Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Do Not Make Room for the Devil

Scripture Reading: Ephesians 4:25-5:2 (NRSV)


What does verse 27 in today’s reading mean when it says, “and do not make room for the devil”?  Is it referring to anger as the previous verse indicates?  If we allow anger to simmer, does this lead us toward forgiveness and reconciliation or more likely to confrontation and conflict?

I think I know how I would answer that for myself.

I don’t often preach about the devil and this verse has a lot to do with that.  I believe that the more we dwell on what we shouldn’t be doing, the more we are thinking about those things.  Forbidden fruit becomes more enticing simply because it is disallowed.  And just out of curiosity, I thought I would google “Forbidden perfume” to see if it is already in existence (it sounds like the kind of cheesy whisper-intoned name that you would find on perfume commercials).  Wouldn't you know, both Calvin Klein and Victoria Secret have a scent using the name “forbidden”!
So my lack of clarity on the devil or the personification of evil comes from the school of thought that we can only think on one thing at a time.  I would prefer us to think on God. 


As a child, I remember my mother 
didn't allow devil costumes for 
Halloween.  I don't think she
wanted me imagining myself
that way.
In fact, chapter 5 begins with the idea that we should be imitators of God.  We can only do so if we partner with God and shun the things of evil. 

Of course, there is the wisdom that says, “If you don’t warn your kids about the traffic in the street because that is too negative, they will end up getting hit by a car.”  So am I being negligent in a lack of attention to Satan?  Is there demonic power that can capture us and hold us against our will?  How can we fight against it?  What gives us protection from it?

I absolutely think that there are paths that lead to darkness in our lives.  As I mentioned in the beginning, holding onto and stoking our anger may be one of these.  If you have ears to hear, you may understand that I quite frequently mention these in my preaching.  I may just name them in ways that I make no room for the devil. 

As we are in Christ, we are protected against powers and principalities that arise to thwart the goodness we experience in life.  Ephesians names them in verse 31.  We should put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and slander and malice.  We should be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving.  If we focus on the latter, we won’t have time for the former.

I look forward to exploring this in worship on Sunday.  Whether in person or online, I hope you’ll find time to join us!

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by Mathilda Samuelsson via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Monday, August 6, 2018

You Can Lead a Horse to Water...

but you can't make him drink!

Scripture reading for Sunday: Proverbs 9:1-6 (NRSV)


This is a saying is a proverb – it relates wisdom – but it is not biblical from the Book of Proverbs.

Of course, it refers to the difficulty of teaching someone.  Sometimes we maintain our ignorance through sheer stubbornness!  It is similar to the story of the man who resented the lessons his English teacher tried to instill.  He stated later in life, “She tried to get me to read all those classics.  I showed her – I haven’t picked up a book since!”

One of the stories I remember my pastor (Dr. Mouzon Biggs) telling was when he came upon a radio preacher while he was traveling in his car (this preacher was not Methodist).  The preacher was telling his audience that the trouble with people today is that they are getting ahead of themselves through education.  When referencing a pastor’s continuing education, he mockingly sneered, “I’m working on another degree!”  He said this as if this were something to despise.  Then he stated, “I thank God I’m ignorant!  And I pray to God every day that I’ll get ignoranter still!”

I remember Dr. Biggs saying something along the lines of, “I bet he gets his prayer answered!”

When I worked on my doctorate, I felt that it had as much to do with endurance as it did the acquisition of wisdom.  But there was something to be learned in the midst of all that reading and writing that was beyond words on a page.  The innate lessons one learns from study are sometimes as important as the lessons themselves.

This week’s scripture reading comes a little early (it is taken from August 19’s reading) but we do so because we are featuring the blessing of the backpacks for students and teachers in worship this Sunday.  Wisdom is personified in this reading and we imagine coming to her table as to a feast!  I didn’t always think about learning in this way while growing up, but there were certainly times when that imagery was apropos. 

Proverbs allows us to understand the sacred nature of learning.  Knowledge is life-giving.  It is often associated with light (as the light bulb representing an idea).  Just as grace is available to all, wisdom is also seen as universally achievable if one is willing to come to the table.

As we begin a new school year, we are inviting all people to see wisdom in this unique light – as a gift from God for those willing to seek understanding!

In Christ,

Sam
Photo by "las - initially" via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

I'm Really Trying to See Better

Lectionary Reading: 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13 (NRSV)

     Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
     that saved a wretch like me 
     I once was lost but now am found 
     was blind but now I see

John Newton penned these famous lyrics in the 18th century.  He eventually was ordained as a minister in the Church of England at the age of 39 which was no spring chicken in the 1700's.  Before he was converted, he worked on a slave ship.  After his conversion he fought to abolish slavery.

The last line, "was blind but now I see" refers to his enlightenment in Christ.  We are often blind to the plight of our neighbor until grace sets us free to see it.

Jesus heals the blind many times in the gospels.  One of my favorites comes from the 8th chapter of Mark:

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?”  And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.”  Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.
                                                                                       Mark 8:22-25 (NRSV)

Sometimes we need a little aid to help us see better!
The man starts to see but needs more exposure to Jesus to really see clearly.  The saliva is an earthy quality of healing that connects him to Jesus in an intimate way.  Interestingly, this passage directly precedes Peter's declaration of Jesus as the Messiah.  Peter starts to understand what that means but then immediately gets it wrong when he corrects Jesus about the need to suffer and die.  He will need more exposure to Jesus (possibly the resurrection) before he can truly understand.

We don't always get it.  Sometimes we have to be shown.  In today's passage, David needs the prophet Nathan to tell him a story to ignite his compassion.  When Nathan deftly draws the comparison to David, the veil is lifted.  He then understands his own actions clearly.

We are not so different.  Many times, we may need a story to draw us in.  A testimony of someone's need may fuel our own sense of compassion and cause us to respond.  I am trying to see my neighbor more clearly - maybe more like Jesus sees them.  Sometimes they still look like trees walking but I'm starting to see with more focus.

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by Yuval Y via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.


Monday, July 23, 2018

Not Flattering at All

Scripture Reading: 2 Samuel 11:1-15 (NRSV)
David is the king by which all other kings of Israel or Judah take their measure.  He is the great uniting force of Israel following Saul and pulls more territory into the kingdom after his conquest of the Philistines.  He bested a giant in his youth and was an accomplished poet and musician.  He was so renowned that the book of Psalms was attributed to him (although most scholars believe the majority were written at a later date).  

After the kingdom split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south, citizens of both realms looked to when David ruled as a golden era.  After each of the kingdoms lost their independence to foreign powers, the surviving remnants began to look toward a time when God would send a Messiah that would reunite the people and free them from Gentile occupation.  Of course, this Messiah would be in the line of David - born in Bethlehem which was where David called home.

So in all of this good will and remembrance, how did this week's lectionary reading survive the editor's cut when the Bible was copied again and again?  The story of Bathsheba does not paint David in a good light at all.  The story begins with David staying at home, letting others do his fighting for him.  He gets up long after the crack of noon.  He is a voyeur and then uses his position to sleep with the woman who is married to one of the soldiers fighting for him.

After she becomes pregnant, David schemes to have her husband Uriah to take credit for the baby.  When this fails, he coordinates a military move where Uriah would be killed.  The hasty retreat might also cost the lives of other innocent soldiers.

David is not to be admired in this story.  

It is not a show of his great leadership.   

This story reminds us that the Bible does not feature heroes in the regular sense.  While David may be heroic at times, he is also flawed.  We see that David has become the very king that Samuel was warning the people about just a few weeks ago (according to lectionary time).  It is a reminder that while we do put our trust in our leaders, they also have moments of weakness.

God remains the one faithful constant in the Bible.  This is helpful for us to remember.

Even dogs can show remorse.  This is 
a positive attribute in human beings too.
As we live in a time of partisan politics, we often find ourselves defending behavior that shouldn't be defended.  Supposedly, we do so for the sake of the greater good - if our side wins the day, we believe the country will be better off.  We must be careful when going down this road.  Today's story reminds us that no one is beyond reproach.  Of course, in the days of partisanship, each side looks at the other and thinks, "Yes, this is exactly what they do!"

I'm looking forward to being back in the pulpit on Sunday.  I will be preaching on this text and my sermon title will be, "Why Did They Include This Story About David?"

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by katesheets via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.

    

Monday, July 16, 2018

We Grieve Most Changes

It has been about a month and a half since my mom passed away and it seems like life has been a whirlwind throughout this time.  Dad has since been put on hospice and is now living at Bradford Village where Mom resided.  As I have worked through my feelings and grief with my parents, I thought it might be helpful to remind people that grief comes to all of us when we experience large changes in our lives - even good changes can inspire some grief.

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was the pioneer of studying grief and loss.  She developed five stages that the average person experiences when they encounter loss: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  Not everyone goes through all five stages and they are not necessarily experienced in that order.

Sometimes you will revisit a stage that you thought was finished.

I believe that I've handled my own grief in a fairly normal fashion.  I have tried to deal with my emotions as best as I could.  However, I do think that I've spent some time in denial through my behavior.  I developed a habit of playing Fortnite which is a video game on David's Xbox in the evenings.  While playing this game, I am not really dealing with reality and it is an escape from the grief I'm experiencing.

Mom shown bringing me home from
the hospital after I was born.
I never doubted that I 
was loved.
Another way that denial has come has been in writing thank-you notes.  The church was absolutely fantastic to me and my family.  I lost track of the number of sympathy cards I received.  Many people brought food and others donated gift cards and still others donated to my mother's memorial fund through the church.  I try to stay on top of sending thank you notes but I still have many left to write.  When I've attempted it, I have broken down and been unable to put words down on the card.  I'm not sure why this particular aspect is troubling me but it may be that my mother was the one who taught me to write them!

So grief will act out in strange ways.  We may find ourselves angry at little situations (I've also done this) that don't deserve the vehemence we are giving!  This is displaced aggression and it comes because we are trying to deal with the loss and there may be no good source for blame.

Grief is also tiring.  You may need more sleep than you normally require.  I've found this to be the case but I am getting better.

Change is inevitable.  We would like to keep those we love with us but we only have them for a portion of our lives.  We all experience significant loss eventually.  As people of faith, we remind ourselves that God goes with us during these times.  As those who believe in preceding grace, we also believe that God goes with them as well.

As the letters of John define God as love, I remind myself that God is the spiritual connection that we have with one another.  If God is with all people (whether they realize it or not), then we are never really parted from people as we remember we are connected with God.  This larger spiritual connection helps us to find acceptance when grief comes to us.

In Christ,

Sam

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Retreat Ministry is a Priority



After spending the last two weeks at camp, there is sometimes a perception that pastors “graduate” from needing to be present in that setting.  When you get to a certain size of church, there is the sense that you have staff or volunteers in the church to take care of that.  I think this comes from the idea that camp is not always easy on the body.  Staying in a bunk bed for a week with a cabin filled with teenagers was easier twenty years ago.  There are late nights where the lights don’t go off until after midnight.  Then there are sunrise hikes to the cross and I seem to have a hard time saying “no” when an adult leader is needed.  So I get that camp is tiring.

Here I am hauling around my daughter, Kyla, 
who was the student dean in training 
for Camp Lead this year
I also don’t think that camp is for everyone.  When I was the dean of one of our camps in the late 90’s, Bishop Blake required all clergy to attend at least one camp during the summer.  We had an influx of clergy that year and not all of them were happy to be there!  In fact, some were more trouble than they were worth.  If you are not all in, you probably shouldn’t be at camp.  It is not for everyone.

It is for me.

Going on a week-long retreat with our young people is helpful to my spirit.  It is exciting to me to see them energized for the church.  It is fun to see them growing in faith and asking important questions.  It is fulfilling to see youth realize a call to ministry and to be at least a small part of that call. 

 Connecting to God through the natural settings is always going to be a part of who I am.  Our three United Methodist campgrounds each offer unique settings.  Crosspoint is on the lake.  Canyon is aptly named.  And Egan is adjacent to the Barren Fork creek which is a beautifully clear rocky stream.  Hiking at each location is important to me – walking where there is wildlife feeds my soul!

I’ll be serving on our conference camps board for the next four years and I hope to begin to help our camps reach more people (and especially be utilized by our churches).  As stewards, our camps become healthier financially when they are full throughout the year.  Did you know that you can book your own event or private retreat at the camp if the facilities are available for the date you have in mind? 

While a lot of adults are able to go to camp with us (we send more each year), not everyone can take off a week.  We are going to hold an all-church retreat at Canyon Camp this fall from November 2-4.  Please hold the date and more details will come (like the fact that we’ll be in the lodge rather than cabins).  I realize this won’t be for everyone and that’s okay.  But if you feel like it might be for you, we would love to have you join us!

In Christ,

Sam


Sunday, July 1, 2018

Bending Reality

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 (NRSV)

As a child, I can remember really irritating my classmates with the phrase, "It's opposite day."

This could apply for a multitude of situations.  It was useful for insults where I was put down in some way.  If I replied, "It's opposite day" this turned the tables on anything they may have thrown my way.  I was no longer the recipient of something bad - in fact, my attacker was now the target of his own ire.  This is wonderfully powerful in that it allows one to shake off any negativity with one simple proclamation.

This tactic is fairly advanced when you think about it.  We are bending reality to our will.  I define the universe in my own form or fashion.  You say I'm ugly?  Not on opposite day.  You are actually praising my good looks!  You say I'm stupid?  Now I'm a genius.  You say I'm last picked?  I'm actually the first choice.

Can a person actually declare these attributes for him or herself?  Does it matter if it is not acknowledged by anyone else?

If it allows me to be happy with who I am and I continue to respect myself rather than feel bad about what someone else has said, I don't see much wrong with it.  After all, much of it usually had to do with opinion rather than fact.


I wish opposite day worked on the calories
of heavy meals but I still haven't managed it yet.
However, we can convince ourselves of the 
tastiness of healthier options.
Paul uses this logic in a sense when he talks about weakness being a strength in today's epistle from Sunday's lectionary reading.  How could one put up with all that Paul had endured?  It seems that it would be easy to get down on your mission if you had to deal with shipwrecks, beatings and imprisonment along the way.  At some point, you might ask, "God, are you sure you want me doing this?  If so, do you think you could make it a little easier?"

One of the ways Christians handle adversity is to reconfigure how we see the world.  You say I'm being harassed for my opinions?  I say that this is normal for someone trying to change how people think.  The adversity becomes a badge of honor.  Of course, this is an unusual way to think.  It is a way to bend reality to our will.

I look forward to preaching on this scripture on Sunday through my sermon, "Indomitable Will."  I'll be preaching at all four morning services and hope that you will join us for one of them!  If not, catch us online.

In Christ,

Sam

Photo by Doran via Flickr.com.  Used under the Creative Commons license.