Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Read and Learn -- Passover and Holy Week

Earlier this week Quotidian Grace posted about the experiences of some Churches, including her own, celebrating a Passover Seder in connection with Holy Week. (I know, what every church needs, one more thing to do during Holy Week.) Then, I read an article in about President Obama celebrating a Seder at the White House. I thought it all sounded kind of cool. I've never been to a Seder.

I was not surprised when I typed Christian Seder into Google to discover that there are some Christians who think this is a bad idea. I was somewhat surprised to discover that many Jews aren't too happy about Christians co-opting their traditions (shouldn't that be our traditions?).

So, I thought I would start by asking who has been to a Seder and was it as a guest of a Jewish friend, was it part of a Christian observance, have your churches done Seders? Just curious.

Then, I thought I would put up a few links for those who really want something else to do during Holy Week.

A Guide to a Christian Seder, by Michael Ropeke (online article, good overview);

Introduction to a Christian Seder, Reclaiming Passover for Christians, Dennis Bratcher (online article with tons of good details); and

Not surprisingly, Wikipedia has an entry.

There is tons more stuff available, and none of it is hard to find. If you do decide to try a Seder (probably not this year, of course), do let us know how things go.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Maundy Thursday Tenebrae service

For those of you still working on a service for Thursday, here's an outline

Prelude:  ................................Handbells & Chimes
Call to worship:
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you know it completely, O LORD.        Psalm 139:3-4
HYMN:  You Are Before Me, Lord............No. 248 vv1-5

Prayer of Confession:

Guide:             Lord Jesus, as we remember Your betrayal on this sacred night, remind us of the times that we have betrayed You.
People:            When we have disappointed or hurt other people, Lord, forgive us.
Guide:             When we have diminished the power of Your Word through the selfishness of our actions, Lord, forgive us.
People:            When we have made promises that we do not intend to keep, or said something that grieves our loved ones, Lord forgive us.
Guide:             When we have acted rashly and have cast aside those who need our help; when we have been distracted by the world and remain unattracted to Your Spirit, Lord forgive us.
People:            When we have twisted Your words to justify our choices, Lord, forgive us.
Guide:             When we hide our faith or avoid being known as Christians, Lord, have mercy;
People:            Remove our sins with Your precious blood, and graciously restore us to Your service; for Your sake and God’s greater glory.  Amen.
SCRIPTURE READING:                       John 13: 1-11

HYMN:  Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.............No.310
SCRIPTURE READING:...........................John 13:12-21

SCRIPTURE READING:........................... John 13:22-30
HYMN:  Beneath the Cross of Jesus........................No. 92
SCRIPTURE READING:                             John 13:31-38
HOMILY:        Just Another Passover                                    
All:      Lord Jesus, You willingly lay down Your life so that we may have forgiveness and be restored to God’s everlasting love. Without Your Sacrifice, there would be no grace. Humbly, we bring before You our gifts and ask that You will receive and bless them for the continuing work of the Gospel and Your ministry here on Earth.  In Your Holy Name, we give and pray. Amen.
COMMUNION  - at the appropriate time, the congregation come forward to receive the bread and wine. After this, the elders will come to those who wish to take communion where they are seated.
Congregational Prayer:         God our Father, Your Son Jesus Christ has left to us this meal of bread and wine in which we share His body and His blood. As we keep the feast of His redeeming love may we feed on Him by faith, receive His grace, and find fullness of life: through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
HYMN:  Go to Dark Gethsemane..........................No. 97
NEW TESTAMENT READING:                   John 14:1-6

Congregation Exits Silently

Other Maundy Thursday services on this site

Monday, March 29, 2010

Keeping a Mary Heart in a Martha World

Last weekend I attended a women's Lenten retreat called "Keeping a Mary Heart in a Martha World." The retreat was held at a Catholic retreat center and the other women were all Catholic. The retreat was also a silent one - except for the "sessions" (small group discussions), a couple of the meals, and Saturday evening mass.

And the retreat was exactly what I needed.

Our Sunday School class is talking about BALANCE this spring and the retreat touched on a lot of the same topics in a very supportive, spiritually enriching environment.

I feel refreshed and rejuvenated.

I was thrilled to learn that the retreat center is rarely used for retreats; it's actually a place where people of any faith can go for peace and reflection. Meaning that (for a suggested donation of $35/night) I can go back, any time, on my own, to recharge.

Vision of Peace Hermitages: "Vision of Peace Ministries exists to offer hospitality in a place where people of any faith, seeking solitude in their lives, can find a quiet peacefulness and an atmosphere conducive to private prayer and reflection."

A home sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Standing on the back deck, you don't realize that the gentle, grass-covered lumps just before the cliff's edge are the roofs of hermitages, each with a stunning view of the river. Inside each hermitage is a single bed, a single desk, a single rocking chair, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. The accommodations are simple, rustic, and adequate. Walking along the railroad tracks, down by the river, through the woods, or along the half-mile gravel path to the main road, there's no pressure to "meet and greet." There's no concern over what to say to a stranger or a friend. In a place of silence, a small smile of acknowledgment is all that's needed.

Inside the main house lives a year-round caretaker. (He's a former monk, very friendly.) There's also a library and chapel open to guests staying in one of the nine single-occupancy hermitages.

Have you ever been to a place like this? Do you have one near where you live?  Would you go to a retreat center sponsored by a faith tradition different from your own?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Sunday Lectionary Devotions: Passion Sunday: Christ's Choice - Philippians 2 v 5

Philippians 2:5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Sometimes I wonder how Paul would have fared in today’s world. He comes across as being too sure of himself and I don’t know whether he is rebuking his readers or encouraging them.

Take this morning’s small verse, for instance. Paul begins by stating, ‘Your attitude should be…;’ he doesn’t write could be or might be – Paul insists that our attitudes should be – that’s pretty strong stuff for a preacher to be expressing. That meddles directly with how we manage our faith.

If Paul was around today, he would probably get thrown out of a lot of churches for preaching such a controversial and confrontational message. He would be emotionally tarred and feathered by an outraged congregation, especially one of those ‘you’re okay, I’m okay, everybody’s okay’ type of churches.

When I question Paul’s no nonsense Christianity, I’m reminded of two things: firstly, my own failures as a Christian in trying to be a perfect servant of God; and secondly, Paul’s unquestionable right to state such things. After all, Paul was no cozy theologian who sat in an Ivy League study asking hypothetical questions. He was a diehard Christian who had been almost lynched, battered and bruised, hunted and harassed, stoned and shipwrecked, tortured and tried for his faith in Jesus. If anyone had the right to meddle in our lives and to state things like ‘Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,’ it surely was Paul.

As a pastor, I come across many people who are hostile to Paul’s teachings, but do you know what? I’ve still to come across one of his ardent critics who has experienced any real persecution.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, sometimes we forget that it was You who personally intervened and dramatically converted Paul on the road to Damascus. Too easily, we cast him aside because his certain faith makes our own beliefs seem shallow and pale. Help us to look again to Paul’s teaching and remind us that he was Your choice. In Your Holy Name, we humbly 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

Today's image is a Celtic drawing that John designed for Erin Church's Youth Group to wear on their T-shirts at Montreat this summer. He calls it Celtic Peace. 

Síocháin (she-ock-awn) - Celtic word for Peace. This is a T-shirt design for our church Youth. Celtic braid, Celtic Cross, Peace Sign and liturgical colors all incorporated...:)

Friday, March 26, 2010

Personal Faith Experiences: The Big Brass Cross

It amazes me at times how often I keep coming back to those initial faith experiences of my childhood. I don't think I'm unique in that. One of the most meaningful for me, one that I find myself revisiting more and more these days for a lot of reasons, was an almost overpowering sense of God's presence.

Now, when I was a kid, growing up in First Presbyterian Church of Anderson, SC (from 3rd grade on), a lot of that early sense of God's presence had to do with how my childhood faith was informed. There were two primary sources, I'm inclined to think.

One was a big blue, illustrated, hardcover book of Bible stories for children. Don't know what happened to that book but I'd love to still have it. Alas. I read it and reread it and savored each of the illustrations, especially the "Old Testament" ones.

The other source was movies — movies like Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 classic, The Ten Commandments. Charlton Heston's thundering Moses. Yul Brynner's cool, suave Rameses. Edward G. Robinson's conniving Dathan. But what really impressed me was the film's depiction of it's main character — God, done so through the limited but awe-inspiring special effects of the time. That visual imagery of God, taken pretty much from a literal reading of the Hebrew scriptures, became my image of God — a kind of Zeus to the tenth power. And I began to wonder why God's presence was never manifested in my life like that.

I mean, after all, there was God — seen and heard in very powerful, real ways: the deep paternal at times voice, the wind which parted the Red Sea, the flickering pillar of fire, the blinding presence on the mountain top whose lightning bolts wrote on stone tablets and which whitened Heston's hair. It was God, not unlike Zeus or Odin; a god who was immaterial but manifested in material, sometimes scary ways. It was a god who was tribal, yet inferred as universal; the one true living god who somehow spoke audibly to people. It was a god not to be trifled with. God's voice was a voice from Olympus. In my childhood mind I could not distinguish between the Hebrew's God and the super-sized deity of that Greek mountain.

That was the God of my youth. He — and God was always personified as male — was awe-inspiring, like Zeus without a body. I wanted that God to be real, to be my God.

So much for my time in Fowler's "Mythic-Literal" stage of faith.

In early adolescence, as I left Zeus behind, I became more and more aware of God's presence in my life in a different way. Often, as I sat in a pew at First Presbyterian, Anderson, listening to the organ play and choir sing, or hanging on the words of great preachers like Richard T. Gillespie or John B. Pridgen, I'd simultaneously stare at the large brass cross which hung on the back wall of the choir loft and be filled with a sense, a very real sense to my twelve or fourteen year-old soul, of God's presence. It was more a comforting, loving presence than the Olympian picture of God I'd developed as a child; a sense that I was a child of God; that God held me and comforted me and loved me like a parent.

One of those personal faith experiences that we Presbyterians find it difficult to talk about is our sense of God's presence in our lives. And I think that's understandable. Often we don't really know what we're feeling or sensing; we think we don't have the language to express it. I mean when's the last time you attended a Session meeting, or even a Sunday school class, and someone talked, in a very meaningful, personal way, about God's presence in their life? I'd like to think we're getting better at it.

An author, speaker and pastoral caregiver, David R. Gillespie's other blog is Southern Fried Faith. He can be contacted at

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, March 28, 2010, Palm Sunday (Passion 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.)

For those who chose to observe the bifocal nature of this Sunday, there are six appointed Scripture Readings rather than four, and for one of the Readings there is a shorter (relatively speaking) alternative.

Luke 19:28-40
This Reading for the “Liturgy of the Palms” sounds a triumphant note of joy and praise, sans palms, as Jesus enters Jerusalem. Since in Luke the people spread their cloaks, rather than palms, on the road, perhaps we should refer to this Sunday as “Passion/Cloak Sunday” or simply “Cloak Sunday”.

v. 38 See Psalm 118:26 and Luke 13:35. Even though Luke does not mention Palms, if one reads Psalm 118:27, the verse after the one quoted then palms are indeed suggested or alluded to.

Does comparison with the synoptic parallels in Matthew 21:1-9 and Mark 11:1-10 as well as John 12:12-18 add to our understanding or detract through confusion and possibly conflation?

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
The choice of this “Liturgy of the Palms” Psalm (say that three time really fast) is obviously dictated by Luke, in the “Liturgy of the Palms” Gospel Reading, quoting verse 26. I think it can be argued that whenever the new Testament quotes a verse or two from a Psalm that the entire Psalm is drawn into the interpretation as in an oral Jewish culture most of the audience would likely have known the Psalm and thought of it even if only one verse were quoted. We experience the same when someone today quotes a line from a familiar poem, song or document.

Note the refrain of verses 1 in verses 2, 19 and 29.

How does this Psalm influence our interpretation of Luke 19:28-40 and vice versa? How does this Psalm influence our view of Jesus?

Isaiah 50:4-9a
It seems that verses 6-9 are why this passage was chosen for this Sunday, but what about verses 4-5? I usually think of the teacher’s role being to educate, not “sustaining the weary with a word.”

Not only has the Psalmist been given the tongue of a teacher, the Psalmist’s ear has also been wakened to “listen as those who are taught.” Are the best teachers the teachers who are also students? By corollary, are the best preachers those who are also preached to? Are the best worship leaders those who also are led in worship?

Psalm 31:9-16
A prayer for deliverance from personal enemies is an obvious choice for the liturgy of the passion. We can almost imagine hearing these words from the lips of Jesus as he was being crucified, or at any time during his passion. This Psalm reads like the thoughts and feelings of the dejected, rejected, and defeated. Nevertheless the Psalm, in the end, expresses prayerful trust.

Philippians 2:5-11
v. 8 recalls the passion.

v. 9 recalls the resurrection.

v. 11 “Jesus Christ is Lord” is one of the earliest, if not the earliest Christian Confession. From this basic affirmation, how did we get to the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene, not to mention the Westminster Confession? There is something to be said for simplicity, but simplicity, rather than precision, leaves room for multiple interpretations and levels of meaning. I can live with that.

Luke 22:14-23:56
This longer reading contains approximately 2,200 words. The shorter reading consists of approximately 900 words.

While I usually think any reading of Scripture calls for interpretation through some form of proclamation, I think this is the one Sunday where Scripture, without interpretation, can stand alone. Rarely do we have the opportunity to hear read in one service the entire Passion narrative. With a little effort this reading could be presented as a dramatic reading with members of the congregation reading various parts.

22 v. 51 Even in the midst of being betrayed, Jesus heals.

22 v. 54 How often do we follow Jesus . . . . “at a distance,” where it is easier and more safe?

22 vs. 67-70 Jesus does not claim to be the Messiah or the Son of God but rather the Son of Man.

23 v. 11 Why did Herod send Jesus back to Pilate?

23 v. 22 Three times Peter denies Jesus and three times Pilate asks “Why, what evil has he done?”

23 v. 41-42 Finally wisdom prevails, from the mouth of a convicted criminal, and our generation has a chant from the Taizé community to remember it.

23 v. 47 More truth

Luke 23:1-49 (Alternate)
(see appropriate ruminations above)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Wednesday Read and Learn: Son of Hamas Book Review

Son of Hamas by Mosab Hassan Yousef (in collaboration with Ron Brakin) is aptly subtitled " A Gripping Account of Terror, Betrayal Political Intrigue, and Unthinkable Choices."

The author is the son of Sheikh Hassan Yousef, a founding member of Hamas and a very popular and influential member of that group.

I was intrigued by a review I read about this book which highlighted the fact that Mosab Yousef had converted to Christianity and is now living in the United States in political asylum. That was definitely one of the "unthinkable choices" the author made in his life, but it is not the focal point of this memoir.

Yousef was the right-hand man to his father, and spent much time in Israeli prisons. He was recruited in his first imprisonment by the Israeli internal intelligence service, Shin Bet, and became a double agent--rising to a powerful position within Hamas while at the same time relaying vital intelligence to the Israelis. This role provided protection for his father from the retaliation for the terrorist operations of Hamas which otherwise would surely have come his way.

One of the results of the multiple imprisonments was that Yousef saw not only Israeli brutality but also the brutality visited on his fellow Hamas members by the Hamas gang leaders in the prison. He has great admiration and love for his father, whom he describes as a true servant-leader of his people, but was dismayed by his father's increasing tolerance of the use of violence and terror by Hamas and the unreasonable and corrupt leadership that developed.

Yousef recounts a number of hair-raising assignments that he undertook for the Israelis as a double agent over a number of years and these stories rival anything you've seen on 24. He became a successful businessman in between stints in prison, which were arranged by the Shin Bet in order to protect his "cover".

But the recounting of his spiritual journey is much less sensational. The more violence and treachery he was exposed to, the more he began to question the beliefs he grew up with. When some friends invite him to a Christian Bible study, he takes them up on it. (There's that relational aspect to evangelism again!) Yousef becomes attracted to the teachings of Jesus long before he comes to accept him as Lord. His final conversion was not a "Damascus" moment, but a gradual acceptance of the truth of the Gospel message about the nature of Christ. If this were a novel rather than a memoir, I would characterize the story of his religious conversion as a minor sub-plot and not part of the major theme of the book.

The conversion, together with the mounting emotional toll of many years of living a double deception, prompt Yousef to quit his association with Shin Bet and finally negotiate their assistance in his departure from the area and arrival in the US where he received political asylum.

He writes that he retains a relationship with his father and his family, despite the conversion and departure, because of their strong ties of love. His former associates in Hamas of course see him as a traitor to them and to Islam. Publishing this memoir is certainly an act of great courage which exposes the author to the risk of retribution, even as a resident of the US.

In an afterword, Yousef describes himself as a new believer with a long way to travel on his new spiritual journey as a Christian and disavows any role as a spokesman or leader. Fair enough.

Still, there is something unsettling about this book and author that I cannot quite put my finger on. Maybe it's an uneasiness with the ethical and moral problems inherent in the role of a double agent, although I recognize the need for them in the current international situation. Maybe it's because I expected the faith journey to be more integral to the story than I think it is and was disappointed. Maybe it's a profound feeling of despair about the possibility of a truce in the Israeli-Palestinan conflict that descended on me after finishing the book. Maybe it's all of these things.

(Cross-posted at Quotidian Grace)

Monday, March 22, 2010

Welcome Mat

Busybody of The Busybody Presbyterian Clergyman: Thinking and Re-Thinking describes himself as "a Christian minister serving in the Presbyterian Church (USA), a husband, a father, a lover, and a sinner, held close by family and friends, nurtured by faith, led by love."

"This is a blog of God's opinions. They are expressed through my words and my voice, as if through a glass darkly. Which is to say, God wouldn't touch these opinions with a ten-foot pole. But She's quite satisfied to see me trying hard, thinking harder, and succeeding hardest (if that makes any sense.)

In between the thinking and the re-thinking, I am a husband and a father of two beautiful daughters. I enjoy a good flick, a few good beers, and a few too many slices of pizza. I try my hand at playing the guitar, and sometimes get mildly emotional when a song lyric touches my heart. Reading is a pleasure, trying an idea on for good measure is a joy, and understanding is divine. I enjoy hiking and biking, but I confess I say them more often than I do them (a lot more often). I have served churches large and small, accomplished much, and failed too many times to count. I have encountered lots of saints, lots of sinners, and have discovered that each can teach me a thing or two.

I find that a lot of people I meet and know are still figuring out this thing called life. I'm a searcher, a journeyman in the best sense. However naive it seems, I truly believe there's a purpose for me. Call it providence or predestination or whatever, I'm trying to attach myself to it. Every so often, I'm reminded of a little thing called grace, and I'm called home to a place of peace and centeredness (even if everything else is in chaos).

That's me in a nutshell.

Sometimes I'm on the ball. Sometimes I'm a little rusty. More often than not, I'm a busybody."

Friday, March 19, 2010

Go Fish!: What is Evangelism?

So what is this thing called "evangelism?" Last month I wrote about why we as mainline Christians should not fear the word, or the practice. It's what Jesus commanded us to do. It's one reason he gave us the Holy Spirit, to work in partnership with us as we go and make disciples of all nations. But what is it?

From the Greek "euangelion" comes "good news" or "gospel," making an evangelist one who shares the Good News to others. Some pastors I've talked to adhere to a narrow definition of evangelism: it's proclaiming the truth of the Gospel and helping non-believers cross over the line of faith to accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior. Any other activities that don't include proclamation and invitation are not evangelism and should not be labeled as such.

In a world where the word "google" can become a verb almost overnight, we can open up the definition of evangelism a little wider for the 21st Century. Here's my short definition, followed by a breakdown:

Evangelism is partnering with the Holy Spirit to reach out in a relational way to non-believers around us, either in words or deeds, with the ultimate purpose of pointing them toward Jesus.

"Partnering with the Holy Spirit" - I accept a wide definition of evangelistic activities to include such things as praying silently for others, performing small acts of kindness, asking people I encounter throughout the day how they are doing and then really listening to their answers, etc. But since non-believers can do the same, it becomes evangelism when I ask the Holy Spirit to clue me in to opportunities and guide me in my interactions.

"Reach out in a relational way" - Author of the evangelism classic, Out of the Salt Shaker & Into the World, Becky Pippert, tells a great story of being pelted in the head with an evangelism tract while sitting in her car at a red light. A woman in the next car over was trying her darnedest to share the Gospel. As well-intentioned as the woman was, she missed the mark (but not Becky's head) because she had no relationship with her target! Reaching out in a relational way includes things like getting to know cashiers we see over and over again at the market, talking to neighbors, and so on. It's offering to listen, to help, to be a friend. It means not seeing people as "targets," but as actual people who God seeks to be in relationship with.

"In words or deeds" - A few of the deeds we can perform in our efforts to evangelize to others have already been mentioned. I've found my fellow congregation members are fine with deeds, it's the "words" part that makes them nervous. The reality is we have to be prepared to speak about Jesus if the opportunity arises. It doesn't have to be "The Conversation" where we seal the deal with a conversion. It can be a simple conversation about how faith impacts our own lives. Each of us may be one touchpoint along the journey for a non-believer whom God is pursuing.

"Ultimate purpose" - Day One of talking to the supermarket cashier is probably not the time to break out biblical truths. Again, it's one touchpoint. It may be Day 502 when you talk about Jesus with her. It may be Day Never, because your only job is to be the touchpoint, and it's someone else in the cashier's life to lead her into a life of faith in Jesus.

"Pointing toward Jesus" - Our lives can be signposts to non-believers. We're not the destination, Jesus is; we can use our words and deeds to point them toward that destination.

Now, "don't hear what I'm not saying," as one of my favorite authors and speakers, Reggie McNeal, would say. I'm not saying that we only seek to be nice to others with the purpose of evangelizing. If it's Day 503 and it's pretty clear the cashier is not interested, we don't switch stores to find a new "target" for our efforts. It's a way of living as disciples of Jesus.

Randy Siever, a pastor and Executive Director of Doable Evangelism, sums up the definition of evangelism nicely this way:

"Evangelism is the whole process by which people who are missing get found. It includes everything and anything that nudges someone in the direction of Jesus. It does include verbal proclamation, but also such small and invisible things as noticing someone, praying for people behind their backs, and listening to them. These things, which are simple and doable ways of paying attention to others, are like a cup of cold water in our culture (Matt. 10:42). They are not just some "pre-evangelism" tactic used to get to the real business of evangelism. They ARE evangelism. And ANYONE can do this." (Read the entire blog entry here)

For a thorough discussion of the definition of evangelism, see Chris Walker's blog at Evangelism Coach International. He has a great series on the subject here. An excellent book about evangelism for the 21st Century is Rick Richardson's Reimagining Evangelism; Inviting Friends on a Spiritual Journey.

What's your own definition of evangelism? What would "pointing toward Jesus" look like in your everyday life with the people you encounter?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, March 21, 2010, the Fifth Sunday in Lent (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 43:16-21
vs. 16-17 These verses seem to be an obvious allusion to the Exodus.

vs. 17-18 As leaders or members of congregations facing change, how do these verses both challenge and comfort us?

v. 19 A way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert? I doubt Isaiah was writing about global climate change. Maybe he was writing about internal attitude change?

v. 20 Wild animals will declare God’s praise. Why do humans find honoring God so difficult?

The Psalmist seems to be asking God for a reprise. “Hey, God! Remember what did a while back? Do it again. Do great things for us like you did for our ancestors.” The Psalmist also seems to be looking for the sort of reversal (vs 5-6) sung about by by Hannah and Mary.

Philippians 3:4b-14
vs. 4-6 Paul’s resume. Quite an impressive PIF!

vs. 7-9 What? All those credentials are not worth crap. What matters for Paul is knowing Christ as Lord and the righteousness that comes through faith.

v. 10 “I want to know” is, I think, an aorist infinitive, thus (if my rusty Greek is at all still functional) we cannot determine whether Paul is reflecting on something ongoing that continues into the future or something limited to the future. I’ll bet on the former: a present action that continues but is not yet complete. But I stand open to correction. V. 11 suggests that Paul will only fully come to know Christ and the power of his resurrection when he himself completes his baptism.

v. 12-13 In light of v. 10-11, how do we “press on” in this life when our “prize” will not be obtained in this life but in the life to come? Could this line of thinking lead to voluntary martyrdom?

John 12:1-8
As I have asked in relation to previous well known passages, how do we read, hear and interpret this passage afresh, as if we are encountering it for the first time?

Where do we find ourselves in this story? At the table with Lazarus and Jesus? Serving with Martha? Anointing Jesus feet? Complaining about budget priorties? Watching from an open window?

Who are we in this story? Lazarus? Martha? Mary? Judas? The poor? Jesus?

There seem to be a lot of possible juxtapositions: Lazarus was dead but is now alive, Judas complaining about Mary’s actions but Jesus defending her actions, Lazarus was raised but Jesus will be buried, those in the story will always have the poor but will not always have Jesus.

Usually we think of Jesus giving or hosting a dinner for us, a dinner called, among other things, the Lord’s Supper. This passage presents others giving a dinner for Jesus. So what?

If Mary bought the perfume intending to keep it for the day of Jesus’ burial, why is she now, at least six days before his death, using it to anoint his feet?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Read and Learn: On Reading and Learning

Being that I am in seminary right now I have been thinking a lot about reading and learning. Our brains are amazing things. How do we retain information? How do we connect ideas? Though there are scientific answers for these questions, there is one aspect of reading and learning that is directly related to the world of faith: Sabbath. I use this term in a general way not in the "going to church on Sunday" kind of way that is transferred over from the Hebrew Scriptures. I use the term to mean a time for rest and even enjoyment.

To put it succinctly, Sabbath is good for the brain. There have been many times of late that I have forced myself to stay at the task of school work even though I am quite tired. And I must admit, sometimes that is necessary. But I have been pleasantly surprised what happens when I choose to give my brain a break. Translation exercises that I labored through one night were somehow easier after I allowed my brain to rest and do something I enjoyed followed by a good nights sleep. I have often joked that I think taking naps is my favorite spiritual discipline. While there is a sense in which this is a joke, I actually think it's quite true.

I admit some may find this post quite ridiculous, but it seems to me that our bodies, our brains, need Sabbath time. So whether it's a good nap, a nice walk, or a glass of wine by the fireplace or veranda, I hope you find some time to rest your mind today. Leave a comment if you do. Maybe others might like your ideas.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Céad Míle Fáilte

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

This week, Ken at eMMAUS writes about the Oscar-winning short film Logorama and idolatry. 

Chris Walker at Evangelism Coach International blogs about The Reciprocal Church.

And Paul Andresen at There's a Fat Man in the Bathub with the Blues  shares a story about serving communion bread on a broken paten.  "Lent is truly the season to remember that we are a broken people, and Easter, the season that follows, shows us that we are redeemed in new life by Jesus Christ. Like the paten, we are made whole."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Sunday Lectionary Devotions: 4th Sunday in Lent - Lent 4 - March 14

Psalm 32:7              You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance.

Do you ever get that feeling that you want to run away from all of your responsibilities and go hide somewhere? I did that when I was twelve. Things in my home were unbearable, so I decided to run away.

I had just read the book, "My Side of the Mountain" written by Jean Craighead George, which is all about a young boy, Sam Gribley, who walks away from his home and ends up in the Catskill mountains. He endures blizzards, hunters, and loneliness, but his fierce will to survive and independent spirit overcomes them all. He even befriends a falcon and a weasel in the process.

I really enjoyed the book and I thought I could run away just like Sam, and survive off the land. I headed out to the Campsie Hills above Glasgow, Scotland and when I reached an isolated area, I built myself a shack made out of trees and branches, ferns and mud. I thought it was wonderful and the best thing I had ever built. But then it started to rain, and pretty soon I was soaked through to the skin. I shivered for about thirty minutes and then decided to go back home. All I could think about was having a hot bath and a hot meal. So much for my adventure!

When David writes about God being his hiding place, he's talking about a spiritual haven and a place to retreat within himself. Nowadays, we would probably call it 'having a quiet time with God'. In midst of our busy schedules and especially the pandemonium that leads up to Christmas, we all need hiding places and quiet times with the Lord. By taking time to read these scriptures, devotionals and prayers, we are making steps in the right direction.

So, find for yourself a hiding place to be with God today. In those precious moments, you will rediscover His protection and love, His comfort and strength.

Personal Prayer:    Almighty God, You know everything about me. You know all my insecurities and fears, my anxieties and troubles. Help me to hide within You, to rediscover my dependence upon You and to experience renewal in my heart and soul. In Jesus' Name, I pray. Amen.

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

Today's image is one of John's uniquely created impressionistic art pieces. It's called "Midnight Tulips" and depicts a field of Spring tulips beside a Dutch Windmill beneath a playful moon. A larger version can be seen here:

Friday, March 12, 2010

Seminary Reflections: Raising the Question

I am happy to say that the first paper of the semester has come and gone, my academic standing none the worse for wear. The only major critique/suggestion I received was that I should “try to resist making as many claims about the meaning of the text at this point. Focus instead on raising questions.”

Looking back, I can see that I didn’t follow directions as well as I could have. The assignment was never intended to be a thesis-driven argumentative essay but rather an exploration of potential avenues for exegesis in a particular passage. This one’s on me; I was never great at following directions.

That being said, there’s something about this that just cuts deeply against the grain, isn’t there? Try to resist making claims. Focus instead on raising questions.

I don’t know about you, but that’s not how I was taught to write papers. Five-paragraph essay: make a claim, three points to support it, and summarize. Tell them what you’re going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them. Write a thesis statement. Underline it. Make a claim.

Ask questions? You’ve got to be kidding me. A generation of junior high and high school english teachers – at least all the ones I had – are recoiling in disgust, red pens at the ready.

But I also have to admit that there’s something deeply Presbyterian – or, at least, deeply Seminary-an – about raising questions. Seminary, we are told, is a place and time in which we are encouraged to question, to ask ourselves and God about our faith and about our vocation. It’s written into the language of our ordination process: I, like a number of my classmates, am an Inquirer for PCUSA ordination. We’re asking questions.

A friend recently told me that he was entering the PCUSA ordination process himself. He told the pastor at the church under whose care he will be that he was “going to take this ‘Inquirer’ thing seriously.” I told him that I thought that was the whole point. The PCUSA ordination process is a fairly open invitation. We want people to enter, to inquire, to ask questions of themselves and the denomination, to have questions asked of them. Getting in, as they say, is the easy part.

My wife is an Episcopal priest. In their ordination process, the discernment and evaluation of the candidate is done largely prior to seminary enrollment. The result is that the M.Div. population itself is almost entirely vocationally homogenous: her peers were almost 100% Episcopal clergy-to-be.

Here at Princeton, on the other hand, we’re all over the place. The student population is 50% PCUSA, and a good number of those are ordination-track. But we also have quite a few students eyeing Ph.D. work, and a number of others just here to ask questions. And every day those numbers change: ordination-track Presbyterians start to look at doctorates instead. Students from nondenominational backgrounds hitch their wagons to PCUSA, and vice-versa. We’re in a constantly encouraged state of flux.

As for me, I came into school already in the ordination process, fairly sure of what I wanted, and nothing yet has happened to make me seriously doubt that calling. But, of course, it’s early. There’s much water left to go under this particular bridge. And maybe one of these days I’ll learn to read the directions.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, Lectionary Ruminations for March 14, 2010, the Fourth Sunday in Lent (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.)

Joshua 5:9-12
v. 9 I love the numerous passages that explain why places and people have the names they do. And what does Gilgal mean?

v. 10 The Passover can be celebrated anywhere, even while backpacking on the plains of Jericho.

vs. 11-12 Now that the Israelites enjoy the produce of the land, the manna stops. Either way, God is the provider.

Psalm 32
Confession is good for the soul, and one’s demeanor. Are Christians happier than non-Christians?

v.9 Some good advice: Don't be an ass.

I usually see more of a thematic connection between the First Reading and the Psalm, but I am not seeing much this week. What am I missing?

2 Corinthians 5:16-21
v. 17 A traditional liturgical sentence, a Call to Confession.

vs. 18-19 I hear the Confession of 1967 here.

v. 19 What does it mean to be an “Ambassador for Christ”? Usually we talk about Ambassador’s “to” rather than “for”. Does our present understanding of the term enlighten, enlarge, or diminish our understanding of what it means to be an Ambassador for Christ?

There are numerous theories of the atonement and the Reformed Tradition has room for many of them without endorsing any one over all the others. Does this particular passage, however, presuppose any particular understanding of the atonement?

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
One problem with this reading might be that we are all too familiar with it and think we already know what it is about. How can we read and hear it as if we were hearing and reading it for the first time?

Is it too obvious that the tax collectors and the sinners are the younger son; the Pharisees and scribes are the older son; and God/Jesus is the father

Fast forwarding to the present day, where do we find ourselves in the parable?

How are we at celebrating and rejoicing? Perhaps if the church threw better parties - more of its younger children would come back home.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Read and Learn -- Faith in the Secular

Since I answered Miranda's call for help on this blogring more than four years ago, I have been reading a lot of overtly Christian books. Since I bought Kindle almost exactly 1 year ago, I have just been reading a lot -- of everything. I have always been a reader, but my reading had slowed down considerably -- until Kindle. Why is a question with a complicated answer, but it does not appear to be an unusual response to a Kindle.

Anyway, this significant increase in reading first overtly Christian books and then just lots of books made me notice something I wasn't expecting. I almost find the best arguments in support of religion and faith in the pages of books that don't mention either. A few months ago I finished a really good fantasy novel. It was set in a world where faith and religion were simply not players. There was no mention of either in the book. What struck me most strongly about the book, the characters and the worldview was how empty they were; how devoid of meaning.

So, I started paying attention. QG and I both read the same book last summer that was a biography of a woman connected to Pope Innocent X. One thing that really got both of our attention was the complete lack of interest, or recognition, on the part of the author of the extent to which the actions described in the book were antithetical to the teachings of the New Testament. That lack of a Christian perspective in a book that wasn't a Christian book but was closely tied to a religious institution had one effect on QG and me, but it would have a very different effect on someone who was not Christian.

Last weekend I finished a fantasy trilogy that included a religion of its own making. That brings with it its own interesting perspective. Science fiction and fantasy become more than just stories when they use their world building to jolt us out of our established opinions and perspectives to make us look with new eyes at what it means to be human. It is rare for genre books to use that strength to examine the role of faith and religion, but they can do it very well.

Finally, I am currently reading a book with a church group that makes frequent mention of teaching a college religious study course using multiple movies with religious subjects and looking at the different ways those movies tell their stories.

In an increasingly secular world, how do we find new ways to use the secular to help others see the divine?


Monday, March 08, 2010

Blog Roll Highlights

Rev. Kerri at dressed for dancing: a pilgrim exploring the intersections of faith and life recently started blogging again after a short hiatus. But my favorite of the posts on her main page is one from August: I'm Boss of My Body. This is a topic we discuss with our young daughters and a lesson I want them to learn well!

I found another personal connection in a recent post of Dwayne Bailey's over at DwaynesWorld: The rantings of a middle aged geek. Dwayne and his wife are on the South Beach Diet, just my my husband and me. I too spend a lot of time planning weekly menus and shopping lists; perhaps I should look for a computer program like "Mac Gourmet." (And we, too, are geeks who don't play D&D.)

Dwayne's Texas neighbor, Jon Burnham, is pastor of St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston. Rev. Burnham blogs at E-manna. I like what he has to say about magazine covers at check-out stands. In fact, he has a lot of interesting things to say, including a review of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World that begins with the question, "If you were a trillionaire, would you have a business plan?"

Happy Reading!

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Sunday Lectionary Devotions: Psalm 63 v 3 - Promise Box

Psalm 63:3 Because your love is better than life, my lips will glorify you.

                In my study at the church, there is a small cardboard box with lots of little tightly rolled scrolls of paper in it. Each of these scrolls has an encouraging Bible verse printed on them. From time to time, when I'm looking for special guidance or I'm having trouble hearing what God has to say about my prayers, I go to the Promise Box, as the Victorians used to call it, and randomly pick out a scroll. I'm always amazed at how often the verse I read is very apt for the situation that I am experiencing.

                Sometimes young kids from the church come in and take the promises. They always ask me to read the words, followed by the simple question, "What does that mean?" It gives me the sacred opportunity of teaching the Word to a young heart and they always skip out of the office feeling delighted because God has given them a special promise. At other times, when I'm counseling someone who is undergoing a personal, tear-wrenching crisis, I ask them to take a promise from the box at the end of the session. Once again, God always seems to answer their prayers. It humbles me to see their tears of sadness turn into tears of hope and blessing.
                Devotionals help us all to experience the wonderful promises of God. His love is better than life and, with the thoughts in our hearts, the words on this screen, or the praises on our lips, we will glorify Him together.

Prayer:   Lord God, Your words have sustained our people for many generations and Your promises have kept hope alive in our hearts throughout the centuries. Thank You for the strength and encouragement, the guidance and direction Your Word always gives to us. In Jesus' Name. Amen.

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

Today's image is the latest from John's Sunset Series. It's called 'Sunset Sails.' He has signed 8x10 prints available.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Irreconcilable Differences?

70 % of emerging adults ( age 18-23) think “The teachings of science and religion often ultimately conflict with each other.”

Only 32% of emerging adults agree or strongly agree with the statement, “The findings of science and the teachings of religion are entirely compatible with each other.”

Lest you thing this is not “our” problem,

Among emerging adults who identify themselves as mainline Protestants,

74% believe science and religion are “often ultimately in conflict with each other” and only 28% believe that “The findings of science and the teachings of religion are entirely compatible…”

Sigh. I find these statistics from Souls in Transition, by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell (page 139) quite disheartening.

What happened?
I think many things conspired to cause this. The fault isn't simply science's. Or education's. The fault isn't only the churches. No there is plenty of blame to go around. We can all own a piece of this. But I don't want to talk so much about how we failed (although we need to give it some thought) but rather I want to talk about what we can do to correct this.

My hunch is most of the folks reading this are involved in the church, in one way or the other. So what does the church need to do? What do we need to do? I'd like to suggest a couple of things.

First the easy one. The popular conception is that scientist who are Christians are few and far between, an anomaly, statistical outliers, figments of someone’s imagination. The people in our congregations need to know that they actually know real scientists who are Christians.

We scientists are in every congregation and we need to tell our story. Not all of us want to preach, but some of us can. Not all of us want to teach church school, but some of us do. But we all need to be able to tell our story- how my faith shapes my work as a scientist. (actually all of us need to be able to tell our story, regardless of occupation, but that's a different article). I'm not primarily thinking about formal presentations but rather being able to talk about this in casual conversation, at a church dinner, after a committee meeting, over a cup of coffee. We will need some help figuring out how to tell our story, we need some encouragement to do this. So Presbyteries and local churches, teach us how to tell our story of science and faith.

I bet some of you are doing this. Please use the comments to tell us what you are doing.

Now for the hard ones. In all honesty I think the “conflict” between science and religion is in large part a result of bad Bible reading skills and poor theology. Here is a quote from Souls in Transition,
“[E]plaining why so many people view religion and science as conflicting, one
respondent observed, “I mean there is proven fact and then there is what’s
written in the Bible- and they don’t match up. So it’s kind of whatever you
wanna believe: there’s fact and there’s a book, and some people just don’t wanna
believe the truth.” ( page 158)

Somehow “truth” has become reduced to “facts” and “facts” are the sole constituent of “truth”. Facts of course, belong to science. The Bible is just a book. Faith, aka “blind faith” has no relationship to facts or to truth.

At this point, having raised several big topics, this post must become much longer or it’s time to stop. But,I don’t want to leave us with such a bleak picture. Good conversations have started- scientists speaking about their faith. Conversations about what science can and can’t do. Conversations about a faith that is more than personal opinion. Conversations about how modern people can read the Bible in a way that is faithful and uses their brains.

Here are two places to begin:
BioLogos has lots of resources, both video and print. Much of its content is designed to be accessible to non scientists and non theologians. But there is also plenty here for scientists and scholars.

Test of Faith, is a project of the Faraday Institute of Science and Religion, funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. Their material is created specifically for the non specialist and is a mixture of print and video materials.

Please add your own favorite resources to this list. How have you encouraged the conversation? What other sorts of help do you need? I'd like to know.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Lectionary Ruminations for Sunday, March 7, 2010, the Third Sunday in Lent (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 55:1-9
vs. 1-2 I love the “waters”, “wine and milk” and “bread” imagery considering that, at the church where I serve, we will be celebrating the Eucharist.

vs. 2, 4 “Listen” and “”see”; two things we can all do more of when it comes to our relationship with God.

v. 6 Can the LORD be found today? Where?

Psalm 63:1-8
v. 1 Do our souls still thirst for God?

v. 4 In all sincerity, Evangelicals and Charismatics sometimes get this one right in so far as they lift up their hands and call on God’s Name. How about a little more embodied worship for the generally frozen chosen.

v. 5 I think the “rich feast” imagery becomes a little hypocritical and watered down when many will receive barely a crumb of bread and small sip of tepid grape juice at the Lord’s Table. Our liturgical actions often do not match our liturgical words.

v. 7 The “shadow of your wings” reminds me of last week’s Gospel reading.

1 Corinthians 10:1-13
vs. 1-5 Obvious references and allusions to the Exodus; so if it is so obvious, why do I state it?

vs. 3-4 When I hear “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink” I hearken back to the first two verses of the First Reading and verses 1 and 5 of the Psalm.

vs. 9 Is the “put Christ to the test” a reference or allusion to Massah and Meribah of Exodus 17:7?

v. 13 Shall we read this in light of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”?

There is a lot more in this reading to unpack. I have barely scratched the surface.

Luke 13:1-9
vs 2, 4 How can we read these verse verses this week without thinking of those who died in Haiti and Chili? Do these verses at this time invite us to wrestle with theodicy?

v. 6-9 The following is not original but I do not remember where I first heard it or read it. If we sometimes think preachers are serving up a little B.S. from the pulpit, perhaps it is because we need a little manure now and then to fertilize and nourish our faith into bearing fruit.
How do verses 6-9 relate to verses 1-6?

v. 7 How do we waist the soil God has planted us in?


This is my fourth Lectionary Ruminations contribution. My first was posted February 11, 2010 for the following Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday, February 14, 2010.

I and my blog Summit to Shore joined the Presbyterian Bloggers Community a year ago, in early February 2009, a month after I entered the blogosphere on January 5, 2009 with a post to my newly created blog, a post I entitled ex nihilo. The rest, as they say, is history. If you like what you read in Lectionary Ruminations, I invite you to visit my very eclectic blog and to post a comment.

Since joining the Presbyterian Bloggers Community I have enjoyed forming cyber friendships with some of the other members and occasionally have turned to them for help and advice about blogging in general and the Google Blogger platform in particular. I look forward to meeting some of the Presbyterian Blogger “brothers and sisters” at the upcoming PC(USA) General Assembly in Minneapolis.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Wednesday Read and Learn: Free Audio Book Resource!

PresbyBlogger Robert Austell, of Lighthouse/Searchlight Church, posted about the fact that the website offers a free download of one book each month.

This month the site offers TWO classic Christian books --The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and 50 Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die by John Piper. If you like to listen to audio books while walking, jogging, running or driving or just because you like audio books, this is a great opportunity to add to you collection!

Go here to check out this offer (be sure to use the coupon codes indicated) and for information on some great discounts on other Bonhoeffer and Piper audio books this month.

Thanks to Robert for letting us know about this!

I have found audio books to be both entertaining and a convenient way to use those "extra" moments in life to good advantage. Do you like to listen to audio books? What are your favorites?

Monday, March 01, 2010

Thank You, Vancouver

In honor of the closing of the XXI Winter Olympics, I thought I'd highlight a Canadian blog from our web ring today.

About a year and a half ago Colin Carmichael, Associate Secretary, Communications for the Presbyterian Church in Canada joined our blogging community. His official blog is Being Presbyterian: an insider’s look at The Presbyterian Church in Canada and is well worth a visit.

"This is the official blog of the Communications Office of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
The purpose of this blog is . . . to present the true image of The Presbyterian Church in Canada by sharing stories of Presbyterian life across Canada and around the world."

Recent posts include "Live-blogging a Presbytery meeting," lots of interesting links, Tuesday Theology, and "Are you ready? Is your church ready?" [for the social media revolution].

Go Canada!