Saturday, October 31, 2009

Sunday Lectionary Devotion: Mark 12:28-34 Getting It

Mark 12: 33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices."

I remember the first time I ever rode a bike without using the stabilizers, which we called “training wheels” in Scotland. It didn't go very well.  The bike shoogled and vibrated, making me so anxious and fearful that I kept my head down and concentrated on watching the front wheel. This was a big mistake because the more that I watched the wheel, the crazier, bumpier and unsteadier the bike became. Eventually I fell over, scraped my knees, and didn't want to get back on the saddle again.

Then my Dad told me that the secret to riding a bike was to look up and look ahead. He promised that if I did that, then it would be a lot easier. So, instead of concentrating on the bike, I focused on the road ahead, and, as I watched the street, the steadier my bike became. By changing my perspective, I suddenly discovered that I could freely ride the bike. I was no longer shackled to my fears of falling and failing. Instead, my confidence grew as I understood what was truly required to ride my bike.

A similar revelation occurred with the teacher of the law who was listening to Jesus talk about loving God and our neighbors. The lawyer ‘got it’ immediately because he understood how to apply it in his religious life. If people truly loved God and their neighbors, then there would be no need for sacrifices and burnt offerings, because true love would keep God’s people free from hurting, disappointing, and wounding others. They would also be free from the fear of falling and failing, of angering and offending God.

Christ’s sacrifice was more than sufficient to restore us to God, and it has given more reason for us to love Him now than ever before. We don't need to make sacrifices or burnt offerings when we make mistakes. So long as we are willing to be contrite, to show repentance and seek God’s forgiveness, we can look up and look ahead to a brighter and better future, to an everlasting and immortal life.

Prayer:                        Lord Jesus, help us to love God with all of our strength, heart, mind and soul. Enable us to love our neighbors, to help them in times of trouble and to seek their goodwill. Grant us the courage and confidence to live our lives faithfully, without the fear of failing, without the dread of falling. In Your Holy Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He also writes the devotional blog Heaven's Highway.

Today's image is taken from John's current Fall Art exhibition at the Bear Creek Coffee House in Knoxville, Tennessee. It is called "Mountain Stream." 

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thursday Read and Learn: About Manuals

Whether termed "session manuals", "manuals of operations" or "policies and procedures manuals", many churches put together a document that is meant to collect all the information about the way the church does its ministry. I just finished revising a lengthy manual like this for my (very large) Presbyterian church in Houston.

One of the goals of the revision was to create a standard format for describing the ministry areas and committees that have been created by the session. Before the revision, each group wrote their own description which made it difficult to find information. Some wrote succinct entries and others included lengthy descriptions of their programs, goals and objectives. Having a standard format will make it easier to update these descriptions in the future when the ministry or committee may change its membership or responsibilities.

After much discussion, the small group that worked on our revision decided not to include descriptions of programs and to list members of committees by title or role (i.e. Executive Pastor, Elder for Pastoral Care, lay member, etc) instead of by name.

We also discovered a hoard of guidelines for different administrative areas of the church and handbooks for employees and parents for different programs. Deciding that it was important to have all of this material in one place, we included it in the master document. A "reader's digest" version will be posted on the web that will have links to most of these documents so anyone can find them.

Does your church have a manual like this? Does anyone use it or is it left to gather dust in a drawer?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on November 1, 2009

Here are the passages for November 1st, 2009, All Saints Day.  Because All Saints Day happens to fall on a Sunday this year, at least some churches will probably use these instead of the readings for the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B).  In order to try to cover all the options, I'll include those readings below (this will be a long entry!). All lectionary links are to the NRSV 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 25:6-9
  • OK, I actually feel stupid for asking this question, but when the text says "on this mountain," what mountain is it talking about?  The immediate context of the passage doesn't help me any, and although I'm sure I could consult a commentary (and probably will for my own benefit), I prefer not to do so too much for these reflections.  I'd rather encourage discussion....
  • Quite a lot of this passage reads like heavenly promises to me.  How would the original audience of this passage have heard it?  Pretty much the same, or would they have understood differences or nuances that might be enlightening to us?
Psalm 24:1-10

Revelation 21:1-6a
  • So much of our heavenly hope is beyond our imagining, that I find it difficult to properly probe for more information, even while wanting to know more.  What would it be like living in the holy city?  What would we do with all that "time" (that doesn't seem like the right word to describe eternity)?  I know some people have expressed concern about boredom, and while I'm quick to mentally assert that this will not be so, I find I have little evidence to counter such a concern.  What can we expect from this "new heaven and new earth" that we should want to spend eternity there?
John 11:32-44
  • This is arguably one of Jesus' most famous miracles: raising Lazarus from the dead (although we're really only getting the tail end of it all.  Here's a more complete accounting).  Why does Jesus demonstrate so much grief at Lazarus' passing?  Surely he knew what he was about to do, or at the very least, that he could do it!  What do you think?  Did Jesus arrive expecting to raise Lazarus?  If so, why all the grief?  If not, why did he tell the disciples that he was going to wake him up (even while knowing--and telling the disciples--that Lazarus was dead).
  • Martha famously complains that there would be a stench because Lazarus has been dead for so long.  Do you think that the stench was still present after the stone was moved and Lazarus walked out?  After all, either Lazarus was dead for all that time, or he's been alive and conscious for that whole period (four days!) in a dark cave with no food or water.
  • What is the significance of Jesus' prayer?  Do you think he usually prayed silently (since he's making such a show here of praying for the benefit of others)?  Do you wonder if he perhaps prayed additional words that were not recorded here for us, but may now be lost to history? 
  • What kind of life do you think Lazarus lived after this story?  Was there any "recovery" period that he had to go through after being dead?  Any signs that he had previously been dead?  Did Lazarus become a celebrity in Jesus' circles?  Or was he perhaps persecuted by others because of the stories that inevitably surrounded him?

And now, here are the readings for the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B).

Ruth 1:1-18
  • There’s a lot of talk in this story about the women needing to go find husbands to remarry.  While this may sound a bit unusual, or even offensive to some of our more independent sensibilities of today, it should be remembered that, until relatively recently in human history, unmarried women had virtually no way of surviving economically in the world.  This is one reason why, when telling believers to take care of the poor, widows are so often singled out.  
  • Speaking of the need for Orpah and Ruth to remarry, I have to admit that I found Naomi’s speech in the middle of this passage rather odd.  This is where Naomi disputes the possibility that she might have sons who could grow up to become husbands for her existing daughters-in-law. Even granting that women tended to marry at a very young age (by our standards) back in Naomi’s time, but assuming that they were married for at least some time before their husbands died, these women would still be a couple of decades older than any son Naomi could have, and while growing up, they’d essentially be living as siblings within the same family.  Is there any culture today where it would be considered okay to marry your much younger step-brother?  I mean, if this did happen, they’d be roughly in their forties by the time these hypothetical sons were of marrying age!  Certainly old enough to have been these boys mother themselves!  I know it's likely some of my own cultural conditioning that makes me feel somewhat repelled by this notion, so I'm really curious if this actually considered acceptable elsewhere.
  • A lot of people have talked about Ruth’s amazing devotion to Naomi, and her words to Naomi in verse 16 have been quoted often.  But I’d like to take a step back and recognize the other widow, Orpah, who at the beginning of this story, is initially just as eager as Ruth to stay with Naomi.  Although the story quickly focuses on Ruth as the protagonist, no condemnation is ever given against Orpah for finally acceding to Naomi’s wishes and returning to her own people.  In fact, Orpah does what any widowed young woman would be expected to do in her time if she wanted any chance of future economic security by going to be with her birth family and probably to look for another husband while she was still young enough to have children.  Do we give enough attention to Orpah's situation when we think about this story?
  • By any rational standard, Ruth acts impulsively and foolishly in her devotion to Naomi.  It is only because Ruth’s story is recorded here in the Bible (admittedly, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself, since we haven't read the end of that story yet), and we have some idea of the positive outcome, that we have any business saying that Ruth made the correct choice.  Is it appropriate to encourage "Christian risk-taking" on the basis of a story like this?  Is there some kind of "proper" attention we should be paying to the potential downsides of taking risks?
Psalm 146:1-10

Hebrews 9:11-14
  • This is one of those short passages that I can’t say too much about without getting into a sermon of my own, and I’d rather leave that for readers to work out.  But it’s worth nothing that yet again the author of Hebrews is talking about how Christ’s sacrifice of his own self is superior to the animal sacrifices that had been common at the time.  We are so far removed from the concept of animal sacrifices today that such a concept seems abhorrent and disgusting to us, and it's difficult to fully appreciate the author’s argument of how much better Christ’s sacrifice was because we are pretty much ready to agree that almost anything would be better than killing animals to compensate for our sinful behaviors, but understanding the importance of animal sacrifice to the people of the first century (or, perhaps more importantly, to Jewish believers throughout pre-Christian history) is clearly central to understanding the book of Hebrews.
Mark 12:28-34
  • It's perhaps worth noting, since the reading itself fails to spell this out, that this conversation takes place just after Jesus had been having a debate with the Sadducees.
  • I've commented before that the people who put together the lectionary often look for passages that can reinforce common themes found in the Bible (although this doesn't happen as often, nor as obviously, as I myself would like).  I'm sure it's no accident that this brief passage of Mark mentions the inadequacy of animal sacrifices in the same week we're given the reading from Hebrews.
  • Jesus' answer to the question of the greatest commandment comes from Deuteronomy 6:4-5.  These verses are what the Jewish people call the shema, a word which comes from the first Hebrew word of the Deuteronomy passage.  The shema is the central passage of Judaism, and is used daily as part of a devout Jewish believer's worship.  The shema proclaims Judiasm's difference from all the other religions of the world by proclaiming that God is one God.  This was especially important in a context where most of the other religions of the world were polytheistic.   The shema also proclaims the importance of devotion to the one true God.  By citing this passage as the greatest commandment, Jesus proclaims his solidarity with Judaism.  He then adds another clause, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  This is also found in the original Hebrew Scriptures, in Leviticus 19:18.
  • When the teacher of the law affirms Jesus' answer, Jesus affirms the teacher right back.  Although the text doesn't make this explicit, I can't help but think that there's more going on here than at first glance.  Why would no one dare to ask him any more questions after this?  What is it about this interchange that creates this sense of finality?

Monday, October 26, 2009

I'm Back!

It's amazing how debilitating an unreliable internet connection can be. But enough of that.

A few weeks ago we met Rev. Clyde Griffith, pastor at The Connecting Place, through his blog Sez the Rev: Comments by the Pastor of The Connecting Place: a center of faith in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, USA, for Living Abundantly.

Today we have a new blog from Rev. Griffith, Connecting With The Faith: Sermons from The Connecting Place: Christ Presbyterian Church, a center of faith in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, USA.

"Here is where sermons are posted -- as heard by worshipers at The Connecting Place: Christ Presbyterian Church (a center of faith for abundant living) in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania -- a close-in suburb of Philadelphia. We see our church as The Connecting Place -- hoping to connect with folks who are tired of "bowling alone" and now seek more connection in their lives. Here folks connect with one another, connect with the world around them, and connect with God. By intention, all who seek to connect with a community of faith are welcome here. Our services are traditional in underlying design but progressive in content. Sacred texts are read in easy to understand translations. Congregational singing enhances the message of the day. Language descriptive of the Deity is carefully chosen to avoid anthropomorphization and ascribing gender. The sermons are designed and crafted to bring God's Word to bear on identified felt needs and are informed by the latest scholarship being published by The Jesus Seminar and others who seek to uncover the essence of the texts that have been passed on to us. The Reverend Clyde Griffith serves as minister."

Recent sermons include: Surviving Hard Times When Feeling Stressed, Connecting With A Crowd of Witnesses, and Surviving Hard Times When Health Changes.


Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Call to Stop Using the 'H' Word

I think that its time for people on either side of the gay debate to stop using the “H” word. It’s very easy for some people to intolerantly call other ‘homophobes’ as a means to diminish their views, make them feel guilty, and silence their opinions.

It’s used in the same intolerant and bigoted way that the ‘n’ word was expressed to subdue a whole race of people, to make them feel inferior, and to silence their protests.

‘Homophobe’ is used to destroy dialogue and people in just the same way that ‘fag’ and ‘queer’ have been expressed to label people with different lifestyles and ideas. Those words should also be eliminated in the interests of having a constructive dialogue.

I have been called a ‘Homophobe’ because I am not convinced about the ordination of actively gay people. I struggle with that issue on theological and biblical grounds, and not because I fear homosexuals. In fact, I very dearly love my younger brother and also one of my nephews in Scotland. Both of them are gay.

I have also sat, prayed, and held hands with gay men who were dying of HIV-AIDS.

I have annually supported WORLD AIDS DAY each year for many years and have been deeply moved by testimonies of gay Christian people.

I have done all this and yet when I express my struggle over gay ordination, I am labeled, quite unfairly and bigotedly, as a homophobe.

If we are going to get anywhere in this dialogue, then we all need to stop using the ‘H’ word.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Read and Learn -- What are you looking for?

Yesterday, a member blogger, Carol Howard Merritt at Tribal Church wrote about books that the religious publishing industry isn't publishing that she thinks they need to. Here is one paragraph from her post:

And so, I make my plea to my progressive publishing friends. Don’t dismiss those books that are for regular people. As pastors, we need to be able to hand a good book to intelligent parishioners who just might be starting out with this whole church thing. I also get requests for daily devotional books, marriage books, basic Bible books, finance books from a Christian perspectice—as progressives, we have things to say about ordinary life, and the people in the pews are really wanting to hear it.
So, I will rephrase her closing question. What books do you wish existed?


Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on October 25. 2009

Here are the passages for October 25th, 2009, the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). All lectionary links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
  • We've finally gotten to the end of the book of Job, and if ever a story in the Bible seemed to end with the words “and they lived happily ever after,” this would seem to be it. But we're never really told why Job's wealth was restored to him by God. Is it because Job repented of ever having doubted God's goodness? If that's the case, why should Job, who certainly never doubted it before all this started, have had to go through these sufferings in the first place? Indeed, the book just glosses over the fact that Job's children from the beginning of the story are still dead. It's not like Job's new children are replacements for Job's original children. Or are they?  That is to say, for the purpose of the story, are we actually intended to see the "new" children as essentially replacements for the "old" ones?
  • In fact, I'm left wondering what message we're supposed to learn from having read this book. Are we to learn that we should have faith in God, no matter what happens to us? Should we take comfort from Job's story, acknowledging that bad things happen to good people? Looking just at the book of Job on its own, are we left to see God as arbitrary, visiting good and bad on people as God sees fit? 
  • I also wonder if, perhaps, some important part of the story of Job is obscured by the fact that we've missed large parts of the book, not covered by the lectionary.
Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22)
  • The Revised Common Lectionary allows churches the option of reading--or not reading--the verses in parentheses.
Hebrews 7:23-28
  • Although I don't want to belabor the issue of Jesus as high priest (and, indeed, David Scholer's lecture on this subject is quite extensive), it is clearly one of the main themes of the book of Hebrews, and so we need to spend some time unpacking it, in order to understand what the author is writing about.  This is especially important in Christian denominations which do not continue to have a priestly office, but even denominations that do have priests, such as the Episcopal church, are thousands of years removed from the culture in which the author of Hebrews is writing, and we have somewhat different ideas of what a priest does today than what a Jewish priest did back in the first century. 
  • In particular, the author of Hebrews has a lot to say about the notion of sacrifice.  A priest was said to stand in for the whole people, and to make sacrifices on their behalf.  It is at this point in particular that the author's notion of Jesus as a priest becomes most significant.  Whatever Jesus did on the cross, he did as a sacrifice for the people of God, and the author of Hebrews is quick to point out that this one sacrifice was for all time, forever altering the notion of what earthly priests are to do for God's people.  This is why some denominations don't have priests any more, but the author of Hebrews may not necessarily be suggesting that the role of priest be forever abolished.  The emphasis here is that priests no longer need to make sacrifices on behalf of God's people, because this has already been done for us, in a far more perfect and permanent way, through Jesus Christ.  We'll see even more about this concept in next week's reading.
Mark 10:46-52
  • One of the things about Jesus that made him famous among first century Jews was that he performed several miraculous healings, as related in stories throughout the gospels.  Some people sought Jesus from far away, while others were practically in Jesus' path as he and his disciples traveled.  Several are like Bartimaeus who, when learning that Jesus was nearby, took advantage of the opportunity, and would not be kept from approaching Jesus merely because others disapproved of the scene they were making when they cried out for help.  I don't often hear this expressed in public readings of the Biblical text, but there's no question that, if we were to see this story playing out, it would be filled with lots of dramatic action.  People are pushing into each other left and right following Jesus in a large crowd, when a man shouts out from the distance.  He's a blind man, dirty from begging on the streets for who knows how long.  Then, as today, people tend to want to keep their distance from such people, and ignore them when they try to make their presence known.
  • For those of us who know the story well, it is no longer a surprise that Jesus stops to pay attention to Bartimaeus' pleas for help.  But how often do we find ourselves in this kind of situation today, and do nothing?
  • I find an interesting pattern in these stories of healing.  Although it is certainly perceived by the other people in the stories, and also by Christians today, that Jesus in particular was a healer, Jesus never seems to say “I am healing you,” but rather he generally says something along the lines of “your faith has healed you,” or perhaps "your sins are forgiven."  It is the person's faith and/or the forgiveness of sins, and not so much Jesus himself, that is said to be the active agent in the healing.  I'll be the first to admit to skepticism of many of the “faith healers” that often make the news today, but perhaps we can learn something from Jesus' attitude in these stories. 

Monday, October 19, 2009

The First Shall Be Last

[Fair warning that grand sarcasm follows... ]

"The First Shall be Last..."  That's not fair!  Why do the first have to be last!?  Just because they have wealthy parents who take care of them and raised them to believe they were entitled to everything they wanted, why does that leave them cursed to be last in the Kingdom?

The Lark has a pointed headline story along these lines about some poor well-to-do children that are being mistreated by parents who are more interested in impoverished children around the world than they are in their own children! 

What's the world coming to that these innocent well-off kids can't even take a vacation to Hawaii because their parents are spending so much sponsoring poor children that wouldn't even appreciate Hawaii if they got to go.  I'm not sure that's the justice that Jesus had in mind.

Nothing to see, here

I'm having annoying internet access problems. So we'll have to reconvene for our Member Blog Meet and Greet next Monday. Until then!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sunday Lectionary Devotions: Psalm 104 Pitching Tents

Psalm 104:2 He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent. (NIV)

I learned how to pitch a tent with my Scout troop at a camp in Scotland called Auchengillan. Our scout patrol was full of tenderfoots like myself who knew practically nothing about camping, but we watched the older scouts put up their tents and tried to copy them.

The tents were nothing like the light nylon ones that we have today. They were made of old heavy canvas and we used thick ropes with wooden spars to set them up. It took most of the morning to construct the tent, but once it was up, our rookie patrol was thrilled. The older scouts, however, were not impressed and later that night we discovered why.

Firstly, we had chosen the roughest piece of ground to pitch the tent. This meant that no matter where we positioned our sleeping bags, the hard contours of the ground dug deeply and painfully into our backs. Secondly, it began to rain in the middle of the night, causing the canvas and ropes to shrink. Eventually, our tent collapsed, so we had to re-pitch it during the darkest, coldest and wettest part of the night. By the time morning came, we were absolutely worn out.

After breakfast, the older scouts helped us re-pitch our tent properly. They found smoother ground and showed us how to storm-rig the ropes. When it rained the following night, we didn’t even notice. Our patrol was sound asleep because our tent was comfortable and secure.

I like the old passages about tents in the Bible. They remind me that the people of God were once nomads, wandering the wilderness and camping in different places. But no matter where they went, they believed that they were secure under the canopy that God had pitched in the sky. I guess their simplistic view of the world was not scientific, but it did offer them comfort and strength, faith and hope that God was watching over them.

Perhaps God doesn’t pitch His tent in the sky any longer, but He does place His presence in our hearts and minds. And whatever the rough passages in our lives or the storms that we endure, His promises keep us secure and His love continues to strengthen our spirits.

Prayer: Lord God, build Your tent in our hearts and pitch Your canopy in our spirits. Grant us sufficient strength for our daily tasks, and restful sleep during the night. May we always know of Your abiding love and holy presence each moment of our days. In Jesus’ Name, we pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. He writes the Presbyterian devotional blog “Heaven’s Highway.”

Today's image is taken from John's Fall Series Drawings, which are on exhibit in Knoxville. It is called "Autumn Wall"

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Read and Learn -- Web Sites and Visitors -- Pt. 2

Last week I wrote about visiting a Presbyterian church in another city with nothing to go on but the website. In the comments several of you suggested that I should email the senior pastor with my observations. That had already occurred to me, I just hadn't done it yet -- hey, I was on vacation! Anyway, I sent him what I thought was a rather nice email giving him the link to the blog entry. That was Thursday of last week. No response, not a word, nada. I am assuming that he doesn't check the email address listed for him on his own church's website. Not good, folks.

When I got home from my trip last Saturday there was a letter waiting for me from the church I visited. It was mailed on Monday. The letter was very nice and clearly tailored for a visitor from out of town. It invited me to make them my home away from home. It was very well done, and it would have been very effective except for two things: 1. No one so much as made eye contact and smiled with me during coffee fellowship following the service; and 2. The senior pastor either doesn't check his email or doesn't respond to it.

What that very nice letter told me is that they do the automatable well. Produce the form letter, make somebody responsible for it; and it happens. The personal and spontaneous -- not so well.

Again, I am not trying to rag on this church. Mine is no better, and I doubt that most of our members' churches are either. I have forwarded my observations to my senior pastor, because I like learning from other people. So, here is the final lesson -- established, automated procedures are great. They can cement a good impression, but they can't make one. Any attempt to make your church more accessible has to include old fashioned smiles and interest on a personal level.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on October 18, 2009

Here are the passages for October 18th, 2009, the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). All lectionary links are to the NRSV 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.)

Job 38:1-7 (34-41)
  • The Revised Common Lectionary allows churches the option of reading--or not reading--the verses in parentheses.
  • To tell the truth, I find Job to be a very hard book to read.  I find it hard, not so much because of the intense suffering that Job goes through, but rather because of the image of God I’m left with after reading this passage.  It is impossible for me to read this text and think of God as saying anything other than “I can do what I want, because I’m God, and if you don’t like it, well then that’s just tough.”  This is a very different image of God than the caring Father that I see through much of my Christian experience.  Do you read this passage in a different way?  
  • How do you reconcile this image of God with the other, more sympathetic, images of God found elsewhere in Scripture?
Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35c

Hebrews 5:1-10
  • I mentioned the image of Jesus as high priest last week.  This week’s reading gives us a little more detail on what it is to be a high priest, and specifically how Jesus fits the role.  How does this image match up with your own experience of Jesus?
  • A couple of weeks ago, I commented on how the author of Hebrews used the Psalms to make certain points about Jesus.  This happens again in verses 5 and 6, which cite Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110:4 respectively.  We have the benefit of looking at these Old Testament passages from the perspective of the revelation of Jesus Christ.  The original audience of these texts, having lived hundreds of years before Jesus’ earthly ministry, did not have this perspective. How would they have understood these texts?  Take a look at those passages in the Psalms, with the other verses before and after them (the web site linked above makes this easy).  Would it be reasonable to expect someone living before the time of Jesus have read (or, more likely, heard) these passages as referring to a prophecy not yet fulfilled?  Or might it have meant something else to them entirely?
Mark 10:35-45
  • It’s hard to read this passage and not think of James and John as a couple of power-grabbers, ready to latch on to Jesus’ fame for their own purposes.  The other disciples seemed to feel this way, too, but let’s look at that for a moment.  Why would disciples of Jesus make such a request?  Do we do the same today, perhaps without even realizing it?
  • What do you make of Jesus’ response to James and John?  Rather than just saying “no,” he asks them a question.  Although the exact meaning of the question can be debated, we can generally understand that Jesus is asking if James and John will be able to handle sharing in Jesus’ suffering.  It seems as if Jesus is saying that that, if they can pass this test, he’ll grant their request.  But then, after James and John say that they will indeed be able to share in these sufferings, Jesus says that he can’t grant their request anyway.  Doesn’t that seem a little mean-spirited?  Why wouldn’t Jesus just have said “no, I can’t grant your request” in the first place, rather than asking if they can handle the sufferings?

Monday, October 12, 2009

I'm a good Christian... don't get so close.

I'm a hiring manager in an information systems development field, which means that I interview and hire quite a few folks, most of whom you wouldn't typically refer to as a "people person."  In fact, I don't consider myself much of a people person.  I avoid using the telephone as much as possible.  I use instant messaging at work more often than I get up and walk down the aisle to talk with someone.  Though my grammar and spelling are evidence to the contrary, I'm much more comfortable with the written word than with personal conversation.  In fact, I go so far as to tell potential employees that "I don't really like people."  Not something you want to hear from your potential boss.  It's a wonder anyone ever accepts an offer.

In my last job, the team I was part of was split 50/50 between two geographically dispersed sites.  It was two groups that were supposed to be actively merging and collaborating, and the obvious challenge was to figure out how these two groups could effectively share ideas and communicate decisions.  Technology worked wonders for those groups: conference calls, video conferencing, desktop sharing, instant messenger.  The only face time we ever had was once or twice a year, but we worked very effectively together.

Telling potential employees that I don't like people isn't entirely honest.  It's probably more honest the way that my wife and I talk about it.  I like the idea of people and I like having people around.  Interacting with them is what I don't like so much.  I'm not rude to people, I just don't necessarily want to have to deal with that kind of personal relationship development.

So, the post title begs the question: can I be a good Christian without really wanting to develop a lot of close, personal relationships with other people?  Am I not a good Christian because I can't remember the names of the kids of anyone who works for me... or with me... or for whom I work, for that matter?  I can still have a Christian sense of love for those people and care for them, can't I?

The Good Samaritan doesn't stick around to develop a personal relationship with the Jewish man.  In fact, he gets credit for his behavior because he was a stranger.  No where in the story does it say that these two guys became fast friends and starting having coffee every other Thursday.  Not that there aren't a lot of examples in the Bible that ask us to develop personal relationships with each other, but maybe some of us can still be good Christians without having to do so.


Erik Liljegren blogs about his process of discernment regarding whether or not to leave the PC(USA) for the CRC at On Wrestling with the PC(USA).

"I am creating this blog as I wrestle with my current denomination. I understand that I am in no way equal to the minds and faith of those who have written the standards by which I have once confessed. Here I wish to wrestle with the decision that seems to be at hand. I also hope that those who are reading this may help me in this process of discernment."

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sunday Devotions: Anxious Living

I was reading the other day that film director and actor Woody Allen cannot sleep at night because he suffers from an anxiety about death. He’s an atheist and he can’t come to terms with the fact that his death means the end of all his accomplishments. When asked about death, he says: “The trains all go to the same destination. They all go to the dump.”

I pity him because he’s such a talented and creative person, and you would think that such creativity would help him to see beyond himself. But he has chosen not to believe in God, so he walks around his apartment at night time fretting about death.

For me, faith is real wisdom because it gives us an understanding that we are not the center of everything and that there is a structure, order, and a plan for the universe. God’s creativity is all around me, so I can look at the Smokey Mountains and see His grandeur; I can listen to birdsong in the morning and hear God being praised; I can be in the company of good friends and Christian people and experience God’s presence. Life is good. Death may come, but life goes on eternally.

Proverbs 15: 24 The path of life leads upward for the wise to keep him from going down to the grave.  

The writer of Proverbs knew what he was expressing when he wrote today’s verse. Those who are faithfully wise go onward and upward in life; those who are foolishly miserable end up digging graves for themselves, or just get on board trains that are heading to the dump.

Prayer:                        Lord Jesus, thank You for the gift of eternal life and the hope of things to come. Thank You for sacrificing Yourself, so that we may live forever in the embracing love of God. Help us to help others discover this divine happiness. In Your Holy Name, we thankfully pray. Amen.

John Stuart is the pastor of Erin Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. If you would like to comment on today’s message, please send him an email to

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Read and Learn -- Web Sites and Visitors

I am pretty thoroughly churched. I have been a member of the same Presbyterian Church since I was baptized there as an infant -- and I'm no spring chicken. Usually when I am out of town I either don't go to church or I go somewhere on the spur of the moment and don't bother trying to scope it out in advance. For some reason this last weekend was different.

I knew I was going to be out of town on vacation. I told Google maps to search the area around my hotel for the word Presbyterian. I found a PCUSA church .2 miles from my hotel. I went to the web site -- pretty normal. I decided to go to Sunday service -- and then I started having questions.

I thought it might be interesting to post some of those questions here. The first question I had was what the church looked like. Since I was walking to it I wanted to make sure I would recognize it. There was not a single picture of the outside of the church on its website. There were some interior pictures, but not really of the church. There were pictures of events and people at events with a little of the church in the background. The sad thing is that this church is visually very impressive. Also, it is one of the few older churches I have been in that were renovated in the '50's without just screwing up the old stuff. I found a street level view on Google maps which showed me where I was going. In my opinion this chuch would be well served to discreetly put up pictures that do a little showing off.

Second, I checked the Sunday School class listing. Frankly, the class descriptions were written for people who already go there. Even as a long time member of an Adult Education Committee, I would have had a hard time deciding where I would be comfortable walking in.

The course descriptions were really irrelevant, however. This is a point that I am raising with my church's web mistress, by the way. If I had known exactly which class I wanted to attend, I couldn't have just shown up there. I couldn't have found it. They did include a room name for each course description -- but no map. Now, I challenge you to stand outside of a strange church and decide which door to enter to find Fellowship Hall or Pastor's Study. I realize a lot of people won't be comfortable putting a map on a web site. So, why not say something like, "Map showing location of classrooms available inside this door."

The Church's website very thoughtfully told me to expect a beautiful, traditional service at 10:45 -- and it was right. It also mentioned another service earlier that morning, but only by the name of the service. I haven't a clue what to expect if I showed up for that, and since I still don't have a clue, you can figure that nothing made me curious enough to want to find out.

Another problem that my Church shares is that the web site is static. The web site was built to last with few regular updates. Particularly for websites created in local software that have to be republished every time a change is made, this makes a lot of sense. In the days of web-hosted development software and collaberative web sites (think Joomla -- look it up), a static web site doesn't make as much sense anymore. During the service either the Pastor mentioned, or it was printed in the bulletin, that the Church has a Facebook page. Clearly, Facebook is going to be used to enable easy web activity. Except that you can't anonymously check out a Facebook page -- ok, you can; but not nearly as easily as you can scope out a web site.

Also, I got a very clear idea in my mind's eye from the church website and's congregational statistics that this was an aging (and possibly dying) congregation. I was surprised at the number of younger people. I was also surprised by the amount of activity in the church community. The image that the web site created didn't match the image I found when I arrived -- and the image I found was much more appealing.

Speaking of arriving, I got there early (in part because it didn't take me as long to get there as I thought). I was not the first person in the Sanctuary, but if I hadn't been a life-long Presbyterian I would not have found a bulletin. The ushers were not in position, and the bulletins were not in plain site.

I also found a reference on the web site to the fact that I was going to be there for World Communion Sunday. I also found a reference to a decision earlier this year that this Church would be celebrating Communion the first Sunday of each month. So, I knew from two sources that this would be a Communion Sunday. Nowhere on the web site (although it was announced by the Pastor) did it mention that the Communion table is open to all Baptized Christians. If I hadn't known that I might have chosen to go somewhere else for fear of not knowing the rules.

On the Sunday morning schedule on the web site it did mention "Fellowship" after the 10:45 service. I assumed that meant coffee and donuts, because I'm a Presbyterian. It actually meant coffee, punch, donuts and cookies. Coffee should always be made clear and cookies deserve to be advertised.

I must admit that being a life-long Presbyterian I was not surprised that no one sat down on my pew after I did, and although several people shook my hand and smiled at me during the Greeting/Passing of the peace -- whatever you call it; only one person introduced herself and showed any interest in who I was and why I was there. This was not a large Congregation. Everyone in that room knew I was visiting. Also, I went to the Fellowship Hall (which the Pastor very helpfully pointed out the door to during the service) for coffee after the service. I milled around a sparsely populated room for 15 or 20 minutes while drinking a cup of coffee. Not a single person said hello to me. That is not a criticism of this church by the way. I doubt the results would have been different at my church.

I hope that no one feels I am being unfairly critical of this particular Church. I have been careful not to name it or identify it in anyway, because I don't think that these criticisms are of this Church. I think that most PCUSA web sites have a lot of the same weaknesses. That is why Grace and I agreed to deviate from our usual topics to post this. We were hoping to start some discussion (or at least thought) about what our respective web sites say to the world and if that is the message we want to broadcast.


Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Lectionary Ruminations: Scripture for Worship on October 11, 2009

Here are the passages for October 11th, 2009, the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B). All lectionary links are to the NRSV via the PC(USA) Devotions and Readings website, but if you prefer another translation, feel free to use that instead.

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
  • The lectionary skips over the statements made by Job's friends earlier in this book, and picks up with Job's response.  Although the section with Job's friends is a rather long section, the very length would indicate that these statements are kind of important.  Why do you think the lectionary skips that part?
  • Since we've skipped hearing what Job's friends have to say, we do miss their less than helpful suggestions that Job must have done something wrong to cause his recent sufferings, so although Job does strike me as coming off just a little self-righteous in this passage, does reading his protestations of innocence in the light of those comments change your impression of this passage?  What about God's description of Job in the passage we read last week, which at least does indicate that Job's sufferings aren't in any way related to wrongdoing by Job?
  • Perhaps the more important element in this passage, and certainly something that I expect many sermons will preach about, is the anguish that Job feels, as he himself looks for some reason that these things have happened to him.  We see this kind of response all the time in the world today, as so many terrible things happen, without apparent rhyme or reason.  While this passage doesn't provide any answers for suffering, it does at least give us the reassurance that this situation is not a new one, and that many generations of humanity before us have had to wrestle with these same questions.
Psalm 22:1-15

Hebrews 4:12-16
  • What does the author of Hebrews mean when writing about “the word of God”?  We use that term about Scripture, including this passage, but the person writing Hebrews almost certainly had no idea that this letter would become Scripture when it was being written.  What other kinds of “word of God” might have been in the author's mind?
  • Was does it mean to think of Jesus as a “high priest”?
  • Just a quick reminder that I'm following (and linking to) a series of lessons on Hebrews given in 2001 by the late Dr. David M. Scholer over at Transforming Seminarian.
Mark 10:17-31
  • This is a very well-known passage.  There is a popular legend in some churches that says that, when Jesus talks about a camel going through the eye of a needle, he's talking about some narrow gateway into Jerusalem, intended only for humans, and too tight for a larger animal, such as a camel to fit through, although if you crammed the camel in really tight, maybe it could be done.  There is absolutely no evidence for this theory.  Jesus really does seem to be talking about the impossible act of fitting a normal sized camel through a normal sized eye of a normal sized needle.  Even acknowledging that needles back then were different than they are now, the implications remain exactly the same: Jesus is talking about an impossible act, that only through God becomes possible, just as he specifically says in verse 27.  Slacktivst offers one possibility as to why people may try to argue that Jesus was referencing something less impossible, and his thoughts are worth consideration.  (If you want sermon illustration fodder, this old SNL gag is pretty relevant, too)
  • One other thing may be worth comment: the rich young man claims to have kept all the commandments since his youth.  You may have noticed that the commandments Jesus cites are very similar to parts of the Ten Commandments, as found in Exodus chapter 20, and again in Deuteronomy chapter 5.  For some reason, Jesus adds “do not defraud” to this list.  In fact, this is the only one of the commandments in Jesus' list that doesn't show up in either of those two passages.  Why do you think Jesus mentions it?
  • Since the passage is about a "rich" man, it's worth noting that God's command to take care of the poor is extremely common throughout Scripture.  If the young man was as devout as he claims, he would have to be aware of this.  Yet he seems unable to part with his wealth.  We do not read of the man trying to talk about the good that he has done with his money, as many rich philanthropists of our day might do.  Why doesn't the man at least try to make such a claim?  What might this say to those of us with wealth today?  And just how much does one have to have to be considered “wealthy” anyway?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Welcome Mat

A brisk fall welcome and basket of freshly picked apples for the newest member of the PCUSA Blog role and web ring.

South Carolina's David Gillespie blogs at Southern Fried Faith: I live in what Flannery O'Connor termed "the Christ-haunted landscape" — the American South. And I'm right proud of that fact. I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. I'm also a queer man. Inasmuch as Presbyterians don't let queer folks serve in an ordained capacity, the written word has become my pulpit. I've published a number of articles, essays, poems, and short stories during the years. What you'll find here are observations and reflections of a queer Southern man of faith (a postmodern, post-liberal kind of faith). I welcome your comments, disagreements and observations. I am a graduate of Columbia International University, Reformed Theological Seminary, have completed a 1-year residency as a Chaplain in a major healthcare institution and am a member of Spiritual Directors International.

Southern Fried Faith consists of the occasional musings of a queer man of faith and life-long Presbyterian living in O'Connor's "Christ-haunted landscape." Three years of that life were spent in parish ministry in the South Carolina lowcountry; another three years working in a Presbyterian residential child care facility; and many years of being a part of, watching and commenting on the life and ministry of the Presbyterian Church, USA. My writing in general, and in this blog in particular, seem to revolve around: the relation of sexuality and faith; trends in American religion, especially as they are played out in the American South; progressive Christianity; what it means to be queer and a person of faith; and how the PCUSA might meet the challenges faced by people of faith living in a postmodern, post-denominational world. I started writing in 1974 with the publication of a short essay, "Confessions of a Perplexed Presbyterian," and my writing includes fiction and nonfiction. My writing, with the exception of occasionally speaking in various churches, has become my pulpit.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Read and Learn -- Short List This Book

General disclaimer, I love Richard Foster -- not that I've actually met him or anything. That being said, his book Life With God seems to have been written for the Frozen Chosen.

Several weeks ago my Church's Sunday bulletin included a list of three books the preaching Pastor considered his short list of books to suggest to people looking for help in growing closer to God. I wasn't nuts about his list, and that got me thinking about what books I would put on that list. Then I read Life With God. It definitely makes the list.

We are Presbyterians. That means, almost by definition, we are intelligent, well-read, better educated, rational to a fault and much more head-oriented than heart-oriented. The basic thrust of Foster's book is how to read the Bible in order to find what Foster calls the "with God life" rather than simply accumulating more knowledge of facts and history. First, Foster distinguishes the practice of reading the Bible to gain information or knowledge or to find some formula that will provide an easy answer to the problem at hand. Both of these practices leave the reader in charge and may produce educated, informed people; but are not likely to produce evidence of real spiritual transformation.

Then, Foster describes in a very intellectually accessible way why we want to find more in the Bible. He describes in great detail the process (Lectio Divina). He provides examples and detail. What frequently comes across in other books as too mystical and touchy-feely for the Frozen crowd is intellectually accessible and perfectly rational. Instead of writing a single chapter about Lectio Divina, as he did in his fabulous book on prayer, Foster uses most of this book to draw the reader into the idea, to make the reader want more, to walk the reader carefully through the process and through the books of the Bible in terms of the story to be found there -- both Testaments. I think many Presbyterians would rather have a well indexed User's Guide than the collection of stories, history, prophecy, poetry, law, etc. that we call the Bible. Foster takes that attitude head-on showing the stories, meaning, experiences and relationship available throughout this wonderful collection of stories and lives we call Scripture.

The book does make mention of Spiritual Disciplines in general in a number of places and a couple of the last chapters deal with disciplines specifically, although more as a framework on which to build than anything else. This is not, however, a book on fasting or solitude. This is a book on finding a relationship with the Living God in his written word.