The Words That Come Alive in Our Lives (ch. 12)

My reflection on Chapter 12 (“Stories That Shape Us”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

We Make the Road by WalkingSeveral times over my years in seminary, and then as a parish pastor, I have heard the old dictum “One hour of study for every minute in the pulpit.” There was a time, perhaps, in my seminary years where that was possible to live out. I had the luxury of being independent, without family to provide for, and my 24 hours a day were mine. Of course I could spend as much time on sermon preparation as I wanted. And I did.

I recall the day two of my classmates came up to me in the library and lamented that they couldn’t preach as well as I. I was embarrassed by their compliments, but also well aware that I had none of their burdens: Single parents. Holding down near-full-time jobs while in seminary. One raising a special needs child. They were the seminarians to be affirmed—they found a way to prepare sermons. Maybe not as finely crafted as could be accomplished in a few more hours in the study. But still the Good News was shining through. I am humbled today at the thought of their courage going forward in seminary, and their needing to trust God to guide them. How tired they must have been at the end of the day when they put their kids to bed, and there still was a mountain of homework to do!

One hour of study for every minute of sermon? Well, it may have been possible in those seminary years, but that doesn’t happen in my life anymore. (Apologies to my homiletics professors.) But Brian McLaren framed what that process is like for me in Chapter 12 when he writes about biblical interpretation. He says that good interpretation begins with three elements: Science, art, and heart. The science part is the study of the history, language, culture, development of the scripture over time, and so on. The art is the ability to draw meaning from the stories of the Bible which speak of a time long, long ago. One needs to look at scripture as literature, in that case. Finally, McLaren says the heart needs to be involved in interpretation as it remains open to the prompting of the Spirit.

The number of hours spent in sermon preparation (or a Sunday School lesson, for that matter) do not matter so much as having all 3 elements present in the hours one does have. I think about my preaching and sermon preparation over the years, and how all 3 elements needed to be there each week. Some weeks will take more hours than other weeks; some weeks the time is limited and you can’t change that fact. But you need all 3 things—science, art, heart—in order to enter that pulpit and offer a good and faithful Word.

We’re nearing the end of our year-long journey together. Thank you for joining me in any way you did—reading McLaren’s book, participating in my blog, speaking with others about your readings, sitting with me in conversation. You and I are part of God’s story, even as we read the old, old story of His love. May you and I continue to find ourselves caught up in that love, shaped by it, and energized to share it.

It’s Not Too Late?? (Ch. 7, sort of)

My attempt to reflect on chapter 7 (“It’s Not Too Late”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

We Make the Road by WalkingHad to laugh at the title of last week’s chapter from Brian McLaren’s book. Oh, I’ve kept up with my reading, and have already read chapter 8 as well. But the truth is, I have NOT kept up with writing my posts. So here I sit at the keyboard realizing it IS getting a little late, at least in terms of keeping to my reading-writing calendar I pledged I would undertake.

It’s not that I didn’t try to post a blog last week on Chapter 7. But the Spirit didn’t move, or perhaps I didn’t sense its movement. I read Chapter 8 for this week, thinking, well, surely something will strike me regarding this chapter, and the muse will accompany me at the keyboard. Nope.

My guess is that other pastoral tasks have more or less taken over my time and my creative mind. Right now I’m responsible for two rather large programs that typically run concurrently: A New Member program and a 5 week adult learning opportunity. My head is pretty much wrapped in those activities.

All this to say that I may never get around to posting my thoughts on Chapter 7…or Chapter 8. Too early to tell about Chapter 9. We’ll see. In the meantime, keep reading McLaren’s book. I am. I trust his words are meaningful and thoughtful, even if my words aren’t forthcoming. See you on the journey!

God of the Big Picture (ch. 6)

My reflection on Chapter 6 (“Plotting Goodness”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

While eating breakfast and drinking my morning coffee, my routine is to check headlines on my tablet. First I scan the online version of our local newspaper—local news and sports, national headlines, today’s obituaries. Next I select a couple different news agencies and read a couple stories from each. Then a few essays from Real Clear Politics. I always do it in that same order, being the creature of habit that I am. However, I can sometimes get bogged down in stories that break my heart or leave me anxious: The latest shooting by a police officer. The most recent terrorist attack. The epidemic of heroin. The details of computer hacking. The growing cases of Zika. The photos of young children in Aleppo.

A morning that began with hope and promise is now tinged with anguish and helplessness.

Some mornings I have to tell myself, will myself NOT to click on a particular story, for fear of the emotional aftermath I’ll experience. This is not Nancy being an ostrich with her head in the sand, denying the world’s woes. But it is setting some boundaries that keep me from drifting into despair.

I was glad to read McLaren’s words in Chapter 6 today. To be honest, most of the chapter didn’t hold my interest. But it was one particular phrase, early on, that caught my attention and sums up where I need to place the news of the day.

We Make the Road by Walking

McLaren is busy working through the following idea in chapter 6—that while you and I plot among ourselves and in ourselves to acquire things FOR ourselves, God is plotting goodness. But the phrase that I hold onto is this simple one: “While we plot ways to use God to get blessings for ourselves, God stays focused on the big picture of blessing the world…”

God stays focused on the big picture of blessing the world. I may not always be aware of it, or be able to see it, but that is truth of our faith. From Abram and Sarai, who were called to journey into the unknown (a “big picture” that God could see), to Mary, informed by Gabriel that she would bear a son by the power of the Holy Spirit and that this child would save her people (a “big picture” that God could see), the Bible is full of stories of this particular truth. And I am like those poor, anxious, fretful, disciple-student-apprentices of Jesus—wondering what I will eat or drink or wear…wondering what Jesus could possibly mean by his strange stories…wondering what Jesus is up to when he offers love to the unlovable and commands I do the same. I say to myself, it’s the big picture, dummy!

Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pay attention to the news of tragedy and war and man’s inhumanity to man. Doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try, in my own little corner of the world, to shed our Lord’s light in dark places. It DOES mean that while I am asking God for strength that I might do these small acts of grace, I can rest assured God is taking charge of the big picture. And knowing that, I am less overwhelmed, and more hope-filled each day.

Our next chapter is 7 (“It’s Not Too Late”). See you on the journey!

Those Difficult Old Testament Stories (Ch. 5)

My reflection on Chapter 5 (“In Over Our Heads”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

The waiting room in my father’s dental office had an array of magazines, including Time, U.S. News and World Report, and Highlights. Somewhere along the way, my dad also acquired a free sample book—Volume One of Arthur Maxwell’s series The Bible Story. It contained various stories from the Old and New Testament, plus several moralistic tales about good children and bad children.

bible-story

I used to read the book, skimming through the story of Adam and Eve (beautifully illustrated, with leaves strategically placed on the first humans who were handsome and decidedly Anglo-Saxon in feature). I made my way to the story of Noah and the great flood. That illustration was not beautiful. Good thing I was not an overly sensitive child, because the illustration showed a numberless people drowning in flood waters. All heads and hands reaching out above the waves, begging for help, while Noah and his family and a bunch of animals were safely aboard the ark.

I don’t think I thought too much about the illustration back then and what it represented. Bad people—or at least disobedient people—dying through God’s righteous anger. That’s what those Bible stories all seemed to be about.

But I think back now and realize it was a horrific illustration, and so contrary to much that I believe today about God because of the story of Jesus. There are several Old Testament stories, including the great flood, which confuse me with their intent, and portray God as angry and vengeful and demanding. Or at the least, strangely silent about and seemingly supportive of violence. There’s God’s command that Abraham should slay his son Isaac to prove his obedience to God. There’s God sending poisonous serpents to sting the Israelites when they got grumpy and grumbling during that long journey in the wilderness. Don’t even get me started on the rape and dismemberment of the Levite’s concubine in Judges. Then there’s the entire book of Job.

When an Old Testament lesson is tied to the Gospel or Epistle on a given Sunday, it is so much easier to deal with it. But when all I have is an Old Testament lesson, and I am mired in incomprehensible stories of God’s wrath and a violent world where there is no justice, well, it is difficult to see where the “Gospel” (the good news) is to be found.

McLaren tries to explain this by showing how Old Testament writers were able to take universal legends and mythical stories and refine them for theological purposes. Ok, but it still doesn’t make the tower of Babel sound any more palatable. The flood still seems like a terrible way for God to respond to human sin.

To be honest, I’d rather immerse myself in the REAL good news, found in the person of Jesus. I realize I can’t ignore the Old Testament images, but I do have to see them as part of the process, part of the journey that God himself was making in the midst of his created world. McLaren keeps saying in this chapter that “God is better than that” and that gives me some solace. McLaren says that as the biblical story continues, the stories interact and weave through one another, and we come to know “an ever-fuller and deeper vision of God.” He writes how we come to know a God who “consistently opposed the oppressors and consistently takes the side of the humble, the vulnerable, and the poor.”

So I note how a rainbow placed in the sky by God is his promise never to destroy the world with a flood. And I read where the bronze serpent on the pole that Moses is commanded by God to fashion is the antidote to the stinging serpents God sent in the first place. And God makes it so that a ram gets caught in a thicket, and Isaac doesn’t need to be the thing sacrificed by Abraham to God.

But even so, I admit I often have had my fill of Old Testament. So I move ahead, turning the pages till I read about an angel appearing to Mary and announcing she will conceive and give birth to a son who will save his people. McLaren writes, “In word and deed, in parable and miracle, Jesus shows that God is at work in history to heal what is broken…” It is in those pages where I linger, it is in that holy and perfect love where I abide.

Our next chapter is 6: “Plotting Goodness.” See you on the journey!

 

 

Green with Envy Over Green Granite Countertops (Ch. 4)

My reflection on Chapter 4 (“The Drama of Desire”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

I’ve been avoiding this post. And not just because I didn’t feel like sitting down and cranking out a post on the next chapter of McLaren’s book. It was THIS chapter I just didn’t want to comment upon. Because it hits too close to home. It is a chapter all about envy and desire, competitiveness and judgment. These things are part of the human predicament, and, I’m embarrassed to say, part of MY predicament.

We Make the Road by WalkingMcLaren takes the 2nd creation story in Genesis, and brings up the topic he mentioned in chapter 2 about the two trees in the Garden of Eden. We can choose aliveness with God by eating from the Tree of Life, or we can become destructive by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Here in chapter 4, McLaren addresses the concept of desire head-on. He writes, “To be alive is to imitate God’s generous desires….to create, to bless, to help, to serve, to care for, to save, to enjoy. To make the opposite choice—to imitate one another’s desires and become one another’s rivals—is to choose a path of death.”

How often have I made the foolish choice here? Too many times over a lifetime. I’ve been envious of someone else over the most trivial things, and I’m ashamed to admit it. Whether it was the friend who ended up with the guy we both liked…or the girl who got the part I wanted in the musical…or the acquaintance who seemed so popular and EVERYONE was enamored with them…or the neighbor with the green granite countertops…or…well, you get the picture.

But it’s not just the desire for those things/people/qualities that is the problem. It is the resulting judgment made about that person who suddenly has become my imagined rival. It’s one thing to say, “Boy, I really wish I was as popular as _____.” It is quite another thing to say, “Why in the world are people so mesmerized by her? What do they see in her?” It’s one thing to say, “I am disappointed that I didn’t get that role in the play.” It is quite another thing to say, “She is a pathetic actress. I would have handled that role so much better.”

So here was the post I didn’t want to make regarding the chapter that hit too close to home. I’m glad for the simple confession we will use today in worship. It begins where perhaps all confession needs to start—with our failure to recognize what God has given us and to be thankful for it. (Because when we desire something someone else has or is, we are saying that what we have or who we are simply isn’t enough.) Our confession at the worship service I will lead begins like this: “Lord, all that we have is a gift from you, yet we do not live lives of gratitude.” It is absolutely true that when I am thankful for the things I have, I treasure them more, and seem to need those other things less. The green granite countertop, beautiful as it is, recedes into the background, and my skin tone begins to look decidedly less green.

Our next chapter is 5 (“In Over Our Heads”). See you on the journey!

The Pattern That Is Jesus’ Way (ch. 3)

My reflection on Chapter 3 (“A World of Meaning”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

Several months ago, my husband, son, and I watched a television show that dealt with the “history” of mathematical study. It was a topic right up my son’s alley (a recent math graduate from PSU), as well as of interest to my husband (physics graduate from PSU, not so recently). The topic of mathematics is not up my alley, of course, but I figured I’d learn something by watching it.

Before I actually fell asleep (yes, I had an exquisite nap during the bulk of the hour), I did indeed learn something. It has to do with patterns in nature. Something called the Fibonacci Series. This is a series of numbers in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers. The sum is called the Fibonacci number. A simple example of such a series is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21 etc. An Italian mathematician named Leonard Bonacci, known as Fibonacci, introduced the sequence into Western European mathematics.

Now, usually by this time I would be asleep. Except the television program went on to say that the Fibonacci series is found as a pattern in nature all the time. For example, flower petals and leaf stems and the scales on a pineapple all exhibit Fibonacci numbers. You’ll find 3 petals on an iris, 13 petals on a corn marigold, 21 petals on a black-eyed Susan, 89 or 144 on a sunflower. Scientists theorize these patterns in nature are the ways these plants grow efficiently, perhaps maximizing the space utilized so that the sun falls on each part evenly.Sunflower

I had never heard about the Fibonacci series—or perhaps I had merely been asleep already in a math class by the time the topic was introduced. At any rate, I found it fascinating. The orderliness of nature, the organizational quality of creation, fills me with awe. So McLaren’s Chapter 3, opening up with the patterns in creation reminded me of this first 15 minutes of a television show I’m glad I caught before I snoozed. We can look at God’s good creation and see the amazing mathematical orderliness of it, and how God fashioned a world of intricate and organized beauty.

But McLaren also points out the reality of what happens in this orderly creation. Sometimes you and I experience chaos, disorder, and situations where the randomness of events makes us wonder whether life really makes any sense at all. When we face illness, when a loved one dies, when we are let go from our job, when a friend betrays us, when terrorism strikes too close to home, when 30 inches of snow dump themselves in our driveway after meteorologists assured us we were looking at maybe 14-18 inches max—well, the stability of well-known patterns of our lives is completely shaken.

And then we wonder where God is, and why disorder and senselessness seem to reign. These are the times when clinging to faith is as hard as it gets.

McLaren ultimately encourages us to look to the pattern in Jesus. He refers to the Gospel of John, and his emphasis on a particular Greek word, logos, used for Jesus. It means “word.” But it also seems to mean “wisdom” or “meaning.”

All of our “ologies” – theology, biology, meteorology – use that word as their suffix. “Ology” is a subject of study, a branch of knowledge. So if Jesus is, as John called him, the logos of God, then Jesus – in his very person – is the fullness of the wisdom of God. In the person of Jesus (his words and deeds, his life and death) we can begin to understand who God is. McLaren goes on to define “logos” as “pattern” or “logic.” Thus Jesus is the “logic” of God, the visible “pattern” of God incarnate in our world.

Then McLaren suggests we look to Jesus, this itinerant preacher who traveled around and healed, befriended, and forgave, and follow that pattern ourselves. It is a life marked by a pattern of service, compassion, acceptance, and love. He suggests we spend our lives discerning this pattern of love and wisdom that can be found in God’s universe, and let it become the pattern that guides our lives.

Our next chapter is 4: “The Drama of Desire.” See you on the journey!

The Anonymous and Cruel Judge (Ch. 2)

My reflection on Chapter 2 (“Being Human”) from the book We Make the Road by Walking by Brian McLaren.

Of the two creation stories found in Genesis, I’ve always resonated with the second one, the one found in Genesis 2. Genesis 1 is an all-orderly and systematized creation, a place for everything and everything in its place. Moon there, stars there, plants there, and human beings there. But Genesis 2 presents a messiness to creation—at least when it comes to the appearance of humans. The one human has loads of animals to name and know, but does not have a helper fit for that human, so God creates another. The humans are given an abundance of good things from the hands of the Lord God, and are warned not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (God probably should have used reverse psychology here. Of COURSE they eat from the tree.)

The messiness of their lives began in that garden when they, as McLaren indicates, misjudged God and decided to play God themselves. The messiness of their lives continued as they ate of that tree and now recognized their brokenness, their refusal to trust God, their tendency toward selfishness and manipulation, their lack of self-control.

What was once all orderly and systematized is now a creation run amok at the hands of fallible humans. It could have been so different. But it wasn’t. Here in Genesis 2 we gain an early understanding of human sin, and whether or not you agree with the doctrine of original sin, it’s clear we are not all that different (or better or wiser or less selfish) than Adam and Eve.

We Make the Road by Walking

McLaren makes clear that although we are created in the image of God, we make choices along our journey which take us pretty far afield from what God intended us to be. McLaren writes, “We can use our intelligence to be creative and generous, or to be selfish and destructive.” There. Pretty much sums up that human predicament of ours.

Then McLaren asks, in his discussion section, for us to consider when someone has been destructive with us—playing God and judging us. (Or, conversely, when have we judged others and played God.)

Funny how a person can remember hurts from years ago, even if those hurts have been dormant and placed in a little corner of the mind that one doesn’t go to very often. While my story was not a moment where I was judged cruelly, I did feel its sting. I decided to pull it out from its little storage bin in my memory to sift through again here. It is one of the reasons I abhor anonymous comments (like the Sports Fan Line that used to be part of the Harrisburg newspaper sports page). When someone can remain relatively anonymous, they feel empowered and bold to say anything without caring about consequences.

I was editor of my college newspaper. Originally, it was a job that was going to be shared with another classmate—we worked well together, and I looked forward to sharing the challenging responsibilities of the editorship with her. As it turned out, she decided to graduate early, and about six weeks before my senior year began, I learned I would be editor alone. It made me a bit anxious, as there were things with which I was unfamiliar, and the workload would be double. I recall the first few months of publishing this weekly paper were a bit rocky. Recruiting more staff, dealing with equipment that was sluggish or persnickety, tackling hot potato issues on campus and then offering editorial comment—some weeks were tougher than others.

Then I got the long, anonymous letter. It was shoved through the bottom of my office door one night. It was all critical critique. Some of it was quite accurate. Yes, there was too much white space in the headline area—we needed to use bigger headline fonts. Yes, a few photos were blurry, and the caption didn’t capture the essence. Yes, our layout was haphazard, and selection of front page stories was questionable. The letter covered it all, one minute item after another. In exquisite detail, the author of the letter picked out every error, every mediocre bit of journalism evident. And of course my editorials were critiqued, too. I felt ashamed; I did experience hurt.

I didn’t know who wrote it, though I had a suspicion or two. But what did it matter? The judgment rendered was fairly spot on. I had much to learn in editing a newspaper. Yet I had to wonder what the point was. The person or persons didn’t offer to help me. The person or persons didn’t offer one small crumb of encouragement. And they knew they were anonymous. They knew me, but I didn’t know them.

Of course, I got over it. The newspaper chugged along, improving as the months went by, and in the long run I was glad I had taken up the challenge. However, it did give me food for thought as I discerned a career in journalism…

I really hadn’t thought about the anonymous judge who sent me that letter in a long time. But I think of how there are many anonymous and cruel judges out there, playing God, and eviscerating people over the internet, on Facebook and Twitter. Leslie Jones, the comedian and actress, has been cruelly trashed on Twitter, and recently had her Facebook hacked. The vile stuff put out there about her—well, if you or I were on the receiving end, we would be afraid to leave our homes and just want to pull the covers over our heads. I am aware of several female journalists, such as Jessica Valenti, who constantly receive disgusting comments. Whatever it is that Leslie Jones and Jessica Valenti have (Courage? Willingness to be themselves? Chutzpa?) apparently makes others see fit to crush them, defame them, destroy them with obscene commentary.

See the mess we human creatures have gotten ourselves into? Eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fail to trust and rely upon God, insist on going our own way on the journey, and we threaten to destroy one another. In our hands, creation continues to run amok.

There is so much of which to repent. May God grant us time for the amendment of life.

Our next chapter is 3: “A World of Meaning.” See you on the journey!