Thursday, December 30, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, January 2, 2011, the Second Sunday after Christmas (Year A)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)
v. 7 I wonder effect it would have if I started my next sermon by proclaiming “For thus says the LORD.” Most of the Presbyterians in small churches that I know need to take the admonition to “Sing aloud with gladness” more seriously. Who is “the chief of the nations”?

v. 8 A promise of restoration. What promise do we find for ourselves in this passage?

v. 9 Why do the remnant weep?

v. 10 Why do the nations need to hear this?

v. 11 Could this be one of the roots of a ransom theory of the atonement?

v. 12 I like the image of a life likened to a “watered garden”. How many people in our society are experiencing a life akin to a dried up, dead garden?

V. 14 Here is an image I can relate to.

Psalm 147:12-20
v. 16 People along the mid-Atlantic and north-Atlantic coast of the US should be able to relate to this verse this week.

v. 18 This is the second reference in this Psalm to God’s “word”. See verse 15 for the first. It appears again in verse 19.

vs. 12-10 It should be clearly evident why this Psalm was paired with the Jeremiah Reading. But the Psalm seems to emphasize the emotions of the return while ignoring the lament aspect of the deportation that preceded it. Where do we, as Americans, as Christians, and as Presbyterians find ourselves today, in exile or having returned?

Ephesians 1:3-14
v. 3 What are “spiritual blessings”?

v. 4 Here is a verse in support of predestination and election.

v. 6 Who is “the Beloved”?

v. 7 Now we have “blood” atonement after the ransom of Jeremiah 31:11.

v. 10 A verse in support of divine “fate”?

v. 11,14 What is our “inheritance”?

John 1:(1-9) 10-18
Note: This is perhaps my favorite passage in the Bible. This is also the first passage I translated from the Greek when learning Greek.

v. 1 Can we read and hear this read without recalling the first creation account of Genesis 1?

vs. 6-9 In a matter of weeks we have moved from the birth of John the Baptizer, to his questioning of Jesus identity, and now his testimony. Once again, I am wondering how much we are missing when we reflect about the relationship and connection between John the Baptizer and Jesus.

v. 12 What is the meaning of “power”?

v. 13 Is there any theological difference between being born “of God” and being born from above? How might William James enlighten us to the meaning of being born of God?

v. 15 Why the parenthesis in the NRSV? So what?

v. 17 “Law” versus “Grace and truth” or ‘Law and grace and truth”?

v. 18 Are there not some passages in the Hebrew Scriptures to refute the claim that “No one has ever seen God”? Once we have come to know God the Father through the only son, should we not focus on our relationship with the Father rather than the Son?

Friday, December 24, 2010

Not So Happy Holidays for Some

The scene: a few days before Christmas 1995, in a hallway in Anderson Memorial Medical Center.
Me: Dr. Turner, do you think Dad will be able to come home for Christmas?
Dr. Turner: David, (pause) your father won't be going home again.

With those words, my heart sank. My dad died shortly thereafter, a few days after Christmas. It took me years to make peace with Christmas. A year later, Christmas 1996, I was sitting in the dining room at the farm house where I lived. The house was decorated for Christmas. For some reason I didn't really think about at the time, I stood up, walked into the living room, grabbed the Christmas tree we'd cut from the farm, and chunked it out the front door. I then proceeded to tear down all the other decorations.

Grief. Anger. Depression. Those were the feelings driving me at the time. For many of the people you and I know — even those in our local churches — those feelings seem to be magnified at this time of year, for a whole host of reasons.

Amidst our celebrations tomorrow, let's remember that for some, for some we know, the holidays aren't happy. I'm not sure what we can directly do for them, even being aware, but there may be something. A word. A kindness. Surely a prayer.

As we remember the scandal of the Incarnation, let's also remember its power: power to heal, power to move us to compassion.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, December 26, 2010, the First Sunday after Christmas (Year A)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)


Isaiah 63:7-9
v. 1 Can you enumerate (list and count) the gracious deeds and praiseworthy acts of the LORD? How high can you count?

v. 8 In verse 7 Isaiah speaks in the first person plural of “us”, but in verse 8 shifts to the third person “they” and “their”. Why the shift? What difference does it make?

v. 9 I like this verse. Perhaps I have never noticed it before. I like that “It was no messenger or angel” but the LORD’S presence that saved them. Remember, this is before Christ!

Psalm 148:1-14
v. 1 Is it stating the obvious to identify this as a “praise” psalm.

v. 2 This is the second time (and the second reading) that angels are mentioned.

v. 3 Was the full moon with celestial halo around it on the winter solstice just before the full lunar eclipse less than a week ago praising the Lord?

v. 7 Even though, or perhaps because, I am a kayaker and a sailor, I can more easily accept the actual sun, moon and stars praising the Lord than I can accept “sea monsters” praising the Lord.

vs. 7-10 Verses especially appropriate for “Presbyterians For Earth Care”. After all, how can creation praise the Lord if humans pollute and destroy it?

v. 8 This reads like a winter’s verse, or else a mountain climber’s verse.

v. 11 Now we transition from the natural world to the political realm.

v. 13 What is “the name of the Lord”? Dare we write it? Dare we speak it

v. 14 What is “a horn”?

Second Reading Hebrews 2:10-18
v. 10 What a bummer! From the joy and celebration of Christmas a mere day ago we now get sufferings.

v. 11 Why WOULD Jesus be ashamed?

vs. 12-13 Where did these quotes come from?

v. 14 Can we read/teach/preach this without personifying “the devil”?

v. 17 Is “sacrifice atonement” the only understanding of atonement?

vs. 14-18 A fairly theological exposition of the incarnation, which is probably why this passage was chosen for the First Sunday After Christmas.

Gospel Matthew 2:13-23
v. 13 In Matthew, how many times does an Angel appear to Joseph in a dream?

vs. 13-14 Could this verse be an example of Midrash?

v. 15 Could there have been another theological reason for Jesus going to Egypt other than fulfilling of prophecy?

v. 16 Death in the slaughter on the innocents intrudes into the otherwise bucolic narrative of Christmas.

vs. 17-18 So all the infants were killed just so that prophecy could be fulfilled?

v. 19 Another angel, another dream, same old Jospeh!

v. 22 With so many dreams mentioned in the Bible, why does the church say so little about dreams, dreaming, and dream interpretation (other than Jungians)?

vs 13-23 It seems odd that Mary and Jesus are never mentioned by name but are referred to as “the child and his mother”.

Monday, December 20, 2010

PC(USA) Q&A

"Our church is going through a very difficult time.  We have an Endowment Fund - established some time in the 1960's when the church was flourishing.  As with many churches we are seeing a decrease in the number of members - death and relocation mostly.
We've received some new members and for them we are grateful.
We have two full time pastors who refer to themselves as co-pastors.  They have been instrumental in attracting new members and the youth are coming!
The problem is that we (still) have members who were here during the affluent years.  Then, the membership was composed of the wealthy and the locally renown.
That group of members believe the Endowment Fund is not growing as it should be but is instead being relied upon to grow our church (aiding in community outreach, food pantry, Christmas baskets, youth work opportunities within the church during the summer months, youth mission trips, etc.).  This group believes the Endowment Fund money is forbidden fruit and not to be used even when the need is evident!
We all realize that money earmarked or set aside for certain purposes should not be touched.  However, is it truly "Christian" to keep an Endowment Fund and never use it (?) especially when the local poverty level is nearly twenty-five percent?
I'm so sad for this ugly turn of events.  Unfortunately, if our co-pastors are forced out, I will be leaving too.  I simply cannot worship in a church that worships money."

One thing I thought of when reading this email was a brief article in The Presbyterian Outlook from last year, "Tips for Taking Hold of Financial Distress."

I find this a perpetually recurring a tough question for churches.  How can we pay for X (our building, our staff, our denominational per capita dues, mailing newsletters) when there is hunger in our communities, when there is cholera in Haiti, when there are human rights abuses around the world and here at home?  Well, sometimes we do hold too tightly to things we could/should let go.  But we do need to be careful about dismissing expenditures as unnecessary.

Because there's also a truth that some of the "less important" stuff goes into what makes us feel like - and function as - a community.  My husband works for a faith-based organization.  Every fall we used to have a company-wide picnic with entertainment, catered food, bounce houses for the kids, etc.  Until one year there was Hurricane Katrina and the fellowship committee decided that the money usually spent on the picnic could better be spent aiding the people and communities devastated by the storm.

How could that possibly have been a wrong decision?

But it set a precedent - there's always a pressing need - and the company picnic is no longer the tradition.  Since that time, company moral and team spirits have been plummeting, turn over has increased.  Is this coincidence?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.

It's a tough question.  Your thoughts?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Go Fish!: Tell Me a Story


Like most people, I love a good story, especially one that has great characters. Which is why I love the Christmas story in Luke so much, because the characters a so rich. They’re also great evangelists, which I always like to read about, because I know I fall down in that area often; I need good role models to look up to and try to emulate.

Here are some of those great characters, and what we can learn from them when it comes to evangelism.

Zechariah

I love the story of Zechariah at the start of Luke. What a great dramatic curtain raiser to the Gospel story. I’ve often imagined what it would be like to be sent into the most holy and sacred part of the temple (so holy I’ve heard they tied a rope to your foot so they could pull you out if you saw God and were struck dead), and there before me is a heavenly angel.

I always feel for the people in the Bible who do what I know I would do in those situations: I’d be completely incredulous. Here’s poor Zechariah, terrified, overwhelmed by fear, and every time I read about his reaction it feels to me like he gets dinged on a technicality. When the angel Gabriel tells him that he and his wife are going to have a son, Zechariah states the obvious.

“How will I know this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”

I feel for you Zechariah; I probably would have responded the same way. But Gabriel is not amused. He tells Zechariah that because he questioned him, Zechariah will be mute until all that has been foretold actually happens.

Later, when John is born and then circumcised eight days later, the floodgates open and Zechariah pores forth with his story to the entire assembly. John will be a prophet who prepares the way before the Messiah.

The Shepherds

In Chapter 2 we witness the great story about those lowly shepherds keeping watch over their flocks. An angel comes again, this time with an entire angelic back-up choir, to tell of the birth of Jesus. The shepherds want to see this great thing that has happened in Bethlehem, and when they do see it for themselves, they tell anyone in the community who will listen. And then they continue praising God and retelling the story through worship.

Simeon and Anna

Next we hear from Simeon, a righteous and devout man who had already been tipped off by the Holy Spirit that he would get to see the Messiah before he died. Following another nudge by the Spirit, he shows up at the Temple just in time for Jesus’ circumcision. Before the entire community he declares that this baby is indeed the Messiah.

And then immediately we read of the faithful testimony of the prophet Anna, who is at the Temple at that time and “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

We are Mute, but Can Learn From These Examples

How often have I been as mute as Zechariah? In his case, he wanted to tell the story, but was forced to be silent until the right time. I have to admit, I often don’t want to tell the story of Jesus. My muteness isn’t ordained it’s self-prescribed. And my fear isn’t because I’ve seen something heavenly; it’s because I fear what others in the culture will think of me. I fear rejection by my peers. I fear I will be discounted and perhaps even discriminated against.

I want to be more like those shepherds. I want to see the great thing that has happened – is happening in my life today – and then tell everyone who will listen. I want to keep telling the story through worship. Or I want to stand before the community like Zechariah, Simeon and Anna, and share the Good News, because it really is good news. I want to be faithful to those times the Holy Spirit nudges me into action to share with others that news.

It’s worth telling and retelling the Christmas story, because it’s such an important story. Not only because it tells of the time when a poor, vulnerable baby came into this world to be her King. But because it reminds us that the story of Jesus is something truly good and worthy of sharing, and it gives us concrete examples of how to do that.

This Christmas let us tell the world a story.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, December 19, 2010, the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)


Isaiah 7:10-16
v. 10 Who is Ahaz? Why did the LORD speak to him?

v. 11 What is the definition of “a sign”? If you were to ask the LORD for a sign, what sign would you ask for?

v. 12 What do you think of the response of Ahaz? To what story or incident in salvation history does not putting “the LORD to the test” refer?

v. 13 What is the meaning of this enigmatic verse?

v. 14 Note that the sign involves “the young woman” with child. There is no mention of a virgin. What is the meaning and significance of “Immanuel”.

v. 15 Another enigmatic verse. What is so special about curds and honey? Locusts and wild honey sounds more symbolic.

v. 16 What is bad news for some is good news for others. Why do Christians tend to quote and emphasize verse 14 while overlooking and neglecting verse 16?

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
v. 1 Who is the “shepherd of Israel? What are “cherubim”?

v.2 Why are only three tribes, and these three tribes, mentioned?

v. 3 What does it mean for God’s face to shine?

v. 4 God gets angry?

v. 7 This is beginning to sound like refrain or response.

v. 17 From the psalmist’s perspective, who is at God’s right hand?

v. 18 Promises! Empty promises?

Romans 1:1-7
v. 2 What are the holy scriptures to which Paul refers?

v. 4 “Declared” to be son of God? This does read like a high Christology. It sounds to me like Paul is saying Jesus was declared Son of God in his resurrection, not at his birth.

vs. 1-7 This is a lot of theology to pack into the address of a letter. Do not forget that Romans is Paul’s longest letter.

Matthew 1:18-25
v. 18 Birth of Jesus! Are we not still in Advent? What does it mean “to be with child from the Holy Spirit”?

v. 19 The innuendo seems to be building.

v. 20 What is the significance, if any, that an angel appeared to Joseph “in a dream”?

v. 21 What is the significance of the name “Jesus”?

v. 22 How much does this verse drive what has preceded it?

v. 23 Why is this verse slightly different that the NRSV translation of Isaiah 7:14?

v. 25 What purpose does this verse serve?

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, December 12, 2010, the Third Sunday of Advent (Year A

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)

Isaiah 35:1-10
vs. 1-2 We see more of Isaiah this week, the third week in a row the First Reading has come to us from this prophet. What is the connection between the health and productivity of the land and the well-being of the people of Israel?

v. 3 This verse signals a shift from the land to people.

v. 4 In Isaiah’s context, who were those with a fearful heart? Who has a fearful heart in our context?

vs. 5-7 Here is another shift, this time from people back to the land, where we started. In the case of humans, disabilities are overcome. In the case of the land, situations are reversed.

v. 8 I find it amazing that Isaiah envisions a “highway”. Where does this highway lead? What does it connect?

vs. 9-10 This is not quite a vision of the peaceable kingdom, but sure is close. It almost seems like a vision of paradise, or heaven.
Psalm 146:5-10
v. 5 In the context of this psalm and the Psalter, what does it mean to be “Happy”. Is this the same “happiness” enumerated in the Declaration of Independence? How are “help” and “hope” related?

v. 6 What does it mean to “keep faith”?

vs. 7-9 Is this an expression of the Bible’s preferential option for the poor and oppressed? How shall we Americans read and interpret this in light of our current national political debate?

Luke 1:47-55
v. 47 “Magnificat”

v. 48 Mary’s sentiment seems to reflect the same outlook as expressed in the other optional Psalm, 146:5-10

v. 49 Is there any significance to the use of “the Mighty One”?

v. 46-55 Mary’s psalm of praise, apparently following the template of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, seems to move from the particular in verses 47-49 to the universal in verses 50-55. What shall we learn from the theological and doxological trajectory of Mary’s song?
James 5:7-10
vs. 7-8 This reads like an admonition to patiently wait even in the midst of apparently dashed expectations. How near is near?

v. 9 Would anyone like to speculate what people were grumbling about?

v. 10 Do suffering and patience necessarily go together? When might we be called NOT to be patient in the midst of suffering?

Matthew 11:2-11
v. 2 Note that even though he was in prison, he was hearing “what the Messiah was doing.” Also note that John had his own disciples and was apparently able to communicate with them.

v. 3 I know that this Sunday our Reading comes from Matthew rather than Luke, nevertheless, this verse seems out of place in light of last week’s Gospel reading which suggested that John knew Jesus was the Messiah. Am I reading more into last week’s reading than was there?

v. 5 This is the verse that seems to connect this Reading with the First Reading.

v. 6 How does this verse relate to verse 5?

v. 7-11 This Advent, more than ever before, I am becoming increasingly convinced that there was (and is) a theological, spiritual, and political connection between Jesus and John that is not fully expressed or explored in the Gospels, but is certainly hinted at. Other than Jesus and John, is there anyone in the New Testament portrayed as the fulfillment of prophecy?

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

PC(USA) Q&A

"Hi, I was recently elected elder of finance and a member of session.  I am looking for discussion on best practices for church finance.  Also, I am the youngest elder on session by fifteen years and am considering asking if I can create a private blog for our session discussion topics.  Thoughts or comments?"

Perhaps I find Nick's questions so interesting because I, too, am a recently elected elder in the PC(USA).  I'm also fairly young and will be only the second elder in our congregation to give birth while actively serving on session.  (Please note that I don't intend to actually be at a session meeting for the big event!)  I don't know to which committee(s) I'll be assigned, but I'm willing to bet that Children, Youth, and Families is more likely than Finance.  I'd love to serve on Adult Ed and Nominating (both committees on which I've participated as a lay member).

Does anyone have any church finance or committee experiences to share?  Advice to give?

And does anyone's church use a private blog for conversation?

Nick, my family uses a private blog for communication and it's been very helpful for us. I'd imagine, though, that with an older session you might have some people who aren't too comfortable with the internet and others with significant security concerns.  Another group to which I belong has a blog, and I made a very simple step-by-step cheat sheet to help each of them log in.  I passed out hard copies at a meeting and this tactic met with great approval.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Monday Blog Club

 Welcome to our newest blogger, Mark Sandlin of The God Article. Sandlin "currently serves as the minister at Vandalia Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, NC. He received his M. Div. from Wake Forest University's School of Divinity and has undergraduate degrees in Business Administration and English with a minor in Computer Science. He's an ordained minister in the PC(USA) and a self-described progressive."

The God Article is both a blog about Church/Theological/Liturgical-related things (on the 'Church' tab) and also a blog about progressive Christian perspectives (on the 'State' tab) on politics in the US. There are also tabs that are more just for fun: "Signs From God?" is a sometimes humorous look at Church Signs. Quotables is a list of the author's favorite quotes. And Good Stuff is a random sampling of the author's interest including Good Books (a book review), Good Web Reads (a blog roll of sorts), Good Stuff (shameless promotional type stuff) and Good-n-Fit (a personal weight loss blog). This blog seeks to walk a balance between not taking itself too seriously and at the same time taking the subject matter very seriously. It is not with out its controversy because of its willingness to look at matters like homosexuality from a progressive Christian perspective. Its Facebook fan page continues to grow weekly and many of its article are frequently shared throughout Facebook and Twitter. Give The God Article a look and decide for yourself if it is worth sharing.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Time for Advent

What is time? Is it something humans have invented or does it exist apart from us?

Astronomers tell us that the earth moves around the sun in a repeating and fixed pattern. The interaction between the sun and the earth give us the seasons which repeat in a regular and predictable fashion. The earth rotates and the sun appears and disappears in a regular and predictable manor, day and night. Ancient peoples, based on what they saw in the sky, possessed a cyclical view of the world.

Thomas Cahill, in his book The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (Nan A. Talese,Doubleday:1998) makes the case that the Jews were the first people to break out of this cyclical worldview and think about time and history as linear. Their view of the world gave humanity our future.


Cyclical religion goes nowhere because, within its comprehension, there is
no future as we have come to understand it, only the next revolution of the
Wheel.

Since time is no longer cyclical but one-way and irreversible, personal
history is now possible and an individual life can have value.

(Cahill, 94)


Physicists tell us the universe has a beginning and will have an end. The idea that "time is an arrow" moving in one direction is now how most of us think about time.

Of course our current calendars, while moving forward also acknowledge the cyclical nature of things. The years change, but January comes every year. There is, as far as we know, no one calendar that expresses time more accurately than another. Jews have their calendar, Muslims have theirs, the Chinese have theirs. The secular world and most Christians follow the the Gregorian calendar (which replaced the Julian calendar in the late 1500s)

All this talk about calendars and time, brings us to Advent and the church year.

What is interesting about the church year is that it is not based on the sun or the moon or the seasons.* The church calendar is based on the life of Christ. His birth, his death, his resurrection and his future coming. The liturgical calendar disconnects us from the world's reckonings. Our time is measured, not by the sun nor the moon, nor the dictates of society. Our time finds its orientation and focus in the incarnation and resurrection, events that transcend and disrupt material time and space.

So if you feel, as I often do, somewhat disoriented and at odds with the secular world during Advent take heart. Advent is doing what it is supposed to do. Advent grabs us by the shoulders, spins us us out of secular time and turns us, off balance and a little dizzy, to face the coming era when

He shall judge between the nations,

and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn
war any more (Isaiah 2:4)


...with righteousness he shall judge the poor,

and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;

he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,

and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.

Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,

and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

The cow and the bear shall graze,

their young shall lie down together;

and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den.

They will not hurt of destroy on all my holy mountain;

for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:4-9)


A blessed Advent to you all.


* I know that the date of Easter is calculated is based on the lunar cycle but the moon is a tool to fix a date, the event is what is important.

To read more about calendars, see Calendars Thought the Ages.
To read more about Advent and the church year, see here, and here.


Thursday, December 02, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, December 5, 2010, the Second Sunday of Advent (Year A)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)


Isaiah 11:1-10
v.1 Note that in the NRSV this text is formatted as poetry, not prose. Does this affect how we interpret it? This verse is a good example of parallelism as a feature of Hebrew Poetry.

v. 2 Does this verse imply that the spirit of the LORD is the spirit of wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, and knowledge and fear of the LORD.

v. 4 Does this verse express a prejudice toward/for the poor and meek? Note the power of voice/word.

v. 5 Does “righteousness” equal “faithfulness”?

v. 6 Images of the “peaceable kingdom”. What is a fatling?

v. 8 Is there any significance to “asps” and “adders”?

v. 8 What is “knowledge of the LORD”?

v. 10 What does it mean for anyone to “stand as a signal”?

Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19
v. 2 Echoes of Isaiah 11:4?

v. 4 More preference for the poor, needy and oppressed. Who is the “He”?

v. 18 What are the “wondrous things” the LORD does?

Why do you think this Psalm, out of all ofthem, was chosen to pair with the Isaiah Reading?

Romans 15:4-13
v. 4 When were “the former days”? What writings are included in and meant by “the Scriptures”?

v. 6 I hear echoes of Psalm 72:19.

v. 7 How did Christ welcome us?

v. 8 Did Christ welcome us as “a servant”?

v. 9 What is being quoted in this verse and in the following verses?

v. 12 Is this a quote of Isaiah 11:1?

v.13 A verse often used liturgically as a blessing/benediction.

Matthew 3:1-12
v. 1 When were “those days”? I prefer to refer to “John the Baptizer” rather than “John the Baptist”.

v.2 Note that John proclaims “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, not will or is coming near. What is “the kingdom of heaven” and what does it mean that it “has come near”?

v. 3 Where in Isaiah would you find this quote?

v. 4 What is the significance of john’s wardrobe?

v.5 It sounds like John’s preaching station was a popular destination.

v. 6 How do we reconcile John’s act of baptizing with later Christian understandings of the sacrament?

v.7 Are you surprised that “many Pharisees and Sadducees” were coming to John for baptism? Could John’s invective perhaps be more a reflection of Matthew’s perspective than John’s?

v.8 Good advice, regardless of who is being addressed.

v.9 How do we reconcile this verse with Romans 15:8? I recall that both John and Jesus had some interesting things to say about stones.

v.10 Note that “ax” is singular while “trees” is plural. What is the metaphorical fire?

vs.8-10 Is John still talking to only the Pharisees and Sadducees?

v.11 What is the difference between water on the one hand and the Holy Spirit and fire on the other hand? In light of this verse, what reasons can you think of to explain why Christians still baptize with water?

v. 12 What is a winnowing fork? What is it used for? What is a threshing floor? What is chaff? Does the imagery of this verse in any way follow the imagery of verse 8 and verse 10? Does the imagery of verse 8 and 10 foreshadow this verse?

vs. 11-12 while in verse 2 we learn that “the kingdom of heaven has come near”, in this verse we shift to the present and future tense: one is coming, He will baptize, he will clear, he will gather, he will burn.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Monday Blog Club

Welcome to the newest member of our web ring and blog roll, Tangerine Lizard of Christ plays in Ten Thousand places.

I hope to offer new and personal intuitions and insights into old stories and contemporary events. I am a Minister within the Uniting Presbyterian Church in South Africa (UPCSA)in active early retirement, ordained in 1985 and having served congregations in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The title of my blog Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places is taken from Gerard Manly Hopkins poem entitled "As Kingfishers catch flame," which stresses the individual yet manifold expression of 'selves being Self in Christ. Eugene Peterson’s “conversation in spiritual theology” found in in his book "Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places" is another foundational text for me. This emphasizes my belief that God is at work in Christ through the Holy Spirit outside the Church -even at work in what we consider may "counter" and "strange" (also Gerard Manly Hopkins) My interests are particularly in new interpretations and expressions of the evangelical Christian faith, and how these impact on the local church and community - or not.

Glad to have your voice here!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, November 28, 2010, the First Sunday of Advent (Year A)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)


Isaiah 2:1-5
v. 1 I find it interesting that biblical prophecies are introduced in a variety of ways. Some prophets receive a word, some hear a word, and others see a vision. How does Amos “see” “the word”?

v. 2 Does “in the days to come” set this Reading in the Apocalyptic genre? The mountain of the Lord house being established as the highest of the mountains is probably a comment about the mountain’s political and religious stature, not its geographical height. What does it mean that “all the nations” shall stream to the mountain of the Lord?

v. 3 Is this a vision of a return to the church growth of the 1950’s?

v. 4 Exactly what is a plowshare? What is a pruning hook? How can Christians in an urbanized setting far removed from any agriculture find meaning in implements of war being transformed into agricultural tools?

v. 5 What does it mean to “walk in the light of the LORD”?

Psalm 122:1-9
v. 1 This verse echoes Isaiah 2:3. Does this first verse establish this Psalm as a Psalm of Ascents?

v. 2 Is this an allusion to standing on holy ground?

v. 4 Note that here “the tribes go up: whereas in Isaiah 2:2 “all the nations shall stream” to the mountain of the Lord.

v. 5 Why is “thrones” plural? Who sits on these thrones?

v. 6 Jerusalem certainly needs our prayers today. The prayer is called for in 6a and the prayer follows in 6b-7.

v. 8 Are the prophets relatives and friends in Jerusalem?

v. 9 How does one seek good for Jerusalem?

Romans 13:11-14
v. 11 The phrase “Besides this” suggests we are missing the previous point. The salvation alarm clock is ringing.

v. 12 What are “works of darkness”? What is the “armor of light”?

v. 13 While “drunkenness” stands alone, note the pairing of “debauchery and licentiousness” and “quarreling and jealousy”. What is debauchery? What is licentiousness?

v. 14 Is the admonition to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” a reference to baptism, or something else? How we realistically “make no provision for the flesh”? Is there a difference between maintaining health of the flesh and gratifying its desires?

Romans 13:11-14
v. 36 “that day and hour” certainly places us in the Apocalyptic genre. There is an interesting juxtaposition between not knowing “that day and hour” within the context of the liturgical and secular calendar. While no one knows “that day and hour” we all know that Christmas is now only twenty-seven days away, and still most of us will not be fully prepared when that day finally arrives.

v. 37 How will the “days of Noah” belike “the coming of the Son of Man”? Those with a theological education will undoubtedly understand the “Son of Man: reference but I understand how most people in the pews and in the Church School Class will hear and understand it. How much do teachers and preachers need to unpack such “theological baggage” or can we simply gloss over it?

vs. 38-39 These verse answers, somewhat, the question about the “days of Noah” and “the coming of the Son of Man” comparison.

vs. 40-41 More agrarian imagery that we may need to translate into the post industrial and more urban context. At one time, these verses seemed to be some of the favorite among apocalyptically minded evangelicals employing “the rapture” as an evangelism tool. Since I have lost touch with that segment of the church, I wonder if they are still popular passages.

vs. 42 Good advice regardless of one’s theological posture.

v. 43 How does this follow from what proceeds it?

v. 44 “be ready” seems synonymous with “keep awake”. Consider again the question I raised regarding verse 37. There seems to be a tension between being told that the “Son of Man is coming” but not knowing when he will come. It sounds a little like making an appointment for repair service in the home on a certain day but not knowing what time the repair person will arrive, or know that UPS or Fed-Ex will deliver a package on a certain day but not knowing what time.

ADDENDUM

Today’s Readings are for the First Sunday of Advent, which means this is the first Sunday of a new Liturgical year and the beginning of a new lectionary cycle, “Year A” or the year of Matthew. Preachers and Teachers new to the Revised Common Lectionary and Lectionary based preaching, teaching and Bible study may not be aware that each cycle in the three-year Lectionary cycle focuses on a different Synoptic Gospel. Year A is the year of Matthew. Year B is the year of Mark. Year C is the year of Luke. Passages from John appear in all three cycles, especially during Lent and Easter.

Thus, preachers and teachers, for their own edification, preparation and as a spiritual discipline, might read the entire Gospel of Matthew as soon as practical. They might also read a brief and broad theological commentary on Matthew.

I sometimes think of Advent as a bi-focal season. On the one hand, we look back and prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, or his first coming. On the other hand we, we look forward and prepare to welcome Christ at his return, or his second coming. How do these two foci influence our interpretations of the readings for Advent? Can we focus on each reading using both lenses or do some readings lend themselves to one focus more than the other? Are we perhaps missing anything by consciously or unconsciously limiting ourselves to these two viewpoints? What other viewpoints might there be.

Speaking of celebrations, I will soon be celebrating the first year anniversary of providing “Lectionary Ruminations” for Presbyterian Bloggers. I posted my first “Lectionary Ruminations” on February 18, 2010 for the following Sunday. I have written, and posted, every Thursday since. I wish I had been able to begin Year C’s post with the first Sunday in Advent, but that was not possible. About the day and hour I will no longer write and post Lectionary Ruminations, no one knows. Until that unexpected hour, I am glad to begin Year A with this First Sunday of Advent post and to initiate the new Liturgical Year by also beginning to cross post Lectionary Ruminations on my personal blog, Summit to Shore.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

Monday, November 22, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving! Monday Blog Club

Serve yourself a slice of turkey with all the trimmings, sit down, and enjoy catching up with a few blogs this week. Today we have a collection of three new and/or updated blogs for the web ring.

1) Very Truly Blessed: Striving for a servant's heart, Christian blog by Gail:
Very Truly Blessed is a blog about life being rediscovered in the guise of a small Presbyterian Church. Away from any church for years and years, I found a small church 1 block from my house, a few months after my Mother died. Today, the Christ, the church and my family are the center of my life. I have been in the Sashabaw Presbyterian Church now for almost 4 years. I started going with my oldest daughter. I was reserved. After a few months I became a Presbyterian and joined the Church. The next year, my husband and I took over the building and grounds duty, and the next year, I became a elder. At the same time of this process, I rediscovered the piano and now am the backup musician for Sunday morning. In addition, I have the honor of teaching the elementary age kids in Sunday School. Sashabaw Presbyterian has truly been a blessing in my life. The church brought both myself and my family closer to God and to the community in which we live. My husband who had never in his life attended Church now attends on a regular basis. We are indeed very truly blessed.

2) Robert's Musings by Robert Shaw:
Life is much more enjoyable when read with the lens of Scripture and Scripture becomes all the more powerful when read with the lens of current events. Robert Shaw, pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Winfield, Indiana, post his reflections each Wednesday morning. Each entry begins with an excerpt from the applicable readings in the Daily Lectionary. His reflections look for the intersection of current events and Scripture. New entries are announced via Twitter (christpresbycp) and his Facebook account. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) posts the Daily Lectionary at: http://www.pcusa.org/lectionary/. Robert Shaw is am looking for a few other Presbyterian bloggers who would help him extend this exercise to a new daily blog. We would read each other's entries and provide encouragement and comments. Hopefully a combined effort would yield greater readership which would increase visibility and thereby spread the gospel to people beyond the fringes of the church. His biography and contact information is available at http://yourcpc.net/pastor.html

3) And, finally this week, we have Robin at Metanoia. Robin describes herself as a married mom of three. Elder and Candidate for Ordination in the PC(USA). Almost brand-new M.Div. Spiritual Director in the Ignatian tradition. Writer, photographer, canoer, hiker, voracious reader ~ and someone who knows the beach is the best. Metanoia is her non-anonymous blog.

Welcome, bloggers and readers, new and old! Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Go Fish!: ADVENT-ures in Christmas Outreach and Evangelism

In just nine days we will start Advent (or as I heard one radio DJ say, “the Christmas gift buying season.” Ouch!). What is your church doing to leverage opportunities for reaching out to non-believers in your community during the season? Do you have a plan? And does that plan look beyond Christmas into the next year?

Don’t panic. My questions aren’t meant to create angst for you as you head into the holidays. But I do hope that if your church does not have a plan, you will shift your thinking just enough to find a few ways to reach out.

I also hope that you’ll think about more than just Christmas. It’s great if guests come to your church for Christmas Eve candle lighting services, but it’s a missed opportunity if you’re not engaging those guests with an invitation to events in January and beyond.

Here are several ideas that might be of help to your church.

1) Is your “home” ready for guests?

If you’ve got houseguests coming next week for Thanksgiving, you’ve already made plans to clean the house, get the bed linens ready, buy extra food, etc. Have you done the same thing for your church home? Is everything spiffied up around the grounds and the sanctuary? Have all the brochures and fliers been updated? Bulletin boards refreshed? Is there a plan for providing fresh coffee and maybe some Christmas cookies? Could the church afford some sort of guest gift?

2) Are you showing off your best face to the community?

If you have a website, has it been updated for Advent? Is all information on the site current? Is there advice to guests about what to expect? Where to park? What the childcare arrangements are?

What does the front of the church and the parking lot look like? Any quick-fixes or weeding that needs to be done? Do you have a professional-looking banner inviting the community to Advent or Christmas services?

3) Do your members have tools to invite friends to services?

For a reasonable cost and in a short amount of time, you can have business cards or postcards made up so that members have an easy-to-carry invitation to holiday services at the ready. I have used an on-line printing service with great success. Encourage members to carry a few cards with them, and to be thinking and praying about people they could invite.

4) How is your congregation blessing the community during the holidays?

Could your congregation collect food for the local food pantry? Are members helping out at non-profits that distribute food and presents during the holidays? Those organizations would be thrilled if a team came from your church to work various shifts throughout the season. Is there an organization in your community in need that your church could adopt, one that wouldn’t normally get a lot of attention at this time of year? And, how could you partner with other organizations, churches, community members to serve? For example, could members invite friends and neighbors to donate food to the food drive, or sign-up to volunteer with the group at a non-profit?

5) Do you have something to invite guests to beyond the holidays when they visit on Christmas Eve?

Is there something happening in January, or in the next quarter, that might be of interest to them? A special event? An interesting class or a class that gives a beginning look at Christianity or discipleship? A meet-the-pastor event? New Members class? A get-together for young families? A luncheon for older adults? What about offering a way to accept prayer requests?

6) Do you have a way to collect information about your guests?

If you have guest pad, remember to ask people to fill it out during worship. Not everyone is going to want to identify themselves, but give them the opportunity and then follow up with a letter from the pastor, or some other kind of welcoming note.

7) Who is praying for the church and the community throughout Advent?

Do you have a prayer team, or small group, that could hold the church, the pastor(s), and most importantly, the surrounding community, in prayer?

One note: don’t get so caught up in the details of reaching out to the community and welcoming guests that you forget to focus on what Advent is all about. Take time to pray, to worship, to enjoy God’s presence. Invite the Holy Spirit into the planning and into all your church does this season. Your church and the community will be richly blessed.

What does your church do to reach out to the community/welcome guests during Advent? Share with us in the Comments section so we can learn new ideas from each other!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, November 21, 2010, Christ the King (Reign of Christ) Sunday (Year C)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)



Jeremiah 23:1-6
v. 1 I wish this had been the text the Sunday prior to election day.

v.2 A pretty severe warning: attend to my people or I will attend to you!

v. 3 Since the shepherds have not been gathering the people, God will take on the task and role of the Shepherd.

v. 4 If the LORD is going to raise up new shepherds, should one assume that God had raised up or not raised up the former shepherds?

v. 5 “The days are surely coming” sounds like apocalyptic language. Why is “Branch” capitalized in the NRSV?

6. Note the dual identification: “Judah” and “Israel”. What is the Hebrew translated as “The LORD is our righteousness”?

Even though this is Christ the King Sunday, I cannot but help read and hear this as applying to pastors as shepherds. How does this being Christ the King Sunday influence how we hear and interpret this Reading?

Luke 1:68-79
This psalm, or canticle, is known as the “Benedictus” or “canticle of Zechariah . Why do you think it, rather than a psalm from the Psalter, was chosen to pair with the Jeremiah Readinig?

v. 69 Shall we read this verse as a fulfillment of Jeremiah 23:69?

v. 70 Which “prophets” (note that it is plural) do you think the Arthur had in mind?

v. 72 If it is pointed out that God has remembered the holy covenant, can it be assumed that previously God forgot or neglected this covenant?

v.76 Who is being addressed? Who is the “child”?

v.78-79 I love the imagery of this verse. What might it allude to?

Colossians 1:11-20
vs. 11-12 This sounds like a formal blessing or benediction. Who are the “saints in the light”?

v. 13 This sounds as though the “power of darkness” is being compared to the “kingdom of his beloved Son.” At least “kingdom” resonates with the “Christ the King” theme.

v. 15 How shall we read “image” and to what might it allude? From a theological perspective, how shall we deal with the statement that he is “the firstborn of all creation.”

v. 15-16 How do we reconcile “the firstborn of creation” with the statement that he is “in him all things in heaven and on earth were created.”?

v. 16 When you think of “things invisible”, what comes to mind? To what do “thrones or dominions or rulers or powers” refer? Why might the author offer us a four descriptive identifiers rather than just one? What does it mean, “things have been created through him”?

v. 17 As many times as I have read this, “in him all things hold together” sounds like I am reading it for the first time.

v. 19 From a Christological perspective, does “in the him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” mean the same thing as when we say that he is “of one substance with the Father”?

Luke 23:33-43
v. 35 Does this being Christ the King Sunday compel us to focus on the “anointing of kings” aspect of what it means to be called “the Messiah of God, his chosen one.”

vs. 37-38 Now we get overt references to Jesus being “King of the Jews”. But was he not King of much more?

v. 39 Can we read this as meaning that one of the criminals questioned Jesus kingship?

v. 42 Why am I hearing the fifth track of the Sing to God CD from the TaizĂ© Community? See Hymn #599 in The Presbyterian Hymnal. After to references to king, we are now presented with a mention of “kingdom”.

v. 43 Shall we equate “Paradise” with Jesus’ Kingdom mentioned in the previous verse? For the record, a couple weeks ago while visiting the Universal Theme Park in Orlando; I enjoyed a “cheeseburger in paradise.” It was delicious.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Getting Ready

When we are running around the house in the morning getting ourselves ready for work, school or other planned activities for the day, we lose ourselves in the moment. We just need to get to the next task of getting dressed, eating breakfast or something that resembles it, getting the kids off to school, or getting ourselves up and off to school, and other daily routines. We seem to get lost in the manic race of daily life, leaving no quality time to spend reaching out to Christ for His help in all of this rat race. We need to make sure we are getting ready for our next assignment, our next “job opportunity,” our next appointment, and the list could go on and on. If we allow ourselves to continue down this dangerous path, we will find that we are no longer giving to God what is rightfully his; our lives. We need to spend more time “getting ready” to meet with our God, to bow before Him and rejoice in being His.

When I begin to write these blogs, I’m always humming a Christian tune. This evening, I began humming a song by the group Casting Crowns. Their familiar hit “Till the Whole World Hears” reminds me that we need to always be in the mode of “getting ready” by preparing our lives to stand before God. As God’s children, we will be called on to shout to the World His goodness and mercy. Are we ready to take up our megaphones and shout to the world around us that Christ is King and that He is the truth and the Light? We need to be doing things that demonstrate this each and every day. We should not take the chance of waiting until later to take up His cause, but rather living it out, shouting it so the “whole world hears.”

As I sit at my laptop and type these blogs, I have to think about how God wants me to live a life that is worthy of His love. I often try to discern just how I should be “getting ready” for my next assignment. God has given me the patience to wait, to just continue on my journey until He sends me in another direction. But until then, I will continue to ready myself and others around me for His grand entrance into this troubled world. We need to prepare, to create an environment that God would be pleased to be a part of. When He returns, we need to make sure He will look at all of our preparation, our “getting ready” and say “Good job my faithful servants.” Then we will fully understand, we will have accomplished His goal of getting everyone ready to assume our next role in His production. We will be “lifting up your name for all to hear the sound.” Then we will know that we have shouted "until the whole world hears."

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, November 14, 2010, the Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)


Isaiah 65:17-25
v. 17 Promises, promises.

v. 18 Note the verb tenses. “I am creating” and ”I am about to create”.

v. 19 More promises. Is there any difference between “Jerusalem” and “my people” or they one in the same?

v. 20 I can celebrate considering centenarians youthful, but considering cursed anyone who dies before 100? I do not think so.

v. 21 Planning for the future?

v. 22 What are the “days of a tree”? What sort of tree might Isaiah had in mind? Surely, he was not aware of California Redwoods.

v. 23 This verse seems like a restatement of the ideas in verse 21.

v. 24 An interesting verse especially if we relate it to prayer.

v. 25 A vision of the peaceable kingdom, except for serpent. Is the serpent culled out because of the curse in Genesis, or is there another reason? I wish this verse applied to modern Jerusalem. Do you think Isaiah’s vision included a wall/barrier of separation?

Isaiah 12
v. 1 Does the “in that day” suggest this is apocalyptic language and imagery? The Psalm usually illuminates the First Reading, but this Psalm (can we call it that?) seems to prefigure the First Reading?

v. 4 Another “in that day”. Not that both appearances of “in that day” are paired with the action of giving thanks.

v. 6 I love this verse. How many occurrences are there of “royal Zion” compared to just plain and simple “Zion” ? “The Holy One of Israel” is biblical language that finds its way into the PC(USA) A Brief Statement of Faith in line 5, “we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,”

2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
v.6 Does “command” make this an admonition? How is “Idleness” contrary to “the tradition” and what is the “tradition” being referred to?

v. 7-8 Is this an argument for tentmaking?

v.10 Is this a reference to bread in general or the bread of the Lord’s Supper?

v. 11-12 How much of this argument is addressed to people who see no need to work if the Lord will soon be returning?

Luke 21:5-19
v. 6 Is this an example of foreshadowing or an example of an historical event finding its way back in a text set in an earlier period? “The Days will come” suggests we might interpret this as an apocalyptic or eschatological text.

v. 7 “Sign” also suggests this is an apocalyptic/eschatological text.

vs. 9-11 When, in the history of humanity, was this text not applicable?

v. 12 Which persecution might this be referring to? Obviously, this reflect the period after heightened tension, if not the actual break, between Judaism and Christianity.

v. 14-15 I doubt the congregation I serve will read this as giving me permission not to prepare a sermon.

v. 16-17 This is sounding pretty ugly!

v. 18 This is not a bald man’s favorite verse.

v. 19 Personally, I do not find this very comforting.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Are we more than our brains?

Last month we began a series on Nancey Murphy's book Bodies and Soul, or Spirited Bodies. This month I want to consider a point she makes in chapter two. The gist of the chapter is that previously unexplained aspects of humans, such as emotion, consciousness, memory, and the will, which historically were attributed to the soul have been explained by science. The idea of the “soul”doesn't come from the Hebrew Scriptures but developed as a way to explain things about us that the science of the time couldn't explain.

Now, thanks to modern neuroscience,we have other ways to understand things like emotion, consciousness and memory. Of course we don't have complete explanations for all of these. There is still plenty of really interesting work to be done. The “hard problem” for neuroscience these days is understanding how consciousness comes from brain activity. They are certainly correlated. Without brain activity we are not conscious. And consciousness appears to require an brain. But how the brain and consciousness are “connected” is still essentially unknown.

Murphy claims biblical studies and neuroscience “are both pointing in the same direction: toward a physicalist account of the person. Humans are not hybrids of matter and something else, they are purely physical organisms” (69)

She is quick to make clear that she is not claiming we are “nothing but” brain processes. Because the soul has been used to explain human rationality, morality and religion some say if there is no soul then humans are not rational, moral or religious. What we thought was morality, rationality and religion are nothing but brain processes.

Murphy wants to develop a different position.
The nonreductive physicalist says instead that if there is no soul then
these higher human capacities must be explained in a different manner. In part they are explainable as brain functions, but their full explanation requires attention to human social relations, to cultural factors, and, most importantly, to our relationship with God.

So take a particular human event- my writing this sentence, for example. Is what is going on in my brain right now an adequate explanation? Clearly not. Part of the explanation is the fact that I care about sharing my ideas with my readers. Why do I care about writing this book and doing it well? Part of the answer is that I recognized some years ago that I had a call from God to use my philosophical education for the
sake of the church. So a complete explanation involves interactions with
other people and the action of God in my life. (p 70)


It seems to me this is a difficult idea for westerners perhaps especially Americans who pride ourselves on individualism.

We know we are shaped by our family and cultures. But most of us harbor an idea that as individuals we can, if needed, overcome those forces. We all love a success story of someone thriving in spite of a dysfunctional family or overcoming social barriers. Of course those stories exist, but we often neglect to account for other cultural and relational forces which helped the person succeed. We love the "rugged individualist", the "self made man", the "I did it my way" stories.

But if Murphy is right, none of us are quite the individual entity we think we are. Non reductive physicalism, in addition to inviting us to reassess what it means to be an individual human, may also cause us to rethink what it means to be a human in community.

How might that change the way we read Scripture? How might that change the way we are the church?

***
I'm at the Princeton Conference on Emerging Adults this weekend and likely won't check for comments too frequently... but I will check eventually. Thanks for your patience. If you're at the conference, look me up and we can chat.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, November 7, 2010, the Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)


Haggai 1:15b-2:9
vs. 15b-1 Is there anything significant about this setting in time? I think “the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai” is an interesting construction, a little different than the usual construction “the word of the LORD came to . . . “

v. 2 Who are these people and what are is their significance? Who would be their equivalents today?

v. 3 Is this a rhetorical question? What is the “this house” being referred to?

v. 4 What is the opposite of courage?

v. 5 This verse reminds me of the Magnificat well as line 66 of the PC(USA) Brief Statement of Faith

vs. 6-7 The shaking of the foundations? Is this a reference to something more than an earthquake?

v.8 Red this verse just before collecting the day’s offering.

v. 9 Is this prophecy or a creative anachronism?

Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21
v. 3 This verse could be incorporated into a call to worship.

v. 4 Generation to generation, the essence of religious nurture

v. 5 How many people in the pews, the classroom and in Bible Studies are familiar with, and comfortable with, “meditation” in the Judeo-Christian tradition?

v. 19 How shall we interpret “fear”? Is there any relation between this verse and Haggai 2:4?

v. 20 Really? When and how?

v. 21 Another verse appropriate for use as a call to worship.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
v. 1 An eschatological passage perhaps with thematic ties to the day’s Gospel Reading.

v. 2 So someone writing and sending troubling pseudonymous letters?

v. 3 Why would anyone be deceptive about such things? Was this deception intentional?

v. 4 Who is being subject of this verse?

v. 5 A rhetorical question? I would love to have been there to hear what was told them prior to this letter.

v. 13 What does it mean to be chosen as “the first fruits”?

v. 14 When was the last time someone called through YOUR proclamation?

v. 15 What “traditions” does the author have in mind? Note that these traditions were taught in two ways, word of mouth (preaching? teaching?), and letter (correspondence). As Reformed Christians who tend to emphasize “sola scriptura”, how do we reconcile this verse with other theological affirmations such as the Wesleyan Quadlitatteral?

vs. 16-17 A nice blessing/benediction. How does it follow from what precedes it?

Luke 20:27-38
v. 27 When I was a young child I was taught to remember the difference between Sadducees and Pharisees by recalling that Pharisees at least entertained the possibility of a resurrection, while Sadducees did not. That was why the latter were sad, you see.

v. 28 Were these Sadducees interested in theological conversation, or in trapping Jesus? Is their question not something like “Have you quit beating your spouse?” or “Can God create a rock so heavy that God can not lift it?”

vs. 34-35 Does the reference to “to this age” place this passage in the genre of apocalypticism and/or eschatology? How was this verse interpreted and applied by communal religious societies in early America, such as the Shakers and the Oneida Community?

v. 37 How do we deal with “the dead ARE raised” rather than ”WILL be raised”?

v. 38 Can the dead be alive to God while still dead to us? How has and does this reading inform and influence our doctrine of the resurrection?

ADDENDUM
A week and a half prior to this Sunday, I asked three people at a Bible Study to write down a question they have about the resurrection. Here are their questions”

Are there any other religions that have a resurrection theme?

Why did Jesus bother with being born, his life, ministry, resurrection, etc. since he was God anyway?

After the resurrection – or when someone dies – does the spirit go straight to heaven?

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Hope After All

When I arrived in Fayetteville NC this weekend, I quickly assumed my role as a roadie for my favorite band Third Day. These guys know just how to put on a show, creating a church service complete with Max Lucado as the worship leader. The early part of the day was spent setting up, particularly the band’s merchandise. We finished in time to break for dinner before returning at 6 p.m. to finalize any last minute details, catch the show, then pack up after and head home. This was a great experience to get in on the behind-the-scenes activity of a major Christian rock group, especially one that seems to stay at the top of the charts. But all of this did not even provide the highlight of the event for me.

To my astonishment, there were so many teenagers and parents mingling with the crowd, enjoying the sounds, very loud sounds, of the bands before the main attraction. And get this; they did not even have earphones hanging from their ears, reminiscent of scenes I have encountered where this particular group is wondering, clueless to their surroundings. These teens were actually interacting with their surroundings, and even their parents. It was a great environment to be in, feeling the spirit take hold in a concert hall. This was the main attraction for me, to see this group interact, participate, engage and enjoy. This particular scene was comforting to me, one that gave me hope that all was not lost on this age group quickly approaching adulthood.

One other small event took place that also seemed to stand out for me. This particular situation presented itself when all of the volunteers scheduled to help with the event did not make it. We had extra tickets that were given to us in order to provide all volunteers with access to the show. When we discovered the extras, I quickly went to the ticket window where I found a young couple ready to spend a lot of money to see their favorite bands. I made my way over to them and offered them the two tickets. They looked at me very strangely, as if the “concert police” were looming around the corner waiting to pounce. When I finally convinced them of the situation, they graciously accepted and entered the coliseum. Fortunately, their seats where in our section, and they enjoyed the show with our group.

These contemporary Christian concerts are the most rewarding and rejuvenating events I can ever attend. I plan to attend them when situations and finances allow, taking in the great music, the great company, and the Holy Spirit as they all play a part in making these shows such joyous events. But the most joyous part of the event for me is that the youth and parents who attend these shows are so involved that it gives me “hope after all.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, October 31, 2010, the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)


Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
1:1 Is “oracle” technical term? Notice Habakkuk “saw” the oracle rather than “hearing” or “receiving”.

1:2 How many times have we felt like Habakkuk?

2:1 Was Habakkuk really a guard/watchman, or is he simply employing figurative language? Does “he” refer to the LORD?

2:2 Now we have a “vision” rather than an “oracle”.

4: 4 This verse preaches. Who were the proud and who were the righteous of Habakkuk’s day? In our day?

Psalm 119:137-144
v. 137 Was this verse and its ability to comment on Habakkuk 1:4 and 2:4 the reason why this Psalm appears today? Note all the following synonyms for “judgements”.

v. 139 How does zeal consume?

v. 144 Understanding = life?


2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
v. 1 So who is the real author of this letter?

v. 2 Classic Christian salutation, which combines Hebrew and Greek elements.

v. 3 Butter them up.

v. 4 What have been their persecutions and afflictions?

v. 11 How does God make us worthy of his call?

Luke 19:1-10
v. 3 Is there a difference between trying to see Jesus and trying to see who Jesus was?

v. 5 How did Jesus know his name?

v. 6 Should we read more into “he was happy to welcome him” than first meets the eye?

v. 8 What motivates Zacchaeus?

v. 9 Realized eschatology? Could “house” also mean “household”or “family”?

v. 10 Does this assume Zacchaeus was a Jew? What if he had not been?

v. 11 How do most people in the pews or classroom hear “Son of Man”?

ADDENDUM
Happy All Hallows Eve.  How many of you will be wroshiping again tomorrow to observe All Saints Day?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Moving Forward, without Moving Forward

There are times and places in our lives when we are faced with very difficult, gut-wrenching decisions. We are forced into making what seem to be life changing choices that change the direction of our lives. These decisions can create havoc in what seems to be a very sane and peaceful existence in our nice, comfortable world. It’s funny how we are so intensely focused on this one huge decision when we are confronted with so many others that can be just as important and crucial. We tend to overlook those decisions that we would rather not make, and put more emphasis on those that are easy to solve with a quick and easy fix.

I believe God is testing our faith with both the small and life changing options. In an effort to explain this particular test of faith, God puts all of the options in front of us for all of the painstaking questions that we need to resolve. He then gives us all of the advice we could ever search out in His Word. After giving us everything we need, He watches as we stumble blindly into the situation, trying to fix the problem with our own wisdom, our own knowledge. Why do we attempt to solve the world’s problems, using our diminished supply of knowledge, counting on the world’s population to back us up each and every time? We are just a bit conceited, a bit boastful maybe. This is where God would say to us that it’s time to look to His book to find what we are all searching for.

A good example of this is the book of Proverbs. In this collection of wise advice, we can find wisdom that would cover just about any situation or condition we would ever find ourselves in. Pair this with the book of Psalms, and you have a best seller. There’s nothing we could ever be confronted with that is not discussed or mentioned within the pages of these two biblical segments. It’s always the stumbling we do that amuses our great God, tripping over the very knowledge and wisdom He has so graciously provided, looking so dumbfounded all the way. This is the very thing that keeps us from moving forward. God provides us with the destiny, and the means to get there, yet we stumble and fall along the way as we try to get there by our own means, following our own route. In my personal life, I often rely on my own simple ways and move forward before realizing God has other ideas about where I need to move. The contemporary Christian music group Third Day has a new album out simply titled “Move.” The songs on this CD are all very inspiring and very insightful. In the song “What Have You Got To Lose” the words of the song call out to those who are trusting their own ability to choose, begging them to “let go of all you know, only then can life be found.”

When will we learn that we just need to give God the chance, getting out of His way, and allow Him to lead us to His kingdom? Only then will we really move forward, giving God the glory during our move.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Gratuitous

In lieu of a Member Blog Meet and Greet today, here's a shot of my eldest singing in church this morning. (Front row on left, green dress)



Alleluia, indeed!

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Tough Decisions: We Don't Always Have Clear Cut Answers

Often times in our Christian journeys we are faced with decisions for which we long to find some clear cut answer in our understanding of Scripture. Sometimes that clear cut answer is there. Many times, it is not.

A personal example: after my father died, it fell to me to be the full-time caregiver for my mother. At the time she was approaching 80 years of age and suffered from a number of ailments typical of folks that age. After about 7 years, one night she became disoriented, but not in pain, and when she'd speak, it would come out as jibberish. A few days after she'd been admitted to the hospital it seemed she was simply not getting any better (among other things, her kidneys had failed). It was at that point that our doctor, a good friend and man of deep Christian commitments, came to me and presented me with a decision: either we could pursue aggressive medical treatment, which would not cure Mom but simply, and possibly, extend her physical life for a little while, and which would take a significant physical/emotional toll on her, or we could simply make her comfortable as possible and let "nature take its course," as they say.

Making that decision took some time and prayer. My Christian faith told me that human life, being created in the image of God, was of infinite value and worth, that it was sacred. On the other hand, death is a part of life and my Christian faith informed my view of death as well. Should I pray for a miracle? After all, I really didn't want her to die; I wanted her around. Should I pray that God would miraculously heal her, do what medical science could not do? Or should I pray for her to have a good death? Should I pray that God would grant to her a smooth entrance into eternity?

While the core essence of our Christian faith is clear and certain (reflected in those earliest creeds and confessions of the Church), much of our journey is not so clear and certain. We need the gift of discernment. We need the leading, the guiding of the Holy Spirit as we genuinely wrestle with those difficult decisions, such as the one I faced with my mom, such as the ones which face many of us eventually. We need prayer.

In the case of my mother, my prayer initially was for wisdom, for guidance. Eventually, after a lot of prayer and thinking and talking with others, my prayer became that God would grant to her comfort in her last hours and grant her a smooth entrance into eternity.

Point is, in a lot of situations there are no rules to follow, no clear cut guidelines telling us what is "the" Christian thing to do. We allow our understanding of God, our understanding of Scripture to inform our decision making and we pray for wisdom and guidance, for the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, October 24, 2010, the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)

Posted each Thursday, Lectionary Ruminations focuses on the Scripture Readings, taken from the New Revised Standard Version, for the following Sunday per the Revised Common Lectionary. Comments and questions are intended to encourage reflection for readers preparing to teach, preach, or hear the Word. Reader comments are invited and encouraged. All lectionary links are to the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Bible via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead. (Other references are linked to the NRSV via the oremus Bible Browser.)


Joel 2:23-32
v. 23 After several weeks of lamentation, doom and gloom, it is refreshing to hear something rejoicing over.

v. 24 It often seems that the land and its produce are the best indications of Israel’s spiritual and religious health.

v. 26 How shall we read and interpret the promise “my people shall never again be put to shame” in light of the holocaust?

v. 28 In verse 23 we are told that God has poured down abundant rain. In this verse, God talks about pouring out my spirit. What is the connection, if any, between rain and spirit? What is the significance of “all” flesh? What is the significance that both sons and daughters shall prophesy? What is the connection between the “sons” and “daughters” of this verse with the “children of Zion” in verse 23? Is there any difference between “dreams” and “visions”. Why are both “old men” and “young men” mentioned but there is no similar mention of young women and old women?

v. 29 Both male and female are mentioned in this verse, but does the emphasis fall on the fact that the spirit is inclusive of both sexes, or that “slaves” are included? “In those days” sounds like an apocalyptic formulaic saying.

v. 30 More apocalyptic language

v. 31 What is the danger of interpreting this and the preceding verse literally? How can a day be both “great” and “terrible”?

v. 32 Note “everyone”. Might this “everyone” include others not children of Zion? Why “in” and not “on” Mount Zion? When and where has “the LORD said”? Who else will be “among the survivors” in addition to “those whom the LORD calls”? Can Reformed Christians refer to this verse to defend the Reformed doctrine of election?

Psalm 65:1-13
v. 1 Unlike Joel 2:32, there is no “Mountain” here so “in” seems to make sense.

v. 2 Note “all” flesh, an echo of Joel 2:28.

v. 3 I like that this is in the conversational direct address and present tense.

v. 4 Note that God chooses.

v. 5 What are these “awesome deeds”? I think “ends of the earth” and “farthest seas” is nice poetic imagery.

v. 7 Why is the “roaring of the ocean” and “waves” paired and equated with “the tumultof the peoples”?

v. 8What are the ‘gateways of the morning and the evening”?

v. 9 What is “the river” of God? Is the agricultural imagery a little overpowering for an urban context?

v. 11 God has a wagon?

v. 13 If only Presbyterians could learn to shout and sing like the meadows and valleys!

2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
v. 6 How many people know what a “libation” is? It sounds as though Paul is preparing for, looking forward to, even anticipating his death.

v. 7 Sports imagery from the Olympic style games.

v. 8 What is a “crown of righteousness”? On this day the “that day” echoes the “those days” of Joel 2:28.

v. 16 Does the reference to “first” defense suggest that there was more than one defense? What “defense” is being referred to? Whom might Paul have expected to come to his support?

v. 17 With the “Lord” standing by one’s side, who needs any other support? What is the “message” being referred to? How did Eugene Peterson translate this verse? Is “lion’s mouth” a literal or a figurative reference?

v. 18 A well known acclamation of praise ends the Reading.

Luke 18:9-14
v. 9 Who might those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” have been? I am glad Jesus was talking to them and not to us!

v. 10 Remember, this is a parable. What sort of parabolic situation is setting up with the inclusion of a Pharisee and a tax collector as the two main characters?

v. 11 At least this was a sincere prayer. Maybe sometimes sincerity is not all it is made out to be.

v. 13 What is the symbolism of beating one’s breast”. The tax collector’s prayer echoes the prayer of the ten lepers from two weeks ago in Luke 17:13. Once again, as I did in relation to Luke 17:13, I draw your attention to The Jesus Prayer of Hesychiasm and the Philokelia.

v. 14 A typical parabolic reversal.

ADDENDUM
When I am not posting Lectionary Ruminations on Presbyterian Bloggers I am posting about a variety of topics, especially kayaking and other mostly outdoor related topics, at Summit to Shore.