Scripture and our stories...

NOTE: here are my weekly sermon notes for Sunday, August 23, 2009. We're going to be doing worship in the State Forest this week with our neighbor's at South Congregational Church. So, if you are in the area and want to join us, bring a lawn chair and head out to the Pittsfield State Forest: Because there will be two (2) preachers sharing the message, we thought it would be wise to tell one another our story of ministry through our favorite defining Bible texts. Here's the way mine came out...

When I was beginning a conversation with the search committee at First Church, after they had asked me a number of good and penetrating questions, I asked them: tell me what verse from Scripture you are liking the most right now and how it says something about your life? As you might imagine, there was a collective shudder on the other end of the telephone – and some nervous laughter – before the group began to rise to the occasion.

And I have to tell you that although it took a little bit of time to build up some spiritual steam, we eventually got rolling and I learned a lot about First Church. Because, you see, there are no right or wrong answers to this question – it’s all about naming the source of your spiritual commitment and grounding it within our tradition – and I always discover at least two things whenever I ask it.

+ First, how truly uncomfortable many contemporary Christians are with the Bible. They really are: we’ve been beaten up with it and shamed, made to feel stupid and inadequate; so I’m not surprised when folks don’t jump at the chance to talk about the Bible with me. They have good reasons for being quiet.

+ And yet the second thing I tend to discover is how authentically spiritually literate many of us are, too. Not scholars – nor those who can quote chapter and verse – but spiritually literate people who know something of God’s loving grace and don’t quite know how to talk about it.

And how can you talk about it in everyday language? How can you summarize the blessings, mystery, awe, beauty, pain and all the rest? Poets and musicians, dancers and sculptors have spent their whole lives trying to get it right and they only get close. How does St. Paul put it: now we see as through a glass darkly, later we shall see face to face?

So we have to try – and keep trying – because there is one more thing we can discover when we pick a Bible passage for our lives: it gives us a frame of reference for understanding what God is doing in our own lives. Let me explain by sharing what I mean from within my own experience, ok? The first selection I read this morning comes from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome – Romans 12 to be exact – and it has been one of my favorite Bible passages for over 35 years. In fact, it is the selection that most clearly describes who I was when I first went into ministry.

Listen to how Paul talks about the Christian life:

I appeal to you sisters and brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable, to the Lord for this is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to the ways of this world, but rather be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.

Eugene Peterson, who has reworked the scriptures into contemporary language that is both poetic and persuasive, renders Romans 12 like this:

So here's what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for God. Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.

Aren’t those words great? I love them for they speak to me of finding God in my ordinary, everyday walking around life – and that’s something I still trust and affirm. God is here – within and among us – not that God isn’t out there, too, or above and beyond: I love the way one of our United Church of Christ prayers puts it: “Holy God, our loving Creator, close to us as breathing and distant as the farthest star…” Such wonderful words and they still work for me.

And if I am really honest with you, there are other parts of Paul’s poetry that I continue to affirm all these years later. I love that fact that we are reminded that our goal is well-formed spiritual maturity. The old translations speak of perfection – be ye perfect as the Lord your God is perfect – but that is both inadequate and impossible: our calling is not perfection, but spiritual maturity and that is part of what Paul is saying.

He’s also reminding us that we will be changed from the inside out and I can’t tell you how important that is, ok? God will change us from the inside out – so stop worrying and fussing so much! I’ve spent 35 years in the church worrying and fussing and feeling inadequate – maybe you have, too – and here’s why: the opening words of the scripture confused me.

+ Present your bodies as a living sacrifice – for a long, long time I didn’t really know what that meant. I knew what a sacrifice meant in the Old Testament temple: was that what God was asking from me?

+ And I’ve heard a lot of preachers talk about this text saying things like Paul calls us a living sacrifice because we keep crawling off the altar. Kinda creepy, don’t you think?

And here’s the rub: presenting myself to God as a living sacrifice always meant that I deserved to be destroyed – that I could never be good enough for Christ – that no matter how hard I tried I really needed to try harder – and even then that wouldn’t really be good enough. I’ve discovered over the years that a lot of Christians have been cursed with this type of spirituality…

+ It squeezes some into the mold of self-righteousness and others into the mold of self-hatred. It causes a lot of us resent the church and even become Mark Twain’s definition of a Pharisee.

• Do you know it? He said a Pharisee was a good man in the worst sense of the word. Perfect… and I’ve been there, haven’t you?

Trying to live into this spirituality – as much as I love Paul’s words – almost made me crazy: It nearly destroyed my marriage, could have turned my children against me and the church to say nothing of pushing me out of ministry. So after lots of counseling and prayer – and some pretty crazy stuff – I took the advice of those wise old philosophers, Led Zeppelin, and said to Paul: I can’t quit you baby… so I’m gonna put you down for awhile.”

+ Put you down and picked up something of the spirit of Jesus in this other passage – my current favorite for about the last 10 years – that says: "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly.”

• I was tired – I was certainly burned out on religion – and I needed to find a way – from the inside out – to rely on God’s grace not judgment. And I’ve discovered a lot of others want this, too.

So that’s what I’ve been exploring for about 10 years: the unforced rhythms of God’s grace – the natural way of living as a prayer rather than trying to force my life into praying – being awake and aware. Accepting forgiveness immediately rather than fretting about it and understanding that I was made to get it wrong at least as much as I get it right so…. what am I supposed to learn from all my mistakes?

+ Are you with me? It is a very different way of being spiritual – or doing ministry. And I have to tell you: it’s a lot more fun, too.

+ I don’t know if that makes any sense to you… but it is my story with the scriptures and I think we each have to start with our own story, yes?

Let me leave you with this exquisite explication of my new found spirituality by the poet, Mary Oliver, who writes this in her new collection:

The singular and cheerful life of any flower
in anyone’s garden
or any still unowned field –

if there are any –
catches me
by the heart,
by its color,

by its obedience
to the holiest of laws:
be alive
until you are not.

pale violet bull thistle,
morning glories curling
through the field corn;

and those princes of everything green –
the grasses
of which there are truly
an uncountable company,

on its singular stem
to rise and ripen.

What, in the earth world,
is there not to be amazed by
and to be steadied by
and to cherish?

Oh, my dear heart,
My own dear heart,
full of hesitations,
questions, choice of directions,

look at the world.
Behold the morning glory,
the meanest flower, the ragweed, the thistle.
Look at the grass


RJ said…
thanks... blessings to you my friend
Craig said…
I'm sorry you found it hard to be a living sacrifice for Jesus Christ (Romans 12:1-2). It's not an easy thing, yet, it's not a hard thing. One must display the Fruit of the Holy Spirit by walking in the Spirit(Galatians 5:16-25).

Do you realize that Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were into the teachings of occultist Aleister Crowley? Most rock/pop music is heavily influenced by the occult and New Age teachings. I speak from specific knowledge and experience as I had (and still have to a point) an extensive record collection including hard rock, punk, alternative, pop, folk -- you name it.

So, do I presume the title of your blog is from the Talking Heads song of the same name? Yes, I still do occasionally listen to secular music; but, I don't want to be overly influenced. On this particular Talking Heads record: how do you reconcile the more positive themes in some of the songs with the very negative of the others (Psycho Killer, No Compassion)?

It's best to heed the warnings of the Apostle John in Revelation 18:4 "Come out of her my people so that you will not share in her sins..." in speaking of the apostate church.
RJ said…
Yes, Craig, I know about all of the less than holy connections throughout popular culture - and wrestle with them, too. But there is also beauty amidst even the strangest things - Zep, too (not all, to be sure.) No, the title of my blog comes (read the intro) comes from my boys U2 who continue to be faithful and creative although in bold and challenging ways. Blessings to you and thanks for posting.
Craig said…

Thanks for your response. I'm familiar with U2. For example, on their record War: the song "40" takes a few verses from Psalm 40, "Surrender" has the lyric "If I want to live, I've got to die to myself someday" and so on. All this sounds good, right?

Well, Bono supports the UN Millenium Development Goals which sound like a great humanitarian effort. However, good works without proclaiming the True Gospel means nothing ("filthy rags" according to Isaiah 64:6). Unfortunately, the ultimate goal of the UN is to push for a one world government/one world religion which will NOT bode well for Christianity (see Revelation 13:5-8 & 14-17). Only God knows whether Bono is involved wittingly or unwittingly.

A major supporter of the UN is Lucis Trust (formerly Lucifer Publishing Company):

The Alice Bailey books referenced here were chanelled to/through her by "Tibetan Master Djwhal Khul (DK)" and provide the blueprints for the New Age Movement which is behind the UN and many of the organizations which enjoy NGO (non-governmental organization) status with the UN (like Lucis Trust).

And, regarding the Eucharist: this originates from Catholic belief (which may have come from the pagan beliefs of Mithraism) of Transubstantiation; ie, that Jesus Christ is actually IN the host/wafer and is crucified at each Mass.

1) I believe when Jesus Christ said, "It is finished" that it REALLY WAS. So, why would we need to sacrifice Him again every Sunday? He alone is the substitutionary atonement for our sins.

2) In thinking logically going back to the original Last/Lord's Supper: since Jesus was not yet crucified how could He be physically present in the bread and wine? Obviously, He wasn't and his words were used as a metaphor.

I plead with you to look into the underlying beliefs of the above. I don't expect you to rely on my words. May the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob richly bless you in the name of Jesus Christ His one and only Son!
RJ said…
thanks craig... may God be with you always.

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