the town of Rome, NY, began its significant contribution to the earliest stages of the Erie Canal’s excavation and construction.  (Quotation above from Kelly, Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal, New York, NY: St Martin’s Press Griffin, 2016, p. 40) 

The year 1817 was a good year also in Rome, as that was the year First Baptist was founded.  Certainly, Baptists had been around these parts for years before, but this was the time when a church body was formally established for the purposes of regular worship. On that day in October 1817, there was no church building to gather in at the time.  Certainly, much work had to be done if the loosely organized group was ever going to become a church that lasted.  Small in number, these faithful folks brought faith, willingness to serve and their differing skills and talents.  For those who endeavored against the odds to found First Baptist, each carried their faith.

From the church’s history, newly revised for the 200th anniversary, we read:

In the summer and autumn of the year of our Lord, 1817, several members of different Baptist churches residing in Rome and its vicinity became impressed with an idea that it would promote the declarative glory of God; the honor of the Redeemer’s kingdom and their own happiness (If God in His providence should so order the state of things and prepare the hearts of his children for it) to have a church formed amongst them. Accordingly, after having given notice in the vicinity, they met to consult upon it at the schoolhouse in Wright Settlement, Rome on the 23rd day of October, 1817. The meeting was opened by singing and prayer by Elder Stark. Brother Simeon Hersey was chosen moderator and Brother James H. Sherman, Clerk.   

            We come today to celebrate the 200th anniversary of First Baptist, Rome, even as the State celebrates the same anniversary year for the Erie Canal.  One cannot understand the history of Rome without the Canal, just as surely as First Baptist cannot tell its story in isolation from being embedded in that history as well.  Out of the origins of spirited collaboration, Rome and this congregation faced the future with great zeal, with the uncertainty and opportunity that accompanied such risk taking.  Two hundred years later, with the challenges and celebrations alike that shape history, we are here looking back with gratitude and thanksgiving that indeed “God in His providence so order[ed] the state of things and prepare[d] the hearts of his children for it.”

Such splendid language of faith was also needed when the Erie Canal project was proposed.  Jack Kelly recounts the extreme challenge of designing and engineering a canal when no previous attempt had been successful or enthusiastically supported in the history (to that point) of the United States.  Indeed, the canal became known as a gamble on the part of New York State, its chances of federal funds blocked by President James Madison who vetoed the bill just before his Presidency ended, citing a disdain for federal funds to be used in such manner (Heaven’s Ditch, p. 32).  New York’s Assembly gave the go-ahead, entrusting a major project to engineers who were largely self-taught.  Coming to Rome in early July 1817, the dignitaries realized they were staking their good names on the significant work that loomed ahead with little assurance of future success, let alone project completion.  Reviewing the project’s scope, one could identify many variables and unknowns, yet these New Yorkers dared to try anyway.  The many talents, the shared willingness to risk against the odds, that’s how the largest canal project in American history got underway!
 
            In the New Testament, we learn of the great strength of the Christian church comes from the Spirit gifting each believer with their own abilities for ministry.  Many congregations today struggle to remember this truth faced with challenges of attendance, building issues and cash flow struggles.  The greatest asset of a church is its willingness to take up the call to follow Jesus and empower each and every person in the membership to bring what God has given them uniquely and blessedly for the good of the whole Body. 

Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, a group that deals with a lot of internal division and dissension.  Calling the fragmented factions back together, Paul proclaims,

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 

As Paul tries to sort out the issues afflicting the Corinthians, he wisely works toward the healing of the whole gathered people. He speaks of gifts for good reasons. Each Christian is gifted with some talent or ability that contributes to the furtherance of the work of the Gospel. No one is without usefulness to the community of faith. No one is “less than” another. It is a remarkable thing in this world to be told that you have something to offer.  The Church may struggle to say that consistently, graciously and intentionally.  We have our good days and our not so good days, but when we are at our best, we welcome the diversity of gifts rather than narrow it down.  For without God and one another, do we really have a chance of being something greater than an individual or alone?

Meanwhile back in July 1817, the dignitaries would finish their speaking.  The cannons boomed aloud to mark the moment.  And then the contractor was handed a spade to turn the earth.  After he did, “the gesture touched off a frenzy of flying dirt.  Everyone in attendance began to dig, ‘each vying with the other’ said the Utica Gazette, in the pure joy of participating in history”(Kelly, p. 41).
            Likewise, great joy fueled the desire to form a Baptist church in Rome that would come to be known as “First Baptist, Rome.”  Certainly, we tell the story of a congregation sometimes by the litany of pastors who served and what happened during their tenure.  Yet, in the midst of the “official narrative”, it is not just the leaders (ordained and lay) who have made a congregation’s history all alone.   To understand a church’s history, we recall our origins not in 1817, but in the early decades of the first century, when at the Day of Pentecost, the Spirit of God stirred up the women and men following Jesus, and the Gospel spread with not frenzy, but evangelical fervor! 

Indeed, the best parts of a congregation’s history are when you see evidence that the “many members” of “the Whole Body” become engaged in the ministry of the church.  It’s not meant to be just about the decisions, committee meetings and official minutes of the Church that tell the history.  I look especially at congregational histories to see evidence of when the grit, determination, cooperation and “pure joy of participating” can be discerned in the midst of yellowing pages of old minutes, financial ledgers, newsletters, and other ephemera that collect as a church’s history slowly unfolds.

            The story of First Baptist, Rome, continues to be written.  Even in the past twenty five years since your 175th anniversary observance, your church has encountered challenges (building issues, changing community and its effect on church attendance).  Yet, you’ve been blessed like other parts of the Mohawk Valley with the influx of new settlers, coming not from places like Wales and other European contexts two hundred years ago, but from Myanmar and Thailand.  Welcoming the Karen as part of your fellowship and Htee Gay to your pastoral staff likely was not something you would have predicted in 1992 when the church gathered for its last “big anniversary”. 

            Celebrating today, First Baptist, Rome, can count its blessings while acknowledging the challenges that come inevitably with time’s passage and a community’s economic and social changes.  Your church has been the spiritual home of canal diggers, foundry workers, military families stationed nearby, merchants, homemakers, students and people starting life anew from other places far beyond the Erie Canal’s path.  Blessings upon blessings upon blessings!

            Can we just let that wonderful word soak in for a moment?  Imagine with me what has come before:

All of those wonderful folks who loved the Lord, who loved this congregation and what the church could do for Christ and the world, we remember the two hundred years now coming to a close

And then can we look to the future, seeing challenge and opportunity alike, realizing that God has gifted this church with the great potential of each and every member who chooses to share their gifts and open up possibilities for others to exercise their own individual gift for the greater good.  In such moments, we look to the future just like those folks in October 1817, knowing that God continues providentially to “order the state of things and prepare the hearts of [all God’s] children for it.”

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Recommended resources:

A short history of the NY State Canals:  https://www.canals.ny.gov/history/history.html

Kelly, Jack.  Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold and Murder on the Erie Canal. (New York, NY: St Martin’s Press Griffin, 2016).

A website related to Heaven’s Ditch:  https://heavensditch.com/
 

Monday, September 25, 2017

Generation to Generation (Psalm 145)


As the fall is underway (though this weekend up in the 80s/low 90s seemed to contradict), churches return to "active mode" with their schedules and programming. As it happens, the Revised Common Lectionary suggests the 145th Psalm for the last Sunday of September, so I preached on this text as part of my visit to the First Baptist Church of Ossining, NY, ministering in a diverse community along the Hudson, just about 20 miles north of the NYC line.

(READ PSALM 145)

In some Christian churches, I could ask this question: What is the chief end of man [humanity]? Many in the congregation reply: “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.”
How did they know this? Thanks to catechism.

While we Baptists might associate the word catechism more with Catholicism, a number of Protestant traditions use catechism as well, particularly in the Reformed traditions, especially Presbyterians and Lutherans. Catechism sets up a series of questions and answers for Christians to learn the vocabulary of faith and the beliefs central to Christianity. The question about “the chief end of humanity”, our identity and destiny, appears as Question #1 in some catechisms. 

So, why is this brief handful of words considered so great, so central to what it means to be Christian? To give God due praise and glory means that no other shall receive your faithfulness and dedication. God alone receives our praise and glory, and our understanding of life cannot be without a sense of humility that we exist not for ourselves. Such a faith is unflinching in its theism (i.e. there is a God) and its willingness to say that we give our trust and allegiance to God alone.
In the midst of our lives, such talk may sound too lofty or worse, detached from the life we know. To say that humanity’s very reason for being, our reason for being is to praise God is even difficult. We typically struggle with questions of life, trying to sort out the puzzles and the pain of human existence however the plain-spoken words of this question and answer ought to cause some troubling in your soul. Such thinking calls our bluff and asks us to think about what we really mean when we say we are believers. Is this conversation this morning a “nice thought” meant as a Sunday morning listening yet lost in the shuffle of the other six days of the week, or does this question illumine the faith of Christianity, with its way of discipleship that asks very hard questions of us? 

Answering with “to glorify God and enjoy God forever” is harder than just learning and repeating these words. To live it out means you commit to living out faith daily. Somehow, in the whirlwind of family and deadlines, in the midst of the headlines of the world and the headlines of your little corner of the world, such belief is a tall order. How does one learn such a way of life? And more to the point, can you risk life by living that way?
In the midst of the world, in the great times of trial, the praise of God can take place in every season of life, and it is indeed fitting for us to do so. Giving praise to God is in part a realization that our lives twist and turn, and often without much warning, yet we still recognize the goodness that God intends for the world, even when we cannot see much of it ourselves. 
Christians believe that in the end, whether it is our own or that of this world, God shall have the last word. God shall make all things well. As Augustine said, restless hearts will find their rest in God. To give praise to God, even in the midst of your worst days, understands our lives so much differently, cast not to the winds, but in loving trust of the One who has made us. 
Appropriately, the 145th Psalm raises up a long liturgy of praise. Of all the psalms, many of which call us to praise, this one begins with a self-description. Rather than perhaps “a psalm of David” common for many psalms, the superscription, or title, is simply tehillah, or in English: “Praise”. The psalmist just leaves it at that: “this one…it is praise.” To understand this psalm, you need not look any further than this one word: “praise”. 

Down the centuries, a rabbinical tradition arose, stating, “Every [person] who repeats the Tehillah [praise] of David thrice a day may be sure he is a child of the world to come” (cited Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, 1994, p. 437) Reading this psalm, measuring its words with your heart and mind, is offered as a good word, one that guides you through this life, helping you know your identity against all the other claims of the world to tell you who you are. One could rail against rote (indeed, catechism is often criticized as rote faith), yet in the repetition, if you look closely, you shall find a rhythm worth taking up in your own life. In reading this psalm in times of sorrow, in times of joy, in the midst of disaster and when going to bed after a ho-hum day, this psalm keeps turning us back to our reason for being.

In the midst of this psalm, we find the same wisdom that prompted the later Christian observation that the chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. The life we live ought to be a life of praise, yet not one that is trite or errs on the side of living faith as if it is “magic” (if I pray or live a certain way, I’ll get a free pass from the unpredictable part of human existence). This sort of praise is meant for those who have diplomas from the School of Hard Knocks. The psalms reflect ancient Israel’s own story, shaped as much by pathos as praise, as much about lament as hope. And in the midst of the collection, we are offered a psalm that points to the life we know as well as the life to come.

We have a holy calling to be involved in the education and upbringing of each child and youth in our congregations. After all, we did not learn the ways of faith alone. We too are the product of the investment and love of generations who have gone on before us. In turn, we share the faith, and hopefully take it very, very seriously as a key investment in what it means to be a congregation. Each of us is responsible for sharing faith and helping our children and youth know that life may be complex, life may even get deeply sorrowful, yet there is a world to come that is worth living and a great calling to live this life fully. This is not just the work of Sunday school teachers. This is not just the work of a Christian education board. This is not just the work of a pastor. It is the responsibility of each one of us to be invested in children, whether just learning to walk, or starting to bridge across the stages of life. You have the wonderful challenge of “being there” for our kids!

I remember very well the witness of grown-ups who made the faith come alive. Teaching a Sunday School class, helping train me to be an usher, welcoming my voice (going through puberty even) into the choir, asking good questions and acknowledging me in the room as the young kid, the moody teenager, the young adult (with the assurance of knowing all things despite knowing very little). I was blessed by those who remembered their faith was not just “theirs” to have, but to share and kindle anew a spark, a flame and a love of God made known through Jesus Christ.

We did not use catechism, so “to glorify God and enjoy God forever” did not get communicated by a standardized teaching. Yet it was there, so when I read what other Christians were taught, I could agree with the good word it imparted. I had seen it lived out in the lives of the church folk who helped raise me up in the faith. I could savor the words of “glorifying and enjoying God forever” as words of faith, not only passed down to me but kept by me as words that anchor me. And today, I share the faith with you through my preaching and through our connections together through the American Baptist tradition and our ministry together as fellow American Baptists in upstate New York.

Sometimes, people will pick up on the fact I do not sound like I’m from the Northeast. (This accent is not from the Bronx nor is it from Maine, so I do “sound funny” pretty much at the outset of talking aloud to folks out here.) The question gets asked, “How did somebody from Kansas get out here?” (I suspicion I would be believed if I casually said it was due to a tornado and some winged monkeys.)
To answer that question is not about “jobs” or “opportunities”. I begin not with a roadmap or some GPS directions. I share that I am here thanks to first learning of the faith from a little Methodist church in a rural Kansas farming community. Later on, my family joined the local American Baptist church, especially for myself and my dad that day in 1984 through confession of faith, profession of Christ as Lord and going fully into the waters of baptism. How I wound up here today is a long journey that is still unfolding, still being discovered, somewhat on my own and somewhat on the way along with the gathered people called “Church”. Without a doubt, I can look back at that history thus far and say, “Praise be to God!” And I know I’m simply joining the rest of the choir, generations present, down the centuries of the past and with those who I hope will hear this sermon today and decide to join along this journey of faith!

Wherever we go in our lives, no matter how our lives play out in one time or another during the seasons of life, we are best known not as people with a list of successes or failures to our name. We are a people who know where we are going and what we should be doing in the times in between. We are a people called to a singular way of life, to praise God now and forevermore.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Clarence Jordan's great disappointment

Earlier this weekend, I shared on social media:

As clergy prepare for another difficult day in Charlottesville and silence (not even a little bluster!) is likely from high places in our government, I recall this observation from Clarence Jordan.  In his efforts to support integration in 1950s Georgia, Jordan had run-ins with the KKK and local authorities who wanted to perpetuate racial inequality, but his great sadness was the difficulty of being rejected by fellow Baptists and other Christians in southern churches:

 "I would rather face the frantic, childish mob, even with their shotguns and buggy whips, than the silent, insidious mob of good church people who give their assent to boycott and subtle psychological warfare."

Jordan was nearly killed a number of times in his life by people driving by in the middle of the night, shooting at the family home, yet it was the silence of the Church that was worse.

Lord, have mercy.

Friday, August 11, 2017

A word on restraint

This week, we have watched the news clips of the leaders of two nations exchanging words that certainly escalate the chances of tension.  As I watched and indeed prayed my way through the headlines and the push notifications of news updates on my iPhone (with two major newspapers I follow sending notices within seconds of one another), I hear the words being said, and I keep slipping back to some other words.

From a sermon on Matthew 27:47-56, the late preacher Fred B. Craddock of Candler School of Theology (Atlanta, GA), told of his trip to Seoul, South Korea, at the request of the U.S. government.  In his remarkable sermon "He Could Have But He Didn't" (published in The Collected Sermons of Fred B. Craddock, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2011), we read of this experience (pp. 101-2):

"Twenty-five years ago, something like that, what's a year, I think it's twenty-five years ago that I was asked to speak at a president's prayer breakfast.  At that time, these prayer breakfasts were held in this country and around the world where we had troops and consulates.  I got a letter from Washington asking me if I would hold one of these.  I said I would and they said the place we want you to go is Seoul, South Korea.  "Well, sure, I'll just stop by on my way to Candler."  But I was glad to go and I went.

The general in charge, and my host, was General Stilwell, four stars.  He gathered officers and enlisted people in this large room and we had the president's prayer breakfast.  We had a nice breakfast and then we had prayers.  It was not just prayers in name only.  The general's assistant, a colonel, had the soldiers there enter into a period of sentence prayers.  I really was surprised.  I associate sentence prayers with an old Wednesday night service somewhere in the country. They had sentence prayers for mothers and fathers and sisters and babies and for my wife back home and for peace in the world, moving prayers.

There was a young man brought in from Formosa, a private who played the bagpipe.  He played "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipe just before I spoke.  The general sat there with tears and he said, "I love that song."

I spoke; he and I talked awhile.  There was a benediction; the room began to empty.  I shook hands with the general and thanked him for his gracious hospitality.  He said, "I want you to remember us in prayer."

And I said, "I will, you know I will."

He said, "Not for more power, we have the power.  We could just one afternoon destroy this whole place.  Pray that we have the restraint appropriate."  

[....]

When I left the room everybody was gone except the general and his aide, a colonel who said, "General, shall I bring the car around?"

He said, "Not now, I want to sit here awhile.  And he asked the private from Formosa to stay and the young man did, of course.  When I looked back before I went outside, there was the general seated alone in this big room.  There was a private out in front of him playing on the bagpipe "Amazing Grace".  

Now isn't that a picture?  Four stars shining, listening to a voice of restraint."

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Path of Life (Psalm 16)

The 16th Psalm revolves around the question of trust.  In the end, where do we place our trust?  While the word “trust” does not appear in the actual Psalm, the idea of trust permeates the text. The psalmist celebrates trust, placing his life and wellbeing in the hands of God.  No matter what happens, no matter what may befall, the psalmist is content to seek his life in God’s care.  He calls out:  “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you”. The psalmist has cast his lot with God, and nothing shall shake him from this resolve.

At this point, I know there are those who read this and harbor a thought or two along the vein of “Yeah, right”.  And that person might be in the majority.  Trust can be a tall order in our American culture.  Gallup opinion polls regularly chart the decline of public trust, especially among persons considered historically trustworthy.  Trust in institutions, authority and high profile individuals have eroded greatly.

When it comes to trust, the conventional wisdom of our culture runs along these lines:  Trust can be broken as soon as it is said to be given.  Trust can be offered only to find it left in tatters.  If you are too free with your trust, you might run into trouble of all sorts.   The best word on trust appears to be this observation:  “Trust:  It’s the hardest to earn; it’s the easiest to lose.”

So what should we make of this psalm with its enthusiastic word about trust in God?  Is it the word of some young writer, composing a song about life, though the psalmist is somebody still wet behind the years?  Does the psalm tether to a reality that you believe possible?

Let me tell you about one young person of faith who taught me a bit about trust. I met him only briefly, yet he left such an impression. He was a young Baptist minister who pastored a very unique congregation. From Liberia, the pastor was part of a temporary refugee camp.  Political upheaval caused this pastor and hundreds of others to flee their country.

The pastor came to the Baptist World Alliance meeting being held that year in Ghana.  He was invited to speak, thought it took much difficulty to procure a “day pass” so the pastor could attend. This refugee camp was fraught with anxiety. Politically, the UN and Ghana's government kept wrangling over how long the refugee camp could stay open. The refugee camp had very little clean drinking water, let alone enough water to meet basic hygiene and sanitation standards.   The pastor shared that among his fellow refugees, they had little knowledge of what would happen once the camps were closed. To many in the camp, returning to their home country itself was not of high attraction.

Curiously, the refugee camp pastor exuded a remarkable level of calm and grace.  He told stories of the church he planted in the midst of the refugee camp, creating a place for the people to gather to sing, to pray, and to support one another.  The gathering would scatter in a few weeks or months when the UN shut the camp down, yet something remarkable happened as the people gathered in the mud or the dust, even as they worried about their political future, or the lack of a decent meal.  The worship at this church for refugees offered them a connection beyond any political map or governmental power.  It may not have seemed the most tangible some days, yet they had called upon God, upon whom they placed their trust.

That day I heard a word about “trust” come to life.

Rather appropriately, I note that the 16th Psalm’s placement in the collection of psalms itself appears to be a little editorial license at work.  The 13th psalm is one of complaint.  The next psalm softens in tone a bit.  By the time the 16th psalm appears, the psalms have moved from edginess to reverence.  We read these psalms one after the other and find something of our own life story in this movement from complaint to confidence.

Even when we claim to be ardent in our love of God and take pride that we keep the faith, we find ourselves sometimes rattled by life circumstances going well beyond our control or go through times when there’s not much hope in sight.  On such days, we find ourselves closer to the psalms of complaint or lament rather than psalms centering on the praise of God or trust in God.  Yet, the Psalter reminds us that there is a word to the otherwise.  You can find lament and pain, suffering and weariness in this life, yet there is also the grace notes of faith, love, and hope to be found as well.

I wonder if this psalm reflects life so well that its celebration of deep trust in God while still living in the world that this psalm is better understood as the word given by an old woman or man to the rest of us young whippersnappers. There is a certain world-weary (or better said, world-wise) tone that I hear in the text.  The psalm arises from a voice wise to the ups and downs of human life, knowing the sorrow, the frustration and the yearning that things played out differently.  The psalmist’s rather radical assertion that God alone is the source of one’s identity is a less than subtle word of challenge to anyone who says otherwise.

The preacher William Sloane Coffin, Jr. spent the last few years of his life knowing that his health was declining, yet he outlived his doctor’s prognoses enough that it became a little joke that he kept having “one last time” visits more than once with his friends. 

Speaking of death and the end of life, the old preacher observed that he found his last years bringing a change to his attitude and outlook.  He proclaimed this good word:

Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, I feel more often serene, grateful for God’s gift of life.  For the compassions that fail not, I find myself saying daily to my loving Maker, “I can no other answer make than thanks, and thanks, and ever thanks.