Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Reverend Sonya McAuley-Allen

It is with real regret that I write this post. Regret because Rev. Allen has submitted her resignation to the session of Fourth United Presbyterian Church. After hearing the circumstances and how her need to be near her grandmother in North Carolina was so deep in her soul, we accepted Sonya's resignation. But, the motion to accept her resignation was amended to pay her salary a month after she has left in gratitude for the work Rev. Allen has done among us. She protested, but we were having none of it. The motion passed unanimously and with a great deal of sadness.

I am not going to try to say much at this point, though I will later. But I will say that I am very sad to know that Rev. Allen, my co-pastor, the only pastor I have ever shared the responsibilities of being a pastor with, is leaving. A pastor that has opened her heart to our congregation and a pastor that I care for very much, who has been trustworthy and kind throughout our work together and when I needed her has been my pastor.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Words for those who grieve

I share with you the agony of your grief,
The anguish of your heart finds echo in my own.
I know I cannot enter all you feel
Nor bear with you the burden of your pain;
I can but offer what my love does give:
The strength of caring,
The warmth of one who seeks to understand,
The silent storm swept barrenness of so great a loss.
This I do in quiet ways,
That on your lonely path
You may not walk alone.

-Howard Thurman

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

4th United Presbyterian Pictures

These are pictures from our November Community Forum.

More Pictures from 4th United Presbyterian

These are pictures from our Community Forum which meets normally on the last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. The schedule is different for December, as we will meet on December 16 at 6 p.m. for a Christmas celebration. Topics so far have been: police-citizen relations and the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure, immigration laws and the Bible, and health issues. And, O yes, we do eat at these meetings as you can see.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Scripture Readings for Advent 2010

First Sunday of Advent
November 28, 2010
Isaiah 2:1-5 Psalm 122 Romans 13:11-14 Matthew 24:36-44 Second Sunday of Advent
December 5, 2010
Isaiah 11:1-10 Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 Romans 15:4-13 Matthew 3:1-12
Third Sunday of Advent
December 12, 2010
Isaiah 35:1-10 Psalm 146:5-10or
Luke 1:46b-55 James 5:7-10 Matthew 11:2-11
Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 19, 2010
Isaiah 7:10-16 Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 Romans 1:1-7 Matthew 1:18-25

Marking the Passing of Time

Thanksgiving is this coming Thursday, I am 50 years old today, and Advent will begin next Sunday. These things that help us mark the passing of time: holidays, birthdays, holy seasons. And, as we move into the Advent season, Thanksgiving stands as a welcome.

September and October flew by before I even noticed, and now we are at the end of November. And, quite a few years have passed by so quickly as I am now 50 years old. I remember as a child thinking that when it was the year 2000 I would be 40 years old, which seemed very old. Well, 2000 came and went, and here we are 10 years down the road. "Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its sons away," as the hymn goes.

A very important thing about special days, like holidays and birthdays, is that it marks the passing of time, and somehow seems to slow time down just a little. These special days help us to slow down and realize where we are, who we are and what is going on in our lives and in the lives of those we love. It is a good thing to slow down and mark the passing of time before our time passes us by.

A day can seem so long when you are anxiously waiting or full of sorrow, and then thirty or forty years can seem to pass before you know it. But, we carry what has passed within our hearts and minds as memory. And, so what has passed still makes up who we are and remains part of our living. I guess our memories in a sense are always marking the passing of time, honoring what has happened within our lives, and giving us a sense of meaning through it all. It is an amazing thing that human beings generally are able to sort things out as well as they do and have some sense of purpose and hope in life. We can thank our Creator for that. Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

To Know Nothing Except . . .

"I decided to know nothing among you, but Jesus Christ and him crucified." 1 Cor. 2:5

Paul knew many different things as we know many different things, so what did he mean when he said, "I decided to know nothing among you?" Does he say these words to describe a particular stance or position about knowledge that he took in relation to the Corinthians and their conflicts? Or, is Paul describing a normative way of knowing, a way of knowing that applies to all who share the faith of Christ? I believe Paul is doing both: describing the particular position he has been pushed into by the Corinthian challenge, but also affirming that he has discovered in this time of necessity the way of knowing for all those who want to share the faith of Christ. I believe Paul has discovered a way of true understanding amidst the competing interests and allegiances of life.

"I decided to know nothing among you, but Jesus Christ and him crucified." Paul says: "I decided to know." Paul could have demonstrated his knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and the law, displayed his visionary experiences of faith. He could have told about the miracle working powers God had given him. But, Paul was afraid to trust in these ways and humbled himself to being a witness to the true way of life - the way of Jesus, the one who was crucified.

Paul could have debated philosophies, shown evidences of his superior intellect, but he was wary of all this. And, so he made a clear decision in his soul - to give way to speaking of Jesus' way, the way of complete love and obedience to the living God. Love of God and people; obedience to God's ways and will above all - the cross. Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Paul meant for his life, his deeds, his words be transparent to the crucified Jesus. That people might forget Paul and remember Jesus Christ and him crucified.

But, why does Paul focus his eyes and heart on the crucified Jesus? Why not speak of the Risen Lord here?

I think it is because you can get carried away with talk about Jesus' resurrection and victory and forget the way of Jesus and that way is a way of ultimate and costly love and obedience. Jesus asked/begged of God, that the cup of suffering and humiliation pass, but then knew it could not. So, he said: "Not my will, but thy will be done."

And, until we have have come before God and experienced something like this, some deep experience about how much love and obedience cost, until we have felt this urge to flee and then felt even deeper the resolve to obey out of love - until we have really said in the depths of our being: "Not my will, but thy will be done," in a particular crisis of life . . . until then, we might be believing, but when we pass through this test in faith, we begin to know - we become a disciple, one who is walking on the way of faith, the way of the crucified Lord.

Paul had experienced this way, been humbled and amazed by this way. And, it was his touchstone with reality and truth. He was going to stay close to this way. He would stay humble in knowing of Christ's faith.

In a religious culture that speaks the name of Jesus loudly and celebrates Jesus' victory, it is a radical way of believing to "know only Jesus Christ and him crucifed." In a triumphalist religious culture that knows about all parts of life and can tell you what to do about everything, it is a radical way of knowing to say: "I decided to know none of this, except Jesus Christ and him crucified."

In a religious culture that encourages you to become something, it is a radical stance to vow to become nothing so that Jesus might be known in his suffering.

In a wider church that celebrates the Risen and Exalted Jesus, it is a radical thing to proclaim the executed Jesus as the revelation of God's glory and power.

It is a way that denounces the strong, and encourages the weak - a way that puts to shame the wisdom of human beings and celebrates the shocking way of God that makes no sense in the world.

It is a way that finds Jesus present with the imprisoned and abandoned, but absent from the powerful and esteemed.

And, this is the way of Jesus, the glory and revelation of God on earth. The way Paul has experienced and the way he holds to in life. It is like Paul knows that any stepping away from this narrow way could lead to delusion and disaster.

The Quakers have a saying: "Stay low in the Seed." They mean what Paul means here. When you have a true experience of God - when the Christ has moved within your soul, stay close to that and don't move beyond it by either forgetting or saying more about it than you should. There is a reverent humility in faith that keeps us close to the crucified Jesus.

"Where you there when they crucified my Lord? Where you there when they crucified my Lord?" the spiritual goes. Let your faith , your way of knowing, stay in this holy song, for the feeling and reality of faith is in this spiritual. Stay in these words and don't go beyond them.

This is the way of life - the seed that brings new life. Be humble in this way of Jesus - let the way of Jesus become known in your living and your refusing to trust in any way of knowing or loving or living than the way of Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

This is the way of truth and life and salvation in this world and the next. This is the way of unity for the entire human race. There is no other way that is strong enough to draw together all the disparate parts of humanity. And, it is a way that goes through the crucified Jesus.

For those who will come to know God in this suffering of Jesus, God wills to be known. For those who would come to know God through the ways of victory and power, God simply withdraws in his wonderful humility.

The humble God cannot be known by arrogant humans, and this true God will not be remade in the image of arrogant humans, but graciously seeks to refashion us in the image of our humble God, an image that is born in our hearts when we embrace the crucified Jesus as the truth and glory of the living God. Amen.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Coming to Understand My Appalachian Heritage

I have been thinking about how I was raised, and how I really approach situations in life. I am a Hillbilly, which means I am a child of the Appalachian Mountains, who is a stubborn individualist. Now, I was taught at times in school and certainly in seminary about how awful it is to be individualistic, but I never really accepted that academic teaching. Sure, I understood that it was a real negative to be selfish and unable to identify with or care about those outside "the narrow confines of your day to day life," but I never really bought all the stuff about individuals being defined by a community. Sure, each of us is shaped deeply by our social environment, but there is something in the individual that the social environment can't determine. There is a central core in each person that reflects the mystery of God. So, I have always seen it from the other direction: a community is defined by its individuals and there is something irreducible and indestructible and well, indefinable about "the individual human being."

My Dad didn't teach me too many strict rules for living, but one thing he said over and over again was "if you have to be accepted by any group to feel like something, then you are in real trouble in life." Life just really wouldn't have been worth living for Dad if he had ever thought he had to wait around and look over his shoulder to see if somebody approved what he was doing. He would make his choices, live his life, try to help others in living, and that would be enough. In as sense that is the real goodness in the Appalachian way of life. YOU MAKE YOUR CHOICES, YOU LIVE YOUR LIFE, YOU TRY TO HELP OTHERS AS THEY LIVE THEIR LIVES, AND THAT IS ENOUGH. IF ANYONE ELSE HELPS YOU OUT, THAT IS A REAL GIFT, BUT NOT EXPECTED. AND, WHEN YOU REFLECT ON WHETHER YOU ARE LIVING YOUR LIFE THE RIGHT WAY OR NOT, YOU PULL AWAY FROM THE CROWD AND YOU COME BEFORE GOD THE BEST YOU CAN, AND YOU TRY TO LOOK AT YOUR LIFE HONESTLY. THERE MIGHT BE A TIME OR TWO IN LIFE WHEN YOU SHARE THIS REFLECTION WITH A TRUSTED FRIEND OR LOVED ONE, AND, WELL, THERE MIGHT NOT BE.

I guess when it comes down to it, I am a pretty trusting hillbilly, but I am still a hillbilly. My idea of a good place to live is a place where you can't see any other houses, streets, neighbors, or hear them.

The only real community I have ever known anything about is a community that gives a lot of room for individual peculiarities, accepts a lot of nonsense from individuals, and somehow draws the best out of individuals which in turn allows for the best community possible. I guess you would call my view of community one that starts from the "grass roots," which is to say, starts from its individual pieces. It is significant that Paul's definition of the Christian community gave a lot of attention to individual differences and the importance of respecting those. You didn't have to conform to some preset role defined by the community, but the community had to figure out how to accomodate your God-given, perhaps even peculiar gifts and bear with your weaknesses as well, just as you were to do the same for others.

Notes About Making Some Changes for the Better

There are professionals now who are called “Life-style coaches.” Their job is to work with individuals to develop strategies for changing life for the better. Counselors and therapists are coaches in a sense too, as they help individuals understand internal dynamics and begin to guide one’s internal dynamics in a positive direction. What we are coming to understand about human change is that not only does it require internal, psychological understanding, but it requires a change in external behaviors and patterns to go with the internal work. The mind follows the body just as often as the body follows the mind. Exercise and diet can restore healthy patterns of thinking and praying, just as healthy patterns of thinking and praying can help establish healthy patterns of exercise and diet. The internal and the external patterns are mutually reinforcing when they are negative and when they are positive.

What we need if we are to change for the better is the development of positive patterns in our external and internal lives. Fortunately, most all of us have experienced positive external and internal practices in the past. Most of us have been through times when we were exercising and eating in a helpful way. Most of us have been through times when we were engaging with others in a healthy way. Most of us have been through times when we enjoyed time alone, enjoyed times of prayer, enjoyed worship. Most of us have been through times when we gave up hurtful and negative patterns of behavior as well. When we made some hard choices to turn our lives in a new direction.

But, I ask: “Where are we today?” “Where are you today? Where am I today?”

What if I am at a point of dissatisfaction with how I am managing my life. Maybe I move back and forth between blaming someone else or some circumstances I can’t control for my disrupted life to beginning to take responsibility for negative patterns of thinking and acting.

Some words come to me: “You are responsible for your life whether the burdens you bear were self-imposed or imposed by others or by forces beyond your control. You are responsible for your life – to bear it out into the world for the glory of God and for the good of others and yourself.”

And, what is the biggest problem with my life? Often our basic problem is a lack of positive energy. What about this simple plan for change?: Stop doing those things that deplete energy; start doing those things that restore and sustain energy.

We need to remember that overeating (and, undereating), overdrinking, worrying, blaming (self and others) deplete energy. Exercise, praying alone, reading, working, listening,speaking honestly, music, crafts, especially self-expression, leisure with others, moderate eating and drinking restore and sustain energy. We don’t need to be overly moralistic about strategies of change. It is more helpful to simply name behaviors and ask whether they help create and sustain energy or cause the loss of energy in life.

God came among us to bring us life, not some rigid code of behavior. God came among us to make us holy/healthy,not to give us some religious code that would make us feel holy (and, perhaps feel holier than others). Secular pursuits can be more “holy” than religious pursuits if those secular pursuits create and sustain the energy of life and those religious pursuits deplete the energy of life (Jesus said: “I came that they might have life, and that abundantly”).

Note: self-expression through playing music oneself or writing or painting or building or knitting, etc. is almost always engaging, not disengaging behavior. Disengaging diversions are ones that require no self-expression, but rely on stimulation from outside, not from inside. The numbing part is that one is involved in something that does not require the presence of the self.

Now, it is often a matter of doing what you have done in the past to get back on a good path in life. Choosing to do so one day, and then another day, until you’ve put together a month, until you’ve put together a year, until it is simply the course of your life – so strong that you would have to consciously and wholeheartedly choose against it in order to keep the momentum from continuing on this good path. At the core of the positive choices; at the core of the engagement is a knowledge of the negative force of disengagement and a continuous, second nature choosing to both look out for and to resist any leanings towards disengagement with life. But, the leading thought is positive and engaging behavior,not negative and avoiding behavior. A primary focus on avoiding the negative simply leads back to disengagement.

Note: extremely conservative religion or rigid ideological religion (even if “liberal”)falls into patterns of disengagement by avoidance behavior. The worry over disengaging patterns becomes so extreme that it creates what it hoped to avoid: mind-numbing,disengagement from life. Examples can be drawn from rigid orthodoxy and the rigid patterns of behavior it generates, and examples can also be drawn from rigid “politically correct”lifestyles that cannot ever engage in life because of fears over “inappropriate” expressions both from oneself or from others.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Worship in the Sanctuary this Sunday, October 17, Knoxville College Homecoming

After being unable to use our sanctuary since mid-February of 2009, we will be back in it for the first time this Sunday, October 17 for our morning worship service. And, what is even better and fitting for this occasion is that we will have the community of Knoxville College with us for worship as we will be hosting their annual Homecoming Worship at our church.

Throughout the history of the former 1st United Presbyterian Church, the church and college joined together each year at homecoming in the sanctuary of 1st United Presbyterian Church which also served the college as McMillan Chapel. So, we are very pleased to be able to maintain this important bond from our history as many of us that now make up 4th United Presbyterian were at 1st United Presbyterian on Knoxville College campus for many years. And, some of our current members at 4th United Presbyterian attended Knoxville College, and became involved in 1st United Presbyterian in their college days. Others among our membership have had very close ties with the college, as teachers, staff, and as members of the Knoxville community who strongly supported education in this traditional black Presbyterian college.

So, come join with us as we welcome the Knoxville College community and as we continue to worship God together and thank God for the vision given those who founded Knoxville College in 1875.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

New Church Development Thoughts

Fourth United Presbyterian Church is a new church formed by uniting two old churches. The congregation of First United Presbyterian Church relocated as a result of this union, moving from the Knoxville College Campus about two miles away over to the corner of Glenwood and Broadway. The congregation of Fourth Presbyterian Church had mostly vacated the building by the time the two churches became acquainted with each other. But, there were 10 or 12 people still attending at 4th Presbyterian at the time. Whereas there were about 35 people participating at First United Presbyterian at the time of merger.

Within the first few months of our union, all but three members from Fourth Presbyterian Church had left our new church, but almost every one of those from First United Presbyterian remained with our new church. In fact, a few people who had been visiting at First United decided to join the new church as well.

At various points over the last year and a half at Fourth United, we have had visitors who became more or less involved in the life of the church. They are with us for a while and then move on. These visitations were positive experiences. Of course, we would like for a few of those who visit with us to join with us for the long haul. But, it is always nice to have someone who visits with you and shares the life of the church with you even if just for a time.

One reason our church doesn't "capture" new members too often is that we don't ask or expect a lot from visitors. Occasionally, there may be someone who doesn't feel welcomed because we are so low key. But,then a few people have just walked in, enjoyed the quiet welcome, and felt a sense of peace and good will and have stayed. I am one of those people who walked through the door of First United Presbyterian Church the first week of September of 1995. And, I have stayed all this time.

And, clearly there have been some changes in the congregational life over the years while we were First United Presbyterian and certainly in the past year and a half as we have been Fourth United Presbyterian.

We have younger church officers than when I first started. We have more babies, less youth. Less easy understanding of Presbyterian polity, and more need to have regular meetings to communicate over how to carry on the work of the church. Our congregation is much more active in participating in worship than formerly. That is, the singing is just much better and enthusiastic than in the past. Bible Study participation is a little less than in the past,though meetings continue to be very positive. Adult Sunday School is consistent, and perhaps better attended at times than in the past. The effort to establish a 3rd Wednesday Communion service at noon each month has not been too successful, but we continue to try as I am working with Rev. Patrick King,hoping to make this a community service and eventually provide a light meal for attendants. If you are able please come on Oct. 20 at noon as Anglican minister, Rev. King will be preaching and leading the service. I will be unable to be there because of my other job.

I'll only say one more thing about our new church development. Probably the most important thing our members and visitors and friends can do at this time is simply come whenver possible and join with us for services, Bible Study, Sunday School, Community Forums, 3rd Wednesday Communion. When you are a small group trying to make it, it is a great encouragement to just see people show up and to have people join you in worship, study and fellowship. As with any project, work, or effort to establish something new,the first thing is "showing up." The more people we have who are committed to showing up,the better off we are. But, talk like this usually ends up bringing on the feeling of pressure and provokes guilt in those who haven't been "showing up." And, our church has never been about that. If you don't show up, then, you still remain part of our fellowship. As I said, we are pretty low key. If you haven't been at worship for six months or a year or whatever,and you need some help, don't hesitate to call me or Rev. Allen or someone else. Don't feel like we've forgotten you if you haven't been around and we haven't checked on you for awhile. We don't tend to badger people. We don't ask a lot as I said. But, we are always glad to see those who come. We are encouraged by their/your expressions of faith, by their/your sharing of stories with us, and the sharing of a meal, a prayer and hug with us.

I hope we are doing something at Fourth United that will make people want to come and be a part of our worship and study and service on a regular basis, but whether regular or irregular we will be thankful to see you. Maybe one of the problems with a small church is that almost everybody has to be a regular, every Sunday participant to keep things going. If the church membership was larger, then you can have a core of regulars and a good number of less regular participants and it all works out just fine. For now, it would seem that our less regulars could help us get things going by being more regular until we get things going. And,then you less regulars will have served your role in our new church development and can start taking those "leaves of absence" again.

One thing about that. Not going to worship on Sunday can certainly be just fine. We don't go under compulsion to worship anyway. The only thing that concerns me about some of the patterns I have noticed over the years is that a signficant number of people take "leaves of absence" from church when they are in dark places, as if worshipping God was only something to be done when you are in the better places of life. This really worries both me and Rev. Allen. It indicates that we have not gotten through very well in our preaching that faith abides in the valley and on the mountain tops, and praise is a reality in the darkest times as well as brightest times. Sometimes I think that no matter what we preach, that the T.V. preachers are really the ones many people hear. And, the message of the T.V. preacher is generally one of health, wealth and success through faith. I know that some members or especially visitors may be a bit disappointed from time to time that Rev. Allen and I don't preach that gospel and hoot and holler about that kind of stuff. But, we do what we can to bear witness to the God of Jesus Christ, who calls us to be faithful, loyal, loving, just and merciful in our living whether it pays off with success in the world or not. It didn't pay off too well for Jesus in society as he ended up getting capital punishment, but God remembered his faithfulness and raised him to life outside the bounds of society. To live in faith, we must find a way to live outside the bounds and constraints and expectations of society even as we are part of society. To simply try to use religion to help us achieve the goals of success in our society is live within the bounds of society and under its constraints. Rev. Allen and I are trying to point to a better way - something they can't take from you when your bank account is gone, something they can't take from you when no one will take your side, something they can't take from you when disease runs you down. We aren't talking about escaping from this flesh and blood life and its challenges, but about experiencing within these earthen vessels the transcendent power of God, the power of the God who raises the dead, whose power is made perfect in our weakness. And, when you are in communion with that power of God, it brings a peace into life, and there may be some secondary benefits as well. But, seek you first the kingdom of God and the righteousness of God, and all these things you desire and need will fall into line one way or another as God becomes the one you need most of all. Amen.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Our First Community Forum on September 30

It was great to have a kitchen again and be able to meet in the downstairs fellowship hall. Betty Bomar was hard at work cooking and getting the kitchen organized, and Jane Parker was playing the old piano. And, a good group gathered to discuss the constitutional right to be free from unreasonable search and seizure. We dicussed the nature of police-citizen encounters, and ended up wondering and planning about how we could work towards establishing better understanding of the role of police in our community. It was very encouraging to see the good turnout and particularly good to be a part of an active discussion that was looking for ways to help build a spirit of peace and understanding in our community.

Our next community forum will be on the last Thursday of October, October 28 at 6 p.m. If you have an idea for one of our community forums, contact Mary Whaley (524-4680) or George Waters (805-3618).

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Being Christian and Being Human: Which Comes First?

A topic that is discussed regularly in churches is “how to evangelize.” The assumption is that we Christians have something very important that we need to share with others. If the way of Christian faith is something that is deeply important and formative in our lives, it seems to make sense that we would want to share that part of our lives with others.

But, what is it exactly that we are to share? An orthodox set of beliefs about God, the world, Christ, sin and salvation? An experience of transformation through the way of faith? Or, is it something else? Or, perhaps, should we just keep quiet mostly and live the way of faith?

For some reason I have just lost the desire to think in this way anymore. Because it requires me to first of all identify myself in a way that divides me from anyone who doesn’t self-identify as a Christian. For some reason, I just can’t do that anymore. I am just playing a false role, assuming a false identity, when I try to discuss “evangelism” in the traditional way.

My first and deepest identification is with humanity, as a member of the human race, and that is where I experience a living faith in Jesus, the Christ of God. I experience Christ at the center of humanity more than at the center of the Church. I feel like I have gained the whole world of people as brothers and sisters through Christ, not like I have separated myself from the world in favor of identification with the Church. So, when I begin to talk about Jesus and God, my conversation includes those outside the church as much as those inside the church.

In fact, I don’t have an insider’s message to preach anymore. When I do fall into this, it is very false, unconvincing especially to me. I don’t have an insider’s special secret knowledge to teach to outsiders. I don’t think I am in possession of anything that I can give out to others.

No, for me, I can bear witness and point to a reality that is beyond, but somehow moves within. I can point to a living God that moves beyond our ability to perceive, but somehow can be perceived in the depths of our experience in this life. I don’t have something in my head or in my heart to give out to others as a religious possession. I don’t have a fixed set of beliefs to try and convert someone to.

I am a witness to something that is going on in this world that is talked about in the Holy Scriptures and has been talked about by prophets and teachers and holy people for ages. I have an energy at the center of my life to bear witness to God’s presence in this world.

But, this is not something I ever possess. No, my religion, is not MY religion. It is the experience of something that comes from outside of me, is experienced externally and internally, but never possessed. It must come anew each day.
There is a sense in which I am as internally poor and bereft as the most hopeless and foolish person on earth, but I have this connection, this relation to something outside of myself. I have this orientation of my soul towards the Creator and Redeemer of life. I call this orientation faith. Being open to the coming of God’s Spirit which is constantly moving among the creatures of this world. It is like the sunflower that turns towards the sun and receives its energy.

And, this orientation of the soul outward, towards the Divine – I believe this is the effect of the coming of Christ, to turn the heart that was turned in on itself outward towards the light of day, towards the goodness of God, able to receive gifts of the Spirit of Life. I believe that every heart has a yearning to be turned inside out, to be open to the Creator, to be infused by a peace and power and wisdom from beyond, to be united once again with our human roots in the Divine Creator.

In the history of religions, we find that there were holy men and women and children in every age. The Bible bears witness to this openness of the heart in the prophets and faithful of Israel, but also to the openness of the heart to God among the gentiles as well. And, we find in history that certain human beings among Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam, as well as Judaism and Christianity have had this orientation towards God as well.

Now, I believe that Jesus is at the center of God’s creative and redemptive movement in this world, and the most powerful expression of the very character of God. But,we should remember that Jesus found quite a few supposedly unholy people that were wide open to the coming of God’s grace, and he found many supposedly holy people who were closed off from any real communion with God’s Spirit. And, it seems to me that we have a similar situation in our day. To draw lines and separate people on the basis of religious affiliation just doesn’t seem any more wise or in touch with reality now than it was back then.

I want to say this: celebrating the hope that has come in Christ causes a person to feel confined in the Church, always wanting to go and throw the door open wider, and, indeed to stand a little outside the “holy communion,” so as to not miss communion with the rest of humanity.

I appreciate and need somewhere to gather and speak and listen to words about God and Jesus. I appreciate and enjoy having a place to gather and sing the songs of faith and pray together and be silent together in expectation of the coming of a power, a word, a touch of grace from God. And, I certainly appreciate a place where people gather and do these things in such a way that you feel you can relax, enjoy, and share that with "all comers."

But, this communion only remains vital and helpful if it has an openness at its center: an openness to God’s coming and an openness to the coming of the neighbor, whether stranger or friend, into its midst.

A communion that is truly living from the Spirit of God will receive the Jew as easily as the Christian, the Muslim as easily as the Jew, the atheist as easily as the orthodox believer. Because the unifying force is the Christ, who is at the center of humanity, drawing all elements of humanity together in him.

Some Thoughts about Religion and Compulsion and a better way

I am beginning to feel more and more strongly that the sheer graciousness of the Gospel, the freedom from compulsion and control that is ours in Jesus, is what people hunger for so much as they labor under the burdens of this life. Jesus told the religious leaders of his day that they loaded burdens on the backs of men and women that they (the leaders) couldn't bear. And, Jesus contrasted his way of dealing with people by saying: "Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

Religion has always been dominated by a compulsive spirit, a controlling spirit by means of guilt. Jesus' way is the opposite. I want nothing to do with force, judgement, compulsion. We could really learn something from the traditional Quaker way. I don't know if they live by it anymore. But, there is an insight and an experience in the old Quakers and the Quakers like Rufus Jones and Thomas Kelly of the 20th century. This insight has something to do with the fact that God is not a God of force and compulsion, and we human beings find it unimaginable that the greatest authority in all the world acts the opposite of how we envision authority and the opposite of how we tend to exercise it.

We really seem to miss the point of the cross. The conservative Protestant doctrine of strict substitutionary atonement which still dominates Protestant theology in this country, portrays God as your basic King who has to have satisfaction to appease his indignation at imperfection and sin in his subjects. Jesus and Paul portray God as the Father of the prodigal son, who is motivated by one overriding affection: love and the desire to heal and reconcile and reunite. The One who demands no satisfaction from his subjects, but only asks that his subjects stop and receive his loving embrace. And, this One will not drag us kicking and screaming into his kingdom. God is not a God of force. He continues to come to us, speak to us, but in the end, he will not force us to do anything. The law of the universe made by our gracious God is that you really can't force anyone to do anything in the end. God put within his creatures an image that cannot be violated. He will not violate that image by compelling anyone to do anything.

Parents who come to have genuine relationships with their children learn this over time. The only real authority you have in your children's lives is an authority that arises from the deepest trust and love between you and your child. Real authority is not based on fear or force or guilt or anything compulsive or controlling. It is like that because that is the way God has graciously and wisely structured his creation.

Some thoughts I am having as I think about what it would be like for a church to be a fellowship of true grace, where burdens are lightened and almost never increased.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Community Forum, Sept. 30, 6 p.m.: Legal and Illegal Traffic Stops

Our community forum on Sept. 30 at 6 p.m. will be a presentation and discussion of the growing use of drug dogs at traffic stops, and some other issues that affect the day to day life of drivers in our area. Traffic stops are an area of life where normally law-abiding citizens have to face detentions, often lengthy detentions from police.

This forum will open the way for discussion of our experience locally with traffic stops but also provide information on the current state of constitutional law affecting the right to be free from illegal search and seizure under Tennessee and Federal law. This has become an important battleground in constitutional law as higher courts are expressing different opinions on whether law enforcement is going too far or not in these roadside detentions and investigations.

Please come join us. Our forum will be led by George H. Waters, co-pastor at 4th United Presbyterian Church and an attorney who has practiced criminal law locally for around 16 years.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Still Thinking about Saul and David and the Book of 1st Samuel

16:13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers: and the Spirit of Yahweh came mightily on David from that day forward. So Samuel rose up, and went to Ramah.
16:14 Now the Spirit of Yahweh departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from Yahweh troubled him.
16:15 Saul's servants said to him, See now, an evil spirit from God troubles you.
16:16 Let our lord now command your servants who are before you, to seek out a man who is a skillful player on the harp: and it shall happen, when the evil spirit from God is on you, that he shall play with his hand, and you shall be well.
16:17 Saul said to his servants, Provide me now a man who can play well, and bring him to me.
16:18 Then answered one of the young men, and said, Behold, I have seen a son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, who is skillful in playing, and a mighty man of valor, and a man of war, and prudent in speech, and a comely person; and Yahweh is with him.

Does God send bad things as well as good things? I ask this question after reading from 1 Samuel about how the prophet Samuel was called by God to annoint David as king of Israel while Saul was still king of Israel. We are told that when Samuel annointed David, God's Spirit came powerfully upon David. And, then the next verse tells us that God sent an evil spirit to Saul that tormented Saul.

First, from reading scripture, it is clear that Israel accepted and believed that God sometimes sent an evil spirit among his people. In Saul's case, God turned from him when God found Saul disobedient. Wasn't that enough? Why also send the evil spirit? What is really meant by this?

I think our best first answer is that we don't know, and that we don't know for sure how the ancient Israelites thought about "evil spirits." One thing that I think we can know is that the writer of 1 Samuel didn't believe in good and evil in the way that modern Christians do. We modern Christians, whether liberal or conservative, tend to have a dualistic view of the world believing that there is a power of good struggling against a power of evil. For this ancient writer, it seems that he (I am assuming male from what I know of ancient Israel's scribal traditions) really believed in only one supernatural power, and that was the power of the one Creator of all people who had chosen Israel as a special people. So, when it speaks of an evil spirit coming from God, then that doesn't sound strange to Jews of that day, as it does to us. For them, God was the only power and God could use whatever means he needed to accomplish his good purposes. One thing that was there for God to use was "evil spirits," or something we might think as forces that disrupt a person's life internally, from the inside out. It wasn't God's Spirit that came to Saul, for God's Spirit strengthened life, whereas this "evil spirit" dampened and diminished Saul's life.

It is troubling to think that God would be in the business of troubling a man's life. But, that is what the Jews of that day believed.

There are several explanations I could give to harmonize this passage with our contemporary world views. One explanation would be that the writer knew that God had rejected Saul because Saul had been disobedient,and so when Saul began suffering mentally, the writer simply assumed it was caused directly by God sending an "evil spirit." In that sense, the conclusion of the writer of scripture that God had sent an evil spirit would be a theological interpretation given to events. This means that assumptions about who God is and how God acts in the world and what forces affect human behavior are applied to make sense of a happening (e.g., Saul losing his mind at times). Clearly, with different assumptions about who God is or how God acts or why humans lose their minds, the writer could have come up with a different conclusion about God's role in all of this.

Modern interpreters of scripture have often taken a liberal approach and said: "well, once you understand the ancient worldview, you can understand that the conclusion that "God sent an evil spirit" to torment Saul is simply a prescientific explanation of mental illness and not a valid interpretation for those living in the age of science, then you can begin to understand the true meaning. Or, a conservative view would be:"The scripture means for us what it meant for the Jews back then: God rejected Saul and actively opposed his reign and sent used an evil force to accomplish God's purposes."

If you take the liberal interpretation above, the passage ends up having basically no meaning. We can say how it is not to be understood - what it does not mean. But, we can't say what it does mean.

If you take the conservative interpretation above, the passage ends up making sense of the story being told back then, but may end up having no meaning for us in our day or may even lead to drastic misinterpretations in our day. For instance, what if I read that passage, then turned to my family member who was suffering from a psychotic mental illness and concluded that God had rejected her for her disobedience?

I'm not satisfied with either the common liberal method or the common conservative method of interpretation. I would rather just hear this story out, listen to it as it develops and wait to decide on what it means. And, to hear this story out, means reading the whole thing: from the beginning when God didn't want Israel to have a king, but they wanted a king, and he gave in to them and Samuel annointed Saul . . . to the end when divided Israel is conquered: first, northern Israel by the Assyrians, second, southern Israel by the Babylonians. But, the real story is that this is not "the end" of Israel. No, God sends prophets like Ezekiel to them in their exile and bondage. And, God eventually brings them back home to Jerusalem to rebuild from the ruins of war.

And, the history of God with Israel goes on after the period of the prophets ends, after Ezra and Nehemiah are dead and gone. And, this God who has been trying so hard to train a people in his ways, finally gives up on the traditional ways of prophets, priests, and kings, and comes down among his people - this time to claim not only Israel,but the whole world.

So, in the context of all that, what does it mean when our scripture in 1 Samuel says: "God's Spirit filled David," and then says: "God sent an evil spirit that tormented Saul?" It means that God has purposes that God is actively working on among us. It also means that it is a good thing to be an agent of those purposes, and it means that not everybody is chosen to carry out the same purpose for God. And, when you are not meant to serve in a certain role for God but you try to do it anyway, well, it would have been better if you had never tried to serve.

The passage leads us to understand that God's purposes are paramount. That we must fit in with those purposes,and at times, some very painful things come to us in life because we don't. And, it is not always because we are intent on doing evil. Saul certainly wasn't a man with evil intent. But, failing to discern the movement of God's Spirit can lead to some sad results for humans even if those humans didn't intend evil by their ignorance.

And, that leaves me with one other thought. The writer of this book of 1 Samuel showed some compassion for Saul by attributing Saul's aggressive and violent actions towards David to an evil spirit that would come upon him. The writer would not call Saul an evil man, whereas the writer had no problem calling later kings evil. It is almost like the writer of this scripture wanted to attribute Saul's badness to some mysterious will of God and even raise questions with God about it, since it didn't make sense to the writer. If you think about it, Saul is a tragic figure. And, the writer of scripture doesn't gloss over this. Other kings got what was coming to them when they rejected God and worshipped idols and enslaved their own people. But, Saul, it just seemed like he was the people's choice for king that God never approved of. If he had really campaigned for it, we might not have such sympathy for him. But, when they were trying to raise him up as king, he hid in the baggage!

For me, Saul stands for the truth that you can come into conflict with God's will not just when you are intent on doing evil, but when you try to play a role that you is not your role to play in life. All of us have to bear roles that don't fit us for a time. The key is to understand when you are in the wrong role, and bear it as a burden for God, until God can deliver you to live in the freedom of your proper role in this life or the next. Maybe Saul did that as well as he could. Maybe he did this fairly well. After all, he was always sorry when he tried to do David in, and in the end, David did survive living in the time of Saul. And, as Charlie pointed out in Bible Study, right as God sent an evil spirit to Saul to trouble him, he sent David to comfort him. Even when we are getting the backside of God's will, he uses someone who is in the power of God's Spirit to help us out.

The "evil spirit" that came to Saul from God may be the flipside, the backside of the positive movement of God's Spirit in David's life. Saul's experience may be what it means to be serving in a role that is in conflict with God's will and purposes. Right as God's Spirit is promoting David as king, the backside of that spirit can do no other than dismantle Saul's kingship. God's Spirit had "departed" from Saul when it was given to David. God cannot support every purpose or every cause.

You can end up in the wrong role in life even if you have tried pretty hard to respond reasonably and decently to the circumstances of your life. It takes an awful lot of courage to come to this insight about one's life. And, it seems to me that truths this painful can only be faced with the Spirit of God surrounding and inspiring. Perhaps, in the end we are all a lot more like Saul than David. And, if you take Jesus at his word he came to save the sick not the well; the unrighteousness, not the righteous. He came knowing that the world was filled with people like Saul who had responded to their circumstances the best they knew how and made a real mess of their lives. I would like to ask Jesus what he really thought about King Saul. I would really like to overhear Jesus discussing that one with his Father.

For all the talk we hear in our religion from people who know what is God's will for them and for us, maybe it would do our souls good to hear from someone who is humble enough to acknowledge that God's ways are far beyond our ways, God's thoughts far above our thoughts. Reading the scripture honestly instead of simply using the scripture to support our simplistic and often self-serving beliefs is really what Bible Study is all about. I guess most people don't go in for that kind of honesty too much in religion or Bible Study. If you do, you might want to join us for Bible Study. If you don't, you might want to continue watching how they teach the Bible on T.V.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why are We So Foolish? Some Thoughts after the Sermon on Sunday

If you weren't there at worship this past Sunday, September 12, you missed something. You missed a good service overall, but you really missed Rev. Allen's sermon about the foolish and the wise bridesmaids (the parable Jesus told in the Gospel of Matthew about "being ready" for the bridegroom). There is that sobering part of the story when the foolish bridesmaids who have not prepared realize they have no oil to keep their lamps burning, but it is too late for the wise bridesmaids to help them. It is too late. Like it was too late for Egypt on the night of the Passover. Like it was too late for Judah in the days of Jeremiah, when God delivered them into the hands of the Babylonians.

But, as Rev. Allen illustrated from her own experience and as scripture reveals over and over, God is the only one has the right to define "when it is too late," and thank God he is very gracious in how he does that in our lives and in human history! But, as Rev. Allen also illustrated in her sermon, that doesn't do away with the deep truth that there will be a time when "it will be too late." And, who knows when that time will come in our individual lives and in our communal lives.

In real human life and in the real walk of faith, we receive grace when we know that though there are many gracious warnings and interventions on our behalf, we also know not to presume on grace. In Romans 2 Paul talks about those of us who don't seem to understand that God's kindness and forebearance and forgiveness is meant to lead us to repentance, and not meant to lead us to presume that we can continue defying God's will for our lives and somehow always get another free pass whenever we need it. We live in a real world, with a real Creator, who has put real minds and hearts within us. God seeks communion with us, and we are miraculously able to commune with our Creator in a special way since we do have minds and hearts to think and feel and plan and hope and love and believe. But, we are also able to reject communion with our Creator. We are also able to turn away from God's efforts to reach us, and rely solely on our own wisdom or the wisdom of the world.

The more we carve out a path in life by rejecting God's will for us, the harder it gets to get out of that destructive path. That path becomes a "rut." After a while, it becomes natural to fall back into that rut and just coast along towards another destructive episode. When I get in a "rut" like this, I am unlikely to see it because it is the course of life I have carved out for myself and it only seems natural for me to follow along this path. The strange thing is for those of us that are religious people, we seem to be able to stay in our "rut" while giving lip service to our need to find a better way. Our religion can do that for us. Help keep us on a false path. That is, our religion can do that for us if we fail to seek God in the depths of our lives. Our religion can become nothing more than a bunch of sayings in our heads that reassure us that we are o.k. when we are not. And, at times, our religion can become a bunch of sayings in our heads that disturb and make us feel we are not alright when we are.

We have limped along for too long by relying on "our religion." It is time to rely on the Living God. We need a direct experience with a power that we cannot fool, or else we will continuously fool ourselves. Does your religion have this power, or is it just a fairly refined and socially acceptable way of "fooling yourself?"

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Thinking about the Bible

Scripture: Can we really separate the wheat from the chaff?

I have been "getting back to the Bible" lately in reading sections of scripture I had not read in years, and even focusing on parts of scripture that seem to have no redeeming value. I have to admit that I was more able to read it all, reconcile or explain its strange parts, when I was in my 20's than I am when I am nearing 50.

And, I am starting, for the first time in my life to have some real sympathy for Marcion, the 2nd century heretic who tossed out the majority of scripture and only kept the parts he felt really came from the Spirit of God. But, once you do something like that you have become the authority, so I certainly am not attracted to the way of Marcion. Especially since he ended up tossing out some of the best of scripture by throwing out the whole Old Testament! And, he carved up our New Testament books pretty thoroughly as well. He loved the Gospel of John and his version of Paul's letters.

I am also reminded of Thomas Jefferson who cut out the parts of the New Testament he didn't like and had a cut and paste version of the New Testament to guide him.

So, here I am, a Protestant, following in the path of Luther, and somehow continuing to affirm that we are better off standing under the authority of scripture than we are standing under the authority of Bishops. Well,I guess I am following in the path of Luther, though the traditional Quaker way continues to make more and more sense to me. The early Quakers, starting with George Fox, immersed themselves in scripture reading, but always affirmed that scripture is a dead letter unless illuminated by the Spirit of God in the reader's/hearer's heart. Without an experience of God that illuminates the vital core of scripture, I don't see how anyone can make good sense of it either. And, yes, when that illumination is there, a person can begin to understand that the wheat and the chaff are bound together, indissolubly. And, you can't separate the wheat from the chaff; you can only take them together and wait on the hidden presence of God to be revealed. Marcion and Thomas Jefferson took it upon themselves to separate the wheat from the chaff. And, they ended up with a Bible that doesn't track reality. The Bible we have in the Church reflects reality in all its brokenness and incomprehensibility. But, it doesn't just reflect on the darkness of reality. It also reflects the mysterious presence of One who created and sustains and works in the hiddenness to redeem reality. But, finding that presence in the Holy Scripture is not like finding your parents in a photo album. God never stopped for any photo shoots, not even in the life and death of Jesus.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Invitation to Central United Methodist Annual Picnic at Washington Pres. Church on Sept. 12, 4 p.m.

The members of Central United Methodist Church have invited us to join them for their annual church picnic on September 12 at 4 p.m. The picnic will not be held on the grounds of Central United Methodist but on the grounds of Washington Presbyterian Church, 7405 Washington Pike. Washington Presbyterian has lots of room, a great pavillion, etc. for outdoor gatherings.

For those of you who read this blog, mapquest the Washington Pres. Church address, get directions and tell others how to get there. Or, call Bob Crawford who has been out there many times. If you need a ride or know anyone who needs a ride, please call me, 805-3618. Also, email or call me to let me know if you plan to attend. We don't need to bring any food, but we do need to let members of Central United Meth. know how many of us will be there.

Last year we joined together with this church for Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, and will be doing so again this coming year. They have been good neighbors to us since we have moved into the Broadway neighborhood.

Rebuilding Our Lives

Monday, September 6, 2010
Rebuilding Our Lives

It seems to me that we have been given the chance of rebuilding our lives as human beings. I like the Psalm that says: "Unless the Lord builds the house, the labor is in vain." That makes me think about how much help is needed in rebuilding a human life. "Unless the Lord builds the house, the labor is in vain." Somehow we need to find our way to resources beyond what we have in our little thoughts and feelings. We need more than that to rebuild our lives.

The very hopeful thing spiritually is that in faith a person can really go back and look at the foundation of his or her life. Faith gives us access to the depths of life, and enables us to rebuild. Our little thoughts and feelings can be transformed into very powerful thoughts and feelings.

Rebuilding can be a difficult work. Because when you rebuild, you have to tear down and clean out before you can put the new structure in. As we were working to renovate our old church building, we discovered termite damage in the wood structure around the lower level of the building. Fortunately, there were no active termites, since we had treated the entire area when we first moved into this old buiding a year earlier. But, because of the damage, we had to tear out the old wood structure of two entire rooms before we could rebuild. But, now that area is rebuilt.

Our lives can be like this. If we really get in there and inspect them, we may find some damage to the structure of our lives. We may even find forces active in breaking down the foundation of our lives. For years and years at the old church building, nobody inspected to see what the condition of things was. All the while, the termites were doing their destructive work. And, then upstairs in the building, a similar process was going on with damage from moisture from roof problems. Ignorance may be bliss, but the problem with ignorance is that it is out of touch with reality. When we aren't in touch with reality, we cannot act to shape reality or reshape it by our work.

In our lives, we probably need the most help in discovering the reality we are in. We need God's illumination in our souls to be able to see who we are, acknowledge where we have been, and grow into a hope for what we can be. But, we first have to go down to that basement of our lives and find out how the structure is. If termites are active down there, they will continue doing their damage until we get down there and do something to stop it. And, if we do stop it, then there is still a damaged foundation which has to be rebuilt.

I am talking figuratively, and I'll say a few things literally to make sure I'm being clear. If the foundation of your life - your own emotional life, your spiritual life - is in turmoil, then there have been destructive forces at work in your past or there are destructive forces at work in your present. Symptoms of these destructive forces are the presence of negative, self-destructive thoughts within. You may have aided or be aiding these destructive forces through alcohol or drug abuse or drawing near to destructive persons or by nurturing self-condemnatory thought patterns. Or, you may be increasing your trouble, because you just plain won't take responsibility for the trouble you're in. And, you may just have some trouble, because life has handed you some hard luck.

Whatever it is, you are responsible for your life. I'm going to say that again: whether you have done it to yourself or someone else has done it to you or some force in the physical world, like disease has done it to you, it is your life and you are responsible for it. That means, it is yours to work with, to bear and to do the best you can with. And, we can help each other bear this responsibility.

In contemporary thought, people are obsessed with blaming - they want to affix blame. But, it doesn't help. What is really missing in our world is people being willing to take responsibility. People who take responsibility for situations, take an active role in working towards resolving problems and building towards a better life and future. In a family, if something goes wrong or one member is having trouble, everyone feels a certain responsibility to act. Sure, the one who is having trouble has the primary responsibility, but others look at the other's trouble as partly their responsibility too and don't sit around blaming. Taking responsibility is a practical, objective way of approaching life and its challenges. This is the way of going down to the basement, seeing what the damage is, assessing it objectively and saying: "Let's get to work on it." That's how you fix things. Not by simply wishing you didn't have a problem, or not by complaining about your trouble - but, by looking at it for what it is, and figuring out how to get to work on it.

Rebuilding is difficult work. But, when you get something rebuilt, it is an even greater joy than building it from scratch. Because, you have the sense that something very precious has been saved and transformed. Even the mess that we are at times remains a precious human mess that is worth saving and rebuilding.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Looking for a Center of Gravity in Life

Sunday, August 29, 2010
"The Lord is my Shepherd: Looking for a Center of Gravity in Life"

To get through one week in this life with an open heart and mind requires a lot of balancing, regrouping, reflecting. It just takes a lot of give and take inside for a person to travel through a week and still be intact psychologically and spiritually at the end of the week.

It is easy to get off-balance internally, and for the off-balance way of being to become the status quo. What is needed is some internal sense of spiritual balance that can adjust and change with all the challenges while maintaining some sense of continuity. I guess I am trying to talk about "the soul" again. What I am wanting to talk about is having a "center of gravity in life." A center that is strong enough that it allows you to venture out and try on new thoughts, new perspectives without losing a sense of where you have been as a person and where you are hopefully going.

Psalm 23 leads us into the experience of "having this center of gravity" in God. These words reflect a profound "God-orientation" in living. "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the quiet waters. He stills my soul."

This "God-orientation" means that I am turned and drawn towards God in my living. That whereever I go, whatever I do, I am always drawn back to God, prone to turn my heart God's way, and be influenced and guided and restored by the Spirit of the Living God.

The only real center of gravity we can have in life is found in a real relationship with a living being. An analogy to the Divine-human relationship is found in the relationship of a child to a parent. As a child grows up, his or her center of gravity psychologically or spiritually is what helps her have the courage to venture out while not losing a sense of who she is. But, this center of gravity isn't necessarily found in strict rules for living that are internalized, but in a living, vital relationship between child and parent. Only this living bond is strong enough and adaptable enough to respond to the real struggles and challenges of life. In the same way, with regard to religious faith, it is not primarily a set of rules that are internalized that provides the center of gravity for living. It is the living bond, the relationship with the great Other, God, that is a well of living water, a source of renewal, a voice of judgement calling us back.

Our center of gravity is in finding ourselves truly in relation to others: human, God, and other creatures as well. In these vital relationships, we are not only sustained, but we help sustain others. In these vital relationships, what is deep in us is respected and strengthened. But, it is in the One vital relationship that we find the Center of Gravity that orients and refashions and revitalizes all our other relationships and keeps them alive and oriented towards God, the source of all life and love and hope and purpose.

"The Lord is my shepherd... I shall not want... He makes me to lie down in green pastures... He leads me beside the quiet waters; he stills my soul... Though I should walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil... Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."

In the end, the great thing is that God has a profound "human-orientation." More simply put: God loves us,really loves us. Without that there would be no power to draw us, to call us, to restore and renew us. Without the deep and pervading Love of God at work continuously in this world, there would be a nothingness. With this Spirit binding all things together, there is always hope, always a chance that our spirits will relax just a little and be renewed by that grace.

Saturday, August 28, 2010


We give thanks to our gracious God for Rev. Allen and her newborn son being safely at home together. Keenan (K.J.) came home from the hospital last night for the first time since his birth on August 4. So, mother and child and father and big brother are together and at home.

Little K.J. wasn't due until around September 10, so he has got a head start and is going to be well on his way in this world by September 10!

AS we welcome K.J., we remember Alesia as her due date gets nearer and nearer. It looks like we got the nursery in place just in time. But, we might need to start a preschool class soon.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Bible Study for Thursday, August 26 at 6 p.m.

This Thursday, we continue reviewing the basic structure of the Bible. Last week we reviewed the order and grouping of books in the Old Testament. This week we will continue that review and also include a review of New Testament books. And, for the second half of our class, we will begin to organize into groups to complete our community surveys (surveys of businesses, service organizations, and the neighborhood around us). So, we continue to study the sacred scriptures of the Church, and to study our community as we figure out where our place is as those living out the Christian faith in this community that we are placed in.

We have four more months to prepare our final new church development plan. This is to be a three year plan (2011-2014) for how we will develop as a church in a way that opens our doors to the community around us and also in a way that gets us out of our doors into the community around us.

If our work with the community and with our congregation enables us to show real progress in our own church and in our engagement with our community then our plan is likely to be a good one and to gain acceptance from both session and the new church development committee from Presbytery. If this three year plan is approved, we could get up to $200,000 in support of our church over the next three years. These funds have been set aside for our use, however, we have to show that our congregation is really ready to move forward. We need all those who are able to join with us in strengthening all parts of our church's life as we seek to move forward, from participation in worship and Sunday School and Bible Study and Women's Association to service in the community, and perhaps less visible, but so fundamental, daily efforts of each member to seek God's will and to seek communion with God through prayer and just living.

We are at a point where we need everyone's participation and support to make it over the first big hill of this new church's life. So, let your heart rest in God, and see what you are led to do in all of this. It is encouraging for us to have visitors join us when they do, and it is encouraging to know that our own members still believe in this young church that has gone through many changes over the past year and one-half of its life.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Thinking about Samuel and Moses, and Preaching

I preached yesterday from 1 Samuel 8, which tells about how Israel got its first king who was named Saul. This part of the Biblical story has always held my attention, because it explains that it was the people, not God and not the prophet, Samuel, who wanted Israel to be governed by a king. Up until that point in Israel's history, they had been led by "judges," who were usually appointed by God to administer justice and preside as priests over the people. I say "usually" because it was also the custom for an appointed judge to appoint his sons to succeed him in the office of judge.

Now, this role of judge/prophet/priest was fashioned after the most important judge/prophet/priest in Israel - Moses. But, Samuel, unlike many of the minor judges between Moses and him, was a heavy-weight. He was like Moses in many ways, as he was in "close communion and conversation" with God,the Lord of Israel. And, like Moses, the Scripture gives very close attention to the unique circumstances of his birth and upbringing. For Moses, it was that he was born in a time of persecution of Israel, and instead of being killed at birth in accordance with the law promoting genocide of Hebrews, Moses was hidden in the bullrushes and saved, and then adopted by the daughter of the king of Egypt and raised in the royal household. For Samuel, he was born to a woman who had been barred, but whose fervent prayer for a child was granted by God. And, this woman dedicated this first-born son to the service of God, and he was adopted and raised by the old priest, Eli.

There is irony in the life and mission of both Moses and Samuel, because each is called to declare judgment on the household they were raised in. For Moses, it is the judgment of God against the king of Egypt who was oppressing God's people with a cruel bondage. For Samuel, it is the judgment of God against the corruption of the priesthood in the household of Eli, whose sons had turned away from God and taken bribes instead of fairly deciding cases in Israel. In Moses case, though, it is outright warfare between the king of Egypt and Moses; but, in Samuel's case, Eli faithfully raises Samuel to follow him as priest, and Eli accepts the prophecy of judgment against his house.

In Moses' case, he follows God's commands and appoints a worthy successor to himself in Israel, Joshua, who will lead the people as a priest and military commander. In Samuel's case, he follows in God's ways, but fails to raise his own sons well. We don't know what happened, but Samuel appoints unworthy successors to himself, because his own sons are like the sons of Eli before him: they don't follow in God's ways; they pervert justice by taking bribes and handing out decisions on cases to whomever will pay the most.

One other thing about Samuel is that two important biblical books are named after him: 1 and 2 Samuel. This part of Israel's sacred history is marked as the period of Samuel, not the period of either Saul or David who served as king during the life of Samuel.

Well, I will end this reflection on Moses and Samuel, and continue next time with the discussion of what it meant to move from being led by "judges" to being governed by "kings." This is a fairly difficult thing to understand (I tried to cover this in the sermon and interpret it, but the sermon took a long time and probably left a little more confusion than understanding on the table yesterday). I guess I have always been somewhat confused, but intrigued by this section scripture. Sometimes it is important to spend time with those sections of scripture that don't produce simple rules for living or clear illustrations of what God is like. The reality we face is complicated, and it would serve us well if we would learn that scripture deals with that complex reality as well. But, to do that, we have to be able to acknowledge that scripture often doesn't neatly reflect our church doctrines and confessions, but does reflect the mysterious and somewhat confusing presence of God in human history. When people begin to sense that the Bible really speaks about this reality we are experiencing, they will endure some confusion for a time in order to find something real, something that leads them to an experience of the living God in the midst of their living.

As I continue dealing with this part of Israel's history for the next few weeks, I am hopeful that my preaching will lead to this type of interest among those who attend services. But, it will take some real interest in the Bible and even more than that it will require people to be at a point where they are looking for more than traditional religious teaching. At some point, I got fed up with the same old ways of speaking about God and faith and this reality we live in (nonetheless, I continue to speak often in these tradtional ways, because a new language hasn't come). I simply don't find many types of traditional church language very helpful. I'll say more about this later. But, I continue to find inspiration in the Bible. It is more raw, more real, more confusing, more liberating. It gets us back to the roots of religion, to the roots of what the relationship between God and humanity is all about.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

3rd Wednesday Communion Service at Noon this Wednesday, August 18

You are invited to join in our 3rd Wednesday Communion Service on August 18 at Noon in the Chapel. Our service begins promptly at noon and concludes by around 12:30 p.m. so that members and friends from the community can attend during their lunchbreaks. This is a time to stop mid-week and to remember together in worship that the Lord alone is God and that our help and hope and restoration are in him. Before we take communion, we observe a time of silence to consider any grudges we might be holding or any bitterness or anger that is keeping us from experiencing God's peace. As we conclude our service, we hear these words from the ancient Liturgy of Malabar:

"Grant, O Lord Jesus, that the ears which have heard the voice of your songs may be closed to the voice of dispute; that the eyes which have seen your great love may also behold your blessed hope; that the tongues which have sung your praise may speak the truth in love; that the feet which have walked in your courts may walk in the region of light; and that the bodies which have received your living body may be restored in newness of life. Glory be to you for yoru inexpressible gift. Amen."

I am hopeful that this service will become a community service and become a place where more and more people come to know that the Table of the Lord is truly open to all people.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Importance of the Bible

When a person really takes the Bible seriously and becomes familiar with it, then that person comes into a conversation, a relationship with a sacred history of thought and life. It is a strange book, so far as books go. It spans topics from the creation of the universe through the history of one particular people and nation to the recreation of all things that exist. The Bible contains descriptions of the lives of prophets, kings, peasants, and the Christ of God. The Bible has more examples of evil than of good, taken as a whole. In that sense, the Bible is terribly realistic. It reflects reality to a large extent, but then, there is that creative strand of Scripture that reflects a reality that transcends life as we know it – it reflects the One who rules history from within history. It is as if God is present in the smallest molecule, but far beyond the greatest mountain.

To let yourself be taken in by the Bible is to allow yourself to see life from the depths of a mystery and to begin to participate in that mystery of life. But, most people don’t read the Bible like that. Most people look for an answer to this and that, and then close it back up. The Bible is meant to be read with imagination and humor and hope and love. You can’t really read the Bible unless you bring your whole self to it.

But, if you do, the Bible takes on a holy and sacred function in life. In time, if you stick with it, the Bible becomes Holy Ground that you can return to again and again. And, Scripture begins to live within your memory and heart as well. It is a place you can go to, when the rest of life seems false. It is a place you can go to when you want to experience something outside of the same old day to day life. It is an opening to a new world. Karl Barth once called it “The Strange New World of the Bible,” even though he had been reading it for most of his life. Somehow, in his late 20’s the Scriptures began to glow. He felt like Moses at the burning bush. He realized that Scripture could be a place of true revelation, the reading of Scripture an occasion for meeting the LIVING GOD.

But, there is preparation for all this. Children need to be told stories, the stories of Scripture. And, then children need to learn to read the Scripture in a way that it means something to them. And, children and adults need to gain a basic sense of the whole of scripture, so that they become interested in reading and putting it all together in some way. Once this is in place, a person has a sense of that sacred reality overagainst all their other experiences in life. They have some place to go. It really is a strange old book. It is the mystery of it that has saved me year in and year out, and renews me now as it did thirty years ago. It is also solid and has the feel of being true and reliable. But, you have to know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Every word is not gold; every story is not gold. Let him who has ears to hear listen to the what the Spirit is saying.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Prayer for My Friend and Co-Pastor

O, Lord, our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Our minds are divided until they trust in you.

We open our hearts to you, and we bring our worries to you, and we hold before you all those that we love in this world.

Today, we especially ask that your gracious and life-giving Spirit be with our pastor, Rev. Sonya McAuley Allen, and her baby.

O, Lord, hold Sonya and Aldana and D.J. and K.J. in your care and do in all things what is best for them and in your holy and good will. Let your gracious will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


Thursday, July 29, 2010

Reverence for Life

I was thinking again about the life and work of Albert Schweitzer, who was a musician/doctor/biblical scholar. He and his wife spent the last few decades of their lives running a hospital in Africa. The great principal and deepest conviction that moved Schweitzer was his "reverence for life," which he felt was at the heart of faith. For Schweitzer, communing with and honoring the Creator of all life went hand in hand with having a deep feeling and respect for all life, whether human or other life. One's relationship to all of his or her fellow creatures was important and sacred, according to Schweitzer.

This Sunday we will sing: "Morning Has Broken," which is a beautiful hymn praising our Creator and celebrating the wonder of life in this world and the presence of God in all parts of the creation.

It seems very important to me that children learn to have reverence for life, which means concern for all creatures. One memory that really stands out in my childhood is how much it bothered my mother when she hit a squirrel one day as we were driving around in the car. It really bothered her; and,so it really bothered me and my sister as well. That's what I mean about teaching our children about reverence for life. I also remember worrying over and trying to nurse a bird back to health who had flown into one of our windows. Things like this matter more than we might think.

If we feel we are just too important as human beings to consider the lives of animals as important, it shows an arrogance towards our fellow creatures and a lack of gratitude towards the Creator for life itself.

And, in this reverence for life, we certainly carry a deep feeling for our fellow human beings. I drove past the Salvation Army on Tuesday, and noticed a woman, a man, and four children (looked like ages from 2-8 years). They looked like a family that was living in a homeless shelter. I particularly noticed the older child, a girl of around 8 years old. I wondered about what it must be like for her attending, or trying to attend a local school next week.

And, we notice families torn by violence and drug/alcohol abuse. And, we experience that sometimes very close to home. Having a reverence for life causes us to care about these things that happen to others and to us. Having a love of life causes us to expect something better for others and for ourselves. Because life is meant to be celebrated and enjoyed, not simply endured.

But, there are times when life feels heavy,and there are times when the bearing of it takes all the strength a human being has from God. And, whether life is full of joy or sorrow, it has dignity, a dignity given by the Creator in whom we live and move and have our being.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Holy Words from a Holy Man

"I never lost hope that this great transformation would occur. Not only because of the great heroes . . . , but because of the courage of the ordinary men and women of my country. I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite. Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrads and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going. Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished."

- Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom : The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Little,Brown & Co., NY 1994), p.622

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Can human beings really change?

This question haunts history and often haunts our personal lives as well. "Can he, can she, can I really change?" It was this question, I believe, that haunted Nicodemas, and why the old respected teacher came by night to seek wisdom from the young, country prophet. And, this prophet, who was more than a prophet said to Nicodemas: "You must be born again . . . of the Spirit of God."

I like the language "born again." It conveys the radical starting over, giving up, and newness of life from God that comes among us and to us in Jesus.

But, we, like Nicodemas, think and feel: "But, how can a man really start over (or, as Nicodemas literally said: "Can a man go back into his mother's womb?")? Or, as Jackson Browne sings: "The future's there for anyone to change, still you know it seems, it would be easier sometimes to change the past."

"Can he ever change? Can she ever change? Can I change?"

In a British novel I was reading yesterday, one of the characters gives an opinion on this question saying: "No, but people can learn to manage themselves a bit better."

From the human side, maybe that is a pretty good answer. Maybe it is when we learn to manage ourselves a little bit better that the soil is prepared for change. Maybe that is all we can do. Learn to manage ourselves a little bit better and hope for the change that comes from beyond, the Spirit that blows where it wills, and nobody knows where it starts and where it ends. It takes faith to believe we can learn to manage ourselves better, and faith to believe that that prepares the ground for a transformation that we can't manage but only accept with thanksgiving and wonder.

August 8th Celebrations

On August 8, 1963, President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee freed the slaves he then owned. This is "Tennessee's Emancipation Day," and this occurred before the 13th amendment was put into effect nationwide.

Since that first emancipation day, African-Americans from East Tennessee and on up into Kentucky as well have celebrated August 8. In the days of segregation, Chilhowee Park would close the fairgrounds to its regular customers (white people) and open the Park for this celebration for its black citizens. There are many Knoxvillians still alive today that remember these celebrations.

August 8th has a special meaning for our congregation, because our cemetery (known as the 1st United Presbyterian Church Cemetery) has buried within it at least two of the most well known of Andrew Johnson's freed slaves: William Johnson and Elizabeth Johnson. The grave and marker of Elizabeth Johnson has been found, however, we are still looking for the grave of William Johnson, though historical documents make it clear that he is buried in our cemetery.

The cemetery committee of 4th United Presbyterian Church headed by Elder Mary Whaley continues to work for restoration of these historic cemetery grounds. And, many citizens in the Mechanicsville community and local volunteers are taking an interest as well.

There is a celebration of August 8 to be held on Saturday, August 7, 2010 at M.L. King Park in Alcoa, TN (bus tour at noon, then food, music, etc. at 6 p.m. that evening).

A celebration of this important day of freedom is also scheduled for August 8 in First United Presbyterian Church Cemetery (our cemetery) during that Sunday afternoon. Details will be announced this week.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Thinking out loud on a Friday afternoon about 4th United Presbyterian Church

July 2, 2010: I woke up this morning, thinking that I was still in a dream. But, then I realized that it was really true: my daughter was in our house, home after being in South Africa for almost six months. It has been a week involving a lot of different things – waiting for my daughter to come home on July1, and waiting to hear about the condition of my mother’s heart, and then after those central matters in the family, there was the usual work with clients, a mediation on Monday, church building issues on Tuesday and even representing someone in a domestic case this week for me. And, now it is Friday. I finished work early today, and am home. It’s about 4 in the afternoon.

My faithful little dog, Reuben, is next to me on the couch, and I am glad to be able to sit back and take this week in. And, as I do, my thoughts turn to our church, 4th United Presbyterian Church. A church that began with the union of two old, small churches: 1st United Presbyterian and 4th Presbyterian. Our church was formed on February 7, 2009. We have spent the last year dealing with building problems, people problems, financial problems, and just plain “starting something new” and “dealing with change” problems. Now, we are emerging from the struggle and opening our eyes and looking around to see the community that we are in. We are beginning to look at ourselves and ask: what are we supposed to do in our time here on the corner of Glenwood and Broadway?

Some of us might be thinking: well, I wouldn’t mind being back at 1st United Presbyterian and in our building on the Knoxville College Campus. Some of us might be thinking: I am alright with being in this new place, but when are we going to move forward? When is our building going to be usable? When are we going to let people know we are here? When are people, other than the group we already have, going to come and join us? When are we going to begin reaching out to our local community? When are we going to have something here for our children? Others among us might be very hopeful and excited about what is going on, as these can see the possibilities and the goodness of God’s Spirit in all of this.

I ask myself today: where am I? Because I have been in the third group of hopeful thinkers in all this for most of the time. But, I have my days when I have thought: well, I wish we were back where we were. And, those days when it feels like nothing is ever going to get going. But, there have been days here, God knows, there have been days, when I have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord in the newness, in the praise and hopeful spirit, in the new things that come our way, and new people that seem to be coming at times. God knows, there have been days, when I have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord in a community emerging that sees no real differences between different people, because of the experience of our profound sameness in Jesus Christ. God knows, there have been days, when I have felt the power of this grace growing. But, where am I today?

Today, I am in that second group. I am feeling “when is anything going to get going?” The building, the ministries, the outreach, the partners in ministry, the sense of what it means to be at home in this community. When? That’s where I am today. I am impatient right now. And, maybe I ought to be – at least on some things.

When I honestly survey what it is going to take to get moving at 4th United Presbyterian, I am struck with a simple thought: it is going to take commitment, work and giving time to this work. It took a lot of just plain hard work to get the merger accomplished. It took a lot of hard work to get the new structures in place and the budget under control. It took hard work to get support from Presbytery. It took hard work to get other resources necessary to prepare our building for use. It has taken regular, hard work to get this foundation laid for our ministry. But, now we move to the real task at hand: responding to God’s will and experiencing God’s love for those around us in our community. This takes a different kind of hard work. The hard work of “being there,” of “being concerned,” of “acting on that concern.” The hard work of planning with others in mind. The hard work of working long hours to get something good done. But, the real power for this work comes from something that is not hard at all. And ,that is letting oneself be loved and held and cleansed and awakened and renewed by God’s very gracious and holy Presence. Where this core experience is there, the work that is “hard,” is like running when you are in shape. It takes exertion of effort, but it is joyful and brings energy more than takes it away.

So, I am taking one step back from my impatience to step towards that holy sanctuary of the most High God. That place deep within, that is so quiet, you can’t do anything but “be still and know that the Lord is God” when you are there.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Words from a Spiritual

Jesus is a rock in a weary land,
a weary land, a weary land.

Jesus is a rock in a weary land,
a shelter in the time of storm.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Congratulations to Newly Elected Officers

The Session of Fourth United Presbyterian Church has elected Keith Lindsey to serve another one year term as treasurer and elected Terry Burns to serve a one year term as clerk of session.

The Congregation, at its annual meeting on June 20, 2010, elected the following members to serve a three year term on session: Keith Lindsey, Carl Freeman, Jo Ann Hicks, and Bob Crawford. Mr. Lindsey had previously been elected as deacon, but has now been elected as an elder in our church. Others had been previously elected as elders. An ordination service for Keith Lindsey will be scheduled in July.

The Congregation at this same meeting also elected Valorie McCannelley and Melissa Paul to serve three year terms on the deacon board. Melissa Paul had previously been elected as deacon. An ordination service for Valorie McCannelley to the office of deacon will be held in July together with the ordination of Keith Lindsey and installation of the elders and deacons elected.

Congratulations and thanks to these members for being willing to serve as officers of Fourth United Presbyterian Church.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Some words from the sermon on Sunday, June 6

"As you look at the pattern of your life, as you look at how you are living, does it reveal what you would like to be revealed about you? Do your day to day habits show that you have peace and a good outlook on how to live life or not? For some of us, the answer may be: well, I am on pretty solid ground in my living these days. I’m certainly not perfect, but I am clear about loving God and doing what I can to support and help others. For others of us, the answer may be: well, I thought I was on solid ground,but the mistakes I have been making lately cause me to think I’m on shaky ground. I really need to remember how to take care of myself and trust in God each day. Or, for others, the answer may be: I just don’t know anymore about anything. I used to feel that I could face anything in faith, and I used to always be able to get back up with a good attitude; but lately, I am just too tired to care much about anything except making it through another week, and having a little fun when I can. I’m not sure anymore what it would mean to have holy habits and feel near to God day by day."