A Mystical Christmas: Why A Virgin?

 

Mystic Christmas
For the video version of this sermon, click here.

 

mystical (adj. \ mys·ti·cal  \ ˈmis-ti-kəl) – the experience of having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence that leads to union or direct communion with the divine.[1]

Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 7:10-17

The Wonder of it All

One of the great powers that human beings have is the power to question, to ask things like what if or how did that happen or why is that like it is. It is a power that has driven the foundations of culture and civilization from the time the first people began to coalesce and band together against the elements of the primitive world. That power, I believe, is born of something we might call wonder, that form of questioning that seeks to find an answer to the great mysteries of the natural and supernatural. This wonder has been the catalyst for some of the greatest achievements in science and culture that mankind has ever accomplished: the building of great cities and civilizations; discoveries in math and science that have produced medicine and technology; and advances in our understanding of individual and communal behavior have all been introduced into modern life because someone wondered about something and reacted to it.

Albert Einstein recognized that this also played a role in our understanding of religion and faith saying,

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.” ― Albert EinsteinLiving Philosophies[2]

This knowledge and feeling that Einstein refers to is a tremendous mystery that we as seekers of God through the lens of Jesus have engaged. We have wondered in our own small way about the world beyond the visible world. We have glimpsed, as Paul said, through the glass darkly and found that we wanted more than a glimpse. We want to seek the mystery on the other side of the glass, to see as God as Moses sought to see though we too have trouble taking in the holiness when exposed to it. We seek to find meaning from the mundane in the mystery of life as God has made it in Creation. We seek to answer the questions that wonder offers to us in the hope that this will lead us to a greater understanding of the divine in God.

Young Woman or Virgin

For many people, the virgin birth, like the rest of biblical literature is an either-or proposition: either it is absolutely one hundred percent true or it is all a lie and not worth the paper it is printed on.[3] Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary writes, “If Jesus was not born of the virgin, then the Bible cannot be trusted when it comes to telling the story of Jesus, and that mistrust cannot be limited to how he came to us in terms of the incarnation.”[4] This approach to the Bible is a relatively recent development and has its roots in the idea of inerrancy (the Bible is free all error as written). So, when many people read the bible in our native English and it says, “Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call him, Emmanuel” they assume that each one of those words means exactly what they say in English. That makes the most sense, right?

I believe the truth requires a little more of us than taking things at face value. For one, the words that got to us in English were translated from Hebrew (Isaiah 7), into Greek (the original manuscript of Matthew), and into Elizabethan English (KJV) before making their way into a modern vernacular (RSV, ASV, and others and then CEB, NLT, etc.). The transition has the capacity for the meaning of words to get jumbled and even replaced in the translation process.

For instance, let’s look at the origin verse for Matthew 1:23 and compare it to the original verse, Isaiah 7:14.

Matthew 1:23

“Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call him, Emmanuel. (Emmanuel means “God with us.”)”

Isaiah 7:14

“Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.”

You notice that the wording from Isaiah to Matthew is considerably different. The Hebrew word describing the woman in Isaiah 7:14 is almah, a word translated as young woman or maiden in the other instances used in the Bible. The common Hebrew word for virgin is betulah, a word significantly different than the one used even considering potential Hebrew root words.[5] The word that almah was translated into when the author of Matthew rewrote the verse (an apparent transliteration) was the parthenos, meaning virgin. This word, like many others in antiquity, also carries multiple meanings including a ‘young woman of marriable age’, ‘a virgin’, or even ‘a virgin male’.[6]

Why say all of that? Why jump through all of those linguistic, literary hoops over a single word? Because when it comes to the faith, words matter. This word, virgin, and its meaning have been a source of both comfort and consternation to millions of people over the past two millennia. For some, their very belief in God is buttressed or shaken to the core over whether or not Jesus was born in a form of purity reserved for holiness. If he is not, questions arise of his divine status as God in the flesh, Immanuel. One writer said, “If his birth were like any other human birth–through the union of a human father and mother–we would question his full divinity.”[7]

Finding Meaning versus Forcing Meaning

So, we now apply our definition of the word mystical that we will use throughout this series in order to help us understand the idea of a virgin birth. The definition I would use is “the experience of having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence that leads to union or direct communion with the divine.” So how does the virgin birth and understanding of Jesus divinity through that lead us to the mystical, to that which has spiritual meaning or reality that is not apparent to our senses but leads us into communion with God?

I wonder if that word virgin carries too much meaning and is tainted by both our culture and the history of church doctrine. I wonder if we sometimes devote too much energy, spend too much time, living and dying on these hills of conscience. Maybe the issue should not be so much about Mary being or not being a virgin but what the idea of this type of birth signifies. I believe that the power of our faith lies in the deeper meaning behind these words more than the literal words themselves and all too often we fail to get at the deeper meaning in favor of a simple, literal explanation understood through our own context and not that of the biblical writer.

It is the wonder that drives us, but care must be taken to steer ourselves well. To force meaning into something that was never intended to have that meaning has been the bane of good theology and a bulwark to those seeking their own ends. I also believe that for many people, this doctrine of the virgin birth is a sacred expression of faith, a cherished understanding of who Jesus is and how he came to be a part of this world. I don’t want in any way to say that you have to believe in a virgin birth to be a Christian but similarly, I want to affirm that the doctrine of incarnation understood that way is a viable expression of belief. As a Methodist, I believe “the origin of doctrine and its goal is in the practice of the Christian faith.”[8] So, the question becomes as we wonder about this idea of a virgin birth, how does it relate to our practice of the faith or more importantly in my opinion, how does this lead us to better love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and love our neighbor as ourselves?

I believe that we need to move from literalism to pragmatism when it comes to our beliefs and how we practice them. Instead of being focused on the words as literal, factual, measurable, we need to see them as expressions of the divine intersecting with the profane. We need to see behind the words to the meaning, understanding that the writers of the gospels were writing a particular kind of literature–ancient biography–to make a point: God did something new in Jesus.

 “Her virginity is not the point. Her sexuality is not the point. The point is that, through the agency of Mary, and through the birth of Jesus in the power of the Spirit, something new arrived – a new way of being, a new way of living, a new world colliding with the present one.”[9]

The birth of Jesus was the means of heralding that new way of being and living and in that narrative, one that only occurs in two of the gospels. In these narratives, we see the true wonder of what it is to be children and followers of God by being able to view a life that is at the same time, inspiration and example.

“Jesus is not the fulfillment of miraculously specific predictions. Rather, he is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets in a much more comprehensive sense…. He is their crystallization, their expression in an embodied life. He decisively reveals and incarnates the passion of God as disclosed in the Law and the Prophets–the promise and hope for a very different world…”[10]

That, I believe, is what is at the core of the virgin birth. Beyond the arguments over words, beyond the theological constructs and declarations of spiritual war and infighting, there is a promise from God that the world we live in is still malleable, still being created and recreated. That we, the children of God, the followers of the rabbi Jesus the Nazarene, can be a part of the creative process to bring about the Kingdom of God, a place where the love of God and love of neighbor are the true law of the land.

As an addendum, would like to add, Into the Darkest Hour, a poem by Madeleine L’Engle

It was a time like this,
War & tumult of war,
a horror in the air.
Hungry yawned the abyss —
and yet there came the star
and the child most wonderfully there.

It was time like this
of fear & lust for power,
license & greed and blight —
and yet the Prince of bliss
came into the darkest hour
in quiet & silent light.

And in a time like this
how celebrate his birth
when all things fall apart?
Ah! wonderful it is
with no room on the earth
the stable is our heart.[11]


References

Borg, Marcus, and John Dominic Crossan. The First Christmas. New York: HarperOne Publishing, 2007.

Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Danker, Frederick William, Walter Bauer, W. F. Arndt, and F. W. Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Edited by Frederick William Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

France, R. T. The Gospel of Matthew: The New International Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Wlliam B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007.

Franke, John. “Recasting Inerrancy: The Bible as Witness to Missional Plurality.” In Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, edited by Stephen M. Garrett, & J. Merrick, KL: 4627-5101. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2013.

Hare, Douglas R. A. Matthew: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for praching and teaching. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009.

Jones, Scott J. United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002.

Partridge, Cameron. “Side Wound, Virgin Birth, Transfiguration.” Theology & Sexuality 18, no. 2 (2012): 127-132.

Roberts, Kyle. A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary was a Virgin and Why it Matters. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Schelkle, Karl Hermann. Theology of the New Testament: Salvation History-Revelation. Translated by William A. Jurgens. Vol. 2. 4 vols. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1976.

Wegner, Paul D. “How Many Virgin Births are in the Bible? (Isaiah 7:14): a Prophetic pattern approach.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 54, no. 3 (Sep 2011): 467-484.


[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mystical; also https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mystic

[2] https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/tag/wonder

[3] (Franke 2013, Kindle Location 4673)

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/12/24/megachurch-pastor-ignites-debate-after-suggesting-christianity-doesnt-hinge-on-jesus-birth

[5] (Roberts 2017, p. 126-127)

[6] (Danker, et al. 2000, p. 777)

[7] (Roberts 2017, p. 163)

[8] (Jones 2002, Kindle Location 1191)

[9] (Roberts 2017, 153)

[10] (Borg and Crossan 2007, pp. 224-225)

[11] http://nextreformation.com/?p=7095

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A Mystical Christmas: Why a Christ?

 

Mystic Christmas
Click here to listen to an audio version of this sermon.

 

mystical (adj. \ mys·ti·cal  \ ˈmis-ti-kəl) – the experience of having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence that leads to union or direct communion with the divine.[1]

Isaiah 40:1-5, 64:1-9; Mark 1:4-11; Luke 1:46-55

Holding out for a hero

My daughter had a full-on, fan girl ‘Eeeeek’ moment this past week. You know, one of those moments when a girl who is really into a book or band or movie finds out that one of her favorite movies/characters/books has something new coming out. I didn’t hear it, but I called my wife that morning and in the course of conversation asked her if Avery ‘eeek’-ed when the new trailer for the Avengers Infinity War film came out. By the time I had called there had been several ‘eeeks’, a few squeals, and a fair amount of jumping up and down. The truth is we love a good hero. Even though the comic book industry seems to be dying off, it has maintained a sales figure in the tens of millions of dollars every year from 1996[2] to the present and the overall sales figures for the Marvel film franchise movies in the United States alone is over ten billion dollars for the last fifteen years.[3] If anything, this shows that we like a hero, especially a superhero.

This idea of a hero is nothing new. If anything, we have been creating superheroes for centuries, they have simply gone by other names: gods, demigods, adventurers, and so on. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell writes,

“The hero, therefore, is the man or woman who has been able to battle past his personal and local historical limitations to the generally valid, normally human forms. Such a one’s visions, ideas, and inspirations come pristine from the primary springs of human life and thought.”[4]

When such a person overcomes these obstacles of time and place, we give them a gift: the immortality of memory. Thus, we have the tales of Greek and Roman gods; Native American chiefs, warriors, and maidens; and those whose stories have been passed down from generation to generation for their great deeds and contributions to our civilization.

Christs

For the Jews living under Roman rule in the early first century, they had heroes as well. Great men and women of the distant past that filled the stories around campfires and at hearths; great leaders like Abraham and Moses, great prophets like Elijah and Isaiah, great kings like David and Josiah. There were also heroes of more recent history for them, the Maccabees. The Maccabees were a short-lived, dynastic family who led the Jews to rise up against their Syrian Greek oppressors after the ruler Antiochus-Epiphanies IV ordered a pagan sacrifice. Stories of great sacrifice and valor were born of these events, embellished as most stories of heroes are, and passed down to successive generations from the time of the Maccabees to the time Rome overthrew the Syrian Greeks, taking control of the land but allowing a certain autonomy to the Jewish rulers.[5] Like many of those who came before them, Mattathias and his son, Judas Maccabee, held a certain title: Messiah in Hebrew, Christ in Greek.

The term that we often associate as the last name of Jesus is actually the Greek translation of a Hebrew title, Mashiach which means anointed and was used for the Jewish king who was known as The Lord’s Anointed.[6] The idea of a future deliverer of Israel only came into being after the Babylonian captivity and was used to describe the Maccabees for a time. The trouble with the term is that there was no one idea of what the Messiah/Christ would be. Some saw him as a warrior-king, others as a supernatural cosmic judge of the earth, and still others as a priestly ruler who would offer authoritative interpretations of God’s Law.[7] The expectations associated with this king can be traced to how the Jews of the time read and interpreted scripture. Notice this lament in Isaiah 64, written around the time of the return from Captivity, and see how it relates to the situation of Jews in the time of Jesus:

If only you would tear open the heavens and come down!    Mountains would quake before you 2 like fire igniting brushwood or making water boil. If you would make your name known to your enemies,
the nations would tremble in your presence. When you accomplished wonders beyond all our expectations; when you came down, mountains quaked before you. From ancient times, no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any god but you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him! You look after those who gladly do right; they will praise you for your ways. But you were angry when we sinned; you hid yourself when we did wrong. We have all become like the unclean; all our righteous deeds are like a filthy rag. All of us wither like a leaf; our sins, like the wind, carry us away. No one calls on your name; no one bothers to hold on to you, for you have hidden yourself from us, and have handed us over to our sin.

A case could be made, historically, for Israel feeling much the same in Jesus’s day, as they struggled to keep a socio-religious identity under Roman rule, despite a certain amount of Roman tolerance. People groups generally do not enjoy being ruled by another people group, especially one so different from their own. This is where we find the Jewish people as Jesus comes into the world.

Super Jesus?

In order to begin understanding the idea of Messiah in the New Testament, look at the documents themselves. The Gospel of Mark, the oldest of the gospel messages, begins with,

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey.  He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”[8]

Some fifteen to twenty years later, the writer of Luke draws from stories told of Jesus’s birth and adds the dimension of one, not only anointed by the Holy Spirit to preach, teach, and do miracles in the name of God, but one who was born to do these things. In the Magnificat from chapter one of Luke, Mary says/sings,

“With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”[9]

From these two passages, we see the messianic expectation of the Jews who would become Christians in the first century: that the Holy Spirit, the spirit of God, would be immersed into[10] the lives of Jesus’s followers; God will use this messiah to scatter those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations; to pull the powerful down from their thrones and lift up the lowly; to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty-handed; to come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever. These ideas were part of a new understanding developed as the followers of Jesus tried to make sense of his teachings and experiences in relation to the Jesus they knew and had heard about as well as their understanding of the Jewish scriptures. In essence, it began as a way to acknowledge certain aspects of Jesus’s life, death, and ministry and from there began to incorporate aspects of the Jewish Messianic understanding.

A Mystical Christ

With these ideas in mind, let’s apply a definition of the word mystical that we will use throughout this series in order to help us understand the point of a messiah. The definition I would use is “the experience of having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence that leads to a union or direct communion with the divine.” So how does the messianic experience and understanding of Jesus lead us to the mystical, to that which has spiritual meaning or reality that is not apparent to our senses but leads us into communion with God?

As we look back at the two passages above, Mark 1:4-11 and Luke 1:46-55, we see some of those things which we can begin to understand as mystical in that Jesus leads us to his life and teaching to see these messianic ideas as things that he not only lived into but that we can also live into as well. Notice the things that the Messiah will do: champion the poor and their needs, call the powerful to answer for their actions, lift up those who are lowly in spirit. The mystical aspect is this: that we can live into these things and experience the divine communion with God that Jesus did, that we can be as Paul called it in Romans 8:14, sons and daughters of God when he wrote,

All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. But if we are children, we are also heirs.[11]

In this Spirit of God, we enter into the messianic mission, the mission of those anointed for a purpose. What purpose? That of developing and living in The Kingdom of God on earth. The idea of a messiah is not just a story about a someone, it is a story about a something, an idea that transcends time and place to bring about change and transformation in Creation. I believe the awareness behind this mystical idea of anointing is one of seeing the need to change and leading others into change that corresponds to the life and teachings of Jesus, the one called Christ by his followers.


References

Campbell, J. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Carroll, J. T. (2007). The Existential Jesus. Berkeley: CounterPoint.

Ehrman, B. D. (2004). The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Ehrman, B. D. (2014). How Jesus Became God. New York: HarperOne / HarperCollins.

Ehrman, B. D. (2016). Jesus Before the Gospels. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Gunto, C. (2001). Nicene Christianity. (C. R. Seitz, Ed.) Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.

Irvin, D. T., & Sunquist, S. W. (2011). History of the World Christian Movement. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.

Jospehus, F. (1987). The Works of Josephus. (W. Whiston, Ed.) Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers.

McGrath, A. E. (1997). The Genesis of Doctrine: A Study in the Foundation of Doctrinal Criticism. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing.

McGrath, A. E. (Ed.). (2007). The Christian Theology Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Tillich, P. (1964). Systematic Theology (Vol. 2). Chicago, Il: University of Chicago Press.

Wright, N. (2011). Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters. New York: HarperOne Publishing.


[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mystical; also https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/mystic

[2] http://www.comichron.com/vitalstatistics/alltime.html

[3] http://www.boxofficemojo.com/franchises/chart/?id=marvelcomics.htm

[4] (Campbell, 1949, pp. 19-20)

[5] (Jospehus, 1987, p. 324ff), (Irvin & Sunquist, 2011, p. 11)

[6] (Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 2004, pp. 68-70)

[7] ibid

[8] Mark 1:4-11

[9] Luke 1:46-55

[10] ‘To be immersed into’ is a literal definition for the Greek word baptizo, the word we baptize from.

[11] Romans 8:14-17

Giving Thanks – Part Two

Autumn_Leaves
Click here for the audio version of this sermon.

This morning we begin with a couple of anonymous poems that speak to a recent experience many of us can relate to from this past week.

Thanksgiving 8000 Calorie Poem

May your stuffing be tasty,
May your turkey plump,
May your potatoes and gravy
Have nary a lump.
May your yams be delicious
And your pies take the prize,
And may your Thanksgiving dinner
Stay off your thighs!
– Anonymous

Thanksgiving Ghost

The last piece of apple pie is gone;
How did it disappear?
The bowl of delicious stuffing
Has also vanished, I fear.

It happens each Thanksgiving,
When leftover goodies flee,
And each of us knows the responsible one
Couldn’t be you or me.

The only way it could happen
Is readily diagnosed;
It must be the crafty, incredibly sneaky,
Still hungry Thanksgiving ghost.
– Anonymous

Welcome to the season of carbing.
I can think of no other time of year when we celebrate the carbohydrate more than Thanksgiving Day through The Epiphany. From that fourth Thursday of November through the first week of January we Americans keep White Lily flour, Swiss Colony, and Sara Lee in business for the rest of the year. While I enjoy ham, turkey, and other meats, nothing excites me more at the table than the side dishes and desserts; things like dressing, sweet potato casserole, peanut butter candies, and hot fruit pies. I eat and eat for the better part of about six or seven weeks with little or no regard for my general health and well-being.
But then, The Moment comes.
The Moment is that place in time where my body, though grateful for the bounty of carbs that I have received, says, “Enough.” My body rebels and demands protein, lean meats and vegetables that haven’t been buried in cheese or gravy, fruit that has not been sweetened to the point of being candied and baked between two flaky crusts. It is a time when I must seek a restoration of the mind and body in order to survive long enough the make Easter Sunday dinner fun. It is penance for careless eating and damaging the temple I have been given to house the soul I have.
Both of these things, the mad month or so long feast and The Moment, are both things that I am immensely glad for when they come. They are both things of joy, one for the celebration and one for the relief that celebration has ended. They what you might regard as the good things in life, those things looked forward to and desired for their goodness and they are received with gratitude.
This morning I want to talk about something we can all easily identify with, being thankful for the good things.

A Psalm of Thanksgiving

The title above Psalm 100 calls it a psalm of thanks but it is an imperative of thanks, an accurate statement of its content and intent. According to Walter Brueggemann, “It breathes a faith of simple trust, glad surrender, and faithful responsiveness. It is not sung by newcomers who are only now embracing the faith but by those who are seasoned and at home in their faith and piety.” The psalm has eight imperative statements that call for a response of gratitude as a well as explanations as to why we should be thankful, divided up into two sections with four imperatives followed by a ‘why’ explanation. These two sections or stanzas could easily stand on their own as separate psalms but have been collected together as a single element of praise.
The first part says that we should, “Shout triumphantly to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with celebration! Come before him with shouts of joy! Know that the LORD is God—” Why should we do this? Because “he made us; we belong to him. We are his people, the sheep of his own pasture.” The second part says that are to “Enter his gates with thanks; enter his courtyards with praise! Thank him! Bless his name!” Again, why? “Because the LORD is good, his loyal love lasts forever; his faithfulness lasts generation after generation.”
Both of these sections have a series of command like statements for worship: shout, come, serve, enter, thank, bless. What these commands tell us is (1) for the writer of the psalm, worship is an expectation and (2) worship is an active not passive expression of faith. Any time you use an imperative statement, you do so with the expectation that the person hearing will respond. For instance, the statement, “Children, clean your rooms” is a statement that the expectation of two or more minors, currently abiding under the roof where this is spoken, going into their rooms, and doing something more than hiding things in a closet or under the bed. In this case, the psalmist, who is speaking to fellow Israelites as they are gathering to worship, has the expectation that the hearers will respond to these declarations by offering the appropriate expressions of praise called for by the psalmist. The second thing we notice about these words is that they are all active, not passive commands. They are words which imply that something is to be done when the words are heard rather than simply hearing them and absorbing their meaning.
The actions called for in the first part of each section is an action in response to something that God has already done for his people. According to the end of each section, God has “…made us; we belong to him. We are his people, the sheep of his own pasture” and “the LORD is good, his loyal love lasts forever; his faithfulness lasts generation after generation.” The acts of worship are responses of worship born out of thankfulness for what God has done for his people, a recognition of the gratitude that the worshipers feel for the work of God in their life. Throughout the story of Israel, God is the rescuer of his children. When they are made to be slaves in Egypt, he sends Moses to lead them to freedom, performing miracle after miracle to provide for them. When the people wander in the wilderness, God provides for them and their needs until they are ready to enter the promised land. When the people fall into captivity in Babylon, once more, God speaks through a foreign king to send them home. And when Israel once again lost its way under the yoke of Roman rule, Jesus, a Nazarene carpenter, steps onto the stage and offers once again, a way of redemption from God.
The knowledge of these things leads one to the idea of gratitude, of a spirit of thankfulness. Thankfulness, in its truest sense, can come only from a sense of grounding your being in the being of God through a life of worship and connectedness to God. When we are a people grounded in the way and being of God, a way that finds its best expression in that of Jesus, we find these acts of worship described in Psalm 100 to be natural responses to the loving kindness that God has shown to us.
The opposing option is that of self-groundedness…which may lead to cynicism, anxiety, or pride, all of which are grounded in the finite existence of the individual rather than the eternal existence of God. When the focus of the individual becomes too self-directed, the mind of the person begins to develop a sort of spiritual narcissism, an unhealthy focus on self-appeasement and self-directed interest. This is not an indictment against taking care of oneself and one’s needs but against a focus on self that neglects the spiritual dimension of life and the need of community and involvement with the needs of others.

Gratitude and Benevolence

Gratitude, then, is a recognition of the lovingkindness directed to us from God and a call to humility as we accept these gifts. It is knowing and acknowledging that God is the giver of these things and that worship is response of gratitude from those to whom the gift has been given. In his sermon The Unity of the Divine Being, John Wesley writes,

“True religion is right tempers towards God and man. It is, in two words, gratitude and benevolence; gratitude to our Creator and supreme Benefactor, and benevolence to our fellow creatures. In other words, it is the loving God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. It is in consequence of our knowing God loves us, that we love him, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Gratitude towards our Creator cannot but produce benevolence to our fellow creatures.”

I believe Wesley is making a case that our gratitude should give rise to communal well-being. We who have been the recipients of God’s love expressed in his care and nurture of us are called to respond not only in worship to God but in benevolence or the active well wishing toward others. Our response to receiving then should be giving, our acceptance of grace calls our offering of it to the community around us.
For continuity sake, we will end as we began with a poem, albeit a bit more serious in tone, by Alberto Rios from 1952 entitled When Giving is All We Have. I believe this echoes the sentiment of John Wesley and speaks a truth about what it is to experience gratitude together.

One river gives its journey to the next.
We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.
We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.
We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—
Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.
Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:
Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.
You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me
What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made
Something greater from the difference.

References

Brueggemann, W. (1985, Jan). Psalm 100. Interpretation, 39(1), 65-69. Retrieved 06 05, 2017
Mays, J. L. (1994). Psalms. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
Wesley, J. (2014). The Sermons of John Wesley: The Complete Collection of 141 Sermons. (M. R. Martin, Ed.) Sarnac Lake, NY: Cedar Eden Books.

 

Falling Down

Hiking Trail

My family and I are hikers. As often as we can, we take to the trails, enjoying nature in all its peace and solitude. Recently, the family went on a short two-mile trek, mostly just to get out of the house and enjoy a warm sunny day in November. As we hiked, the mental noise and clutter of all the things going on in my life began to intrude, robbing me of the relaxed mood. I didn’t realize just how much until I yelled at my son for falling down. He’s eight, a little wobbly on his feet, but full of energy and at that moment in need of expending some. He took off down the trail, running full tilt and stumbled over some rocks. As he hit the ground, I yelled something at him about getting up, a response born not out of the situation itself but mostly from my own anxieties about the ‘clutter’ in my head. My wife looked at me and offered a few less than gracious words about yelling at him and then added, “He has to learn to fall. He has to know how to hit the ground and pick himself up.”

Those words, He has to learn to fall. He has to know how to hit the ground and pick himself up, are, I think, apropos for the situation that United Methodism finds itself in now. Historically, it seems like every generation of every denomination has needed to fall and pick itself up again. In this case, Methodists have been falling for years: since 1840 and the schism into MEC (Methodist Episcopal Church) and MEC, South; since the end of the classes and bands in the late nineteenth century; since the 1920’s and rise of Liberal/Boston theology in our seminaries; since 1972 when the General Conference instituted the wording on homosexual ministers and homosexual marriage. Depending on your context, any or all of these things can be positive or negative and yet each of them marks a point at which disagreement arose and was never really settled. In each of these cases, we as Methodists decided either to ‘leave each to his own’ or we simply ignored the existence of these things happening by hiding in our local contexts.

What is happening right now with the Commission on a Way Forward and the 2019 General Conference is simply the UMC having to figure out how to get up. We have been falling and now we’ve hit the ground. The question is, how will we get up? Options exist from the extremes and the middle with a great deal of commentary from all sides, at times polite in the name of good discourse and at others hostile with ill intent, to the point that this week, the Council of Bishops had to issue a letter saying,

In recent months, we have experienced these negative behaviors escalating into more aggressive, and violent expressions of hate, prejudice, and anger directed against others. We are hearing of and observing angry words now escalating to actions that are resulting in fear, anxiety, loss of security, and even physical harm. These actions are repugnant to us as your bishops.”[i]

As I watched my son lie there on the trail, every instinct demanded I reach down and help him up. I’m his father, he’s my son, this is a no brainer. And yet he needed to lie there, feel the sting of those scratches and bruises as a reminder that next time, he’ll have to be more careful. In a way, I think God is allowing us to hit the ground, feel the sting and sharp pain from the wounds we have inflicted on ourselves and pick ourselves up again. Many questions abound as to how and frankly, I have no idea what that will look like: a single denomination segmented into local areas that contextualize their theology to the people they serve, a fracturing into three or four denominations, an implosion of the whole thing. Who knows? I only know one thing: it will hurt, and we will have to pick ourselves up. How we pick ourselves will determine the kind of Methodism that comes from this.

[i] http://rmcumc-email.brtapp.com/files/content/communications/mountain%20sky%20area/cob%20pastoral%20letter%20nov10.pdf

The Deep End

Pool

My father tells the story of how he learned to swim. It started with several summers worth of swimming lessons that were to no avail, lessons that led to him to being able to semi dog paddle or tread water at best. It wasn’t until he was about twelve years old that he finally found himself flailing through the air, falling into the deep end of a public swimming pool after being tossed in by his father. He learned to swim that day not because he planned to, but because he felt he had to keep from drowning.

I imagine that sensation of falling into the water with no way out but flailing about was something like the feeling I had when I got to seminary and took my first class in New Testament. I began to look at the bible not as a singular volume spoken from God’s mouth to man’s ears and finally, to paper through the Holy Spirit writing with a pen, but as a collection of writings that speak to the long, arduous journey taken by several people groups across hundreds of years to speak of the Divine as they saw and understood. Learning this brought about a wonderful change in my understanding of God through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It became experiential, a recognition that my wife pointed out to me once when we were talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and she said, “It’s all the same thing. It’s all experience.”

I believe she was right when it comes to Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. We are actually talking about differing aspects of the same thing. Scripture, while often regarded as the Holy Writ of God, is in a human sense, the experience of those people who encountered what they labeled and termed as Adonai, Jehovah, or God. It is the written record of those encounters influenced by their cultural biases and understandings of the time in which it was written, given to be copied and edited across other cultures and peoples. It is largely a product of the religious understanding of the people who collected it and chose what was important to keep for continuity sake and get rid of otherwise. I believe those experiences have the power to point people in the direction of God, but I see it as the “Word about God through experience” rather the “Words given directly from the mouth of God.”

I believe tradition to another form of experience, that of the Church universal. Those things we call tradition are, I believe, those things which in the past gave people a sense of experiencing God in a communal setting. When we gather to pray, sing, talk about faith, we form these communal settings that have the potential to become a patterned response to experiences shared with one another. Thus, tradition becomes the shared experience of those who believe in God the same way and continue those practices together (i.e. – Methodist tradition, Catholic tradition, etc.).

Reason is often viewed as a raw ability to think, yet the study of reason, and logic in philosophy will, I believe, demonstrate that reason is the shared experience of those who have thought about God and things of Christian significance with one another or with those who have passed their knowledge down to the successive generations. This reason is actually the aggregate of thoughts that have been built upon one another from time immemorial to this day. Reason then, becomes that which we have thought about and passed down both verbally (written and spoken) and genetically.

Finally, experience, as spoken of in this context, is that of personal experience. It is our personal engagement with the Scripture, tradition, and reason within our relationship to God and to the those who claim a belief in God.

I believe this understanding has been freeing in my practice of ministry as it has given me room to speak with people both inside the church and outside in the community on equal footing. For those who hold a view of the bible that says it is ‘straight from the mouth of God’, I can understand their need for that level of emotional security from my own experience while at the same time engaging with those outside the church who would say the Bible is not ‘straight from the mouth of God’. It gives me latitude as a minister to be with people where they are and not feel the need to fit into a particular mold for anyone while still being myself.

With this understanding of experience as the primary perspective of humanity (whether they realize it or not), I have come to see the United Methodist Church as a body of people, bound originally by certain common understandings of experience, who have followed that experience to its logical (or illogical in some cases) conclusions. I think this to be a positive aspect of Methodism, that we can take a group of basic thoughts and allow the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives and social contexts and be used of God to bring about change in our communities and world. Without this understanding Methodism would not be an activist, academic, grass roots, urban, suburban, rural, political, apolitical, red state, blue state expression of faith. We are greater when we realize that the tension that holds us together is the very tension that mirrors our society. When we answer societies cries of division by expressing our own division and do so while remaining together, we set an example. This is not a theological or political argument to be won but an expression of our experiences in its context coming together to make something greater than what otherwise would be.

Minor Key Living

Golden Piano Keys

I love music in minor keys.

Some of my favorite pieces of music – Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky – are written in minor keys. All of these pieces have a brooding, melancholy air to them created by a slight shift in the way the chords are constructed within the music. This shift creates a sound that is at once haunting and comforting, as though something is deeply troubling and yet perfectly sound in the same moment.

The structure of the chord is the key to creating this effect. Essentially, the chord is created by breaking the normal chord structure slightly. For instance, a C major chord would be composed, as most chords are, of three notes, C, E, and G. To create the minor chord, we change the middle note, the E, by dropping the pitch half a step. This simple shift in tone creates tension in the music, a haunting, eerie sensibility. Minor key music is a beautiful, artistic expression born of the tautness of sound that it creates.

While many find themselves frustrated by the current climate in the UMC, and for that matter in the greater church, it is that tension that creates space for a greater number to find their way into the Kingdom of God. While those who have “drawn lines in the sand” continue to stand fast at their posts, others have chosen to accept that we do not, nor have we ever, agreed. There has never been a time, a moment in our shared history within or without the UMC that the church ever truly and completely agreed on doctrine, traditions, focal point, or anything else. Tension has been a part of who we are from the days of the early church, through the Reformation, and into the 21st century. It has always been a part of the church as it is part of any human institution. We have always lived with it, even when we splintered into smaller versions of ourselves.

Living with tension is part of living, part of being in proximity with humanity. While we may like the idea of agreeing with one another, it is in disagreement that we grow. Much like shifting the middle note of a chord back and forth between major and minor helps a piece of music to evolve, as the church body responds to discomfort, it too grows. Thus, it needs to feel discomfort, needs to disagree in order to evolve into its next iteration. Instead of forcing agreement where there will never be true agreement, why not accept the disagreement and work within our own individual contexts to bring about Kingdom growth.

Middle of the Road

Road

“Do you know what’s in the middle of the road? Roadkill”

Often, I have heard this little saying from people taking a strong position regarding something in life. Usually, they are trying to convey the idea that you cannot take a middle stance on an issue because those in the extremes will ‘run over you’. What they most often want is for you to capitulate and see their way as the ‘right’ way, giving them a ‘win’ for their team. From my perspective, I see that as a faulty expression of logic often predicated on anecdotal arguments, expressions of personal incredulity, or an appeal to a biased understanding of authority. It is the concept that there has to be ann absolute right and an absolute wrong. For those who are into Star Wars, only the Sith (the ‘bad guys’) deal in absolutes.

From my perspective, the idea of absolute thinking is a form of intellectual and theological imprisonment. When you define something as an absolute, you are in essence saying the idea you espouse to is so airtight, so concrete, so infallible, that it is a form of scientific, provable evidence (a by product of modernist, enlightenment thinking). Absolutes should be reserved for things like 2+2=4, Planck’s constant, and E=mc2. To try to define something like faith, which is built purely on subjective, relational ideas and ideals is in my opinion; a fool’s errand, something akin to chasing your tail. You will most likely never mature in your in your thinking, political or theological, due to the refusal to see yourself as growing.

Jim Harnish writes, “If we Methodists can find a way to be in ministry together while honoring the diversity of our convictions, we may have a critically important witness for our deeply divided nation.”[i] I think there is a great deal of truth to this. Rev. Harnish, I believe, is alluding to being able to have a perspective, yet allow others to do so, not necessarily ‘live and let live’ but ‘live along side one another’. It is an invitation to diverse community, an ideological stew, where the ingredients do not melt into one another but mix to bring out the flavors that each has.

I hold no illusions that the world will sort this combative, philosophical milleau anytime soon, but my prayer is that we can at least begin to have enough of an honest dialogue to see past our own absolutism in order to hear one another. A wise man once said, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?”[ii] I believe it time to reach beyond those we love to those we might not feel so much kinship with or feeling for and begin to accept that absolutism will only lead to political and religious despotism and create an environment none of us want to be a part of.


[i] https://jimharnish.org/2017/09/24/something-the-storms-blew-away/

[ii] Matthew 5:46