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.




Friday, November 25, 2011

As We Begin Celebrating Advent . . .

As we begin celebrating Advent this year, I want to wish everyone the peace and purpose of God’s Coming in Jesus, the Christ. The people of Israel labored long and hard in the hope for the coming of the Christ of God, who would save his people from their sins and from their worldly oppressors. On the eighth day of his life, the Christ child was brought to the old Jewish prophet, Simeon, and the old prophet who held the child in his arms rejoiced: “Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light of salvation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people, Israel!” Luke 2:29-32. It is in this spirit of celebration of the gift of God for all people that I enter into this Advent season.

As we celebrate Advent, I ask that we understand ourselves in a holy relationship to both the universal Church and to all humanity, those who affirm Christian faith and those who do not. Our identity as Christians and as humans arises from the same source: Jesus, the revealer of God’s self: the source of our faith and the source of our true humanity. It is good to remind ourselves at this time of year that Jesus came in the will of God to restore all of us to our true humanity, our God-intended humanity. The Church is a means to that end, just as Israel was meant to be a means to the end of blessing all the earth with God’s glory and redemption. Being a Christian is not the goal, it is the means towards the greater goal of being a true human and thus honoring the One who created us to this high purpose and for unity with God and each other.

Jesus’ way is truly God’s way. Jesus’ truth is God’s truth. Jesus came in the will and the love of God to save, not to condemn the earth and all its creatures. The Church was given birth by the outpouring of God’s Spirit in this way that Jesus had pioneered on earth: a way of obedience to God, a way of love of God and neighbor that was stronger than all powers of evil that twist and destroy human beings and the created order. But, the path of life, the holy way of God is always Jesus’ way, under Jesus’ lordship, and so long as the Church follows in this way of Jesus, the way of the Church is holy, and good and life-giving. But, when the Church, or wings of the Church begin to honor creeds and traditions and human-centered salvation formulas and secular authority and ecclesiastical hierarchies above God’s way in Jesus, then the Church does not become the means to salvation, but can even become a hindrance to receiving the truth of the Gospel.

As a church, we must resist the temptation to substitute our ways for God’s ways. We must resist the temptation to become another self-serving religious institution. We want to break through sin to become witnesses to the Living God of Jesus, the Christ of all the world. We want to break through sin to become brothers and sisters with all human beings, not just friendly with those we are comfortable with. Yes, we are in a deep and holy relationship with all the churches of the world who raise the name of Father, Son and Holy Ghost in praise, but we are also in a deep and holy relationship with all human beings whom God has claimed as his own through the death of Jesus, the Christ. We join ourselves with the churches of this world seeking to be a means for the salvation of all people. The goal is that the true humanity revealed in Jesus become the inheritance of all people. As we see human beings reflecting that true humanity that we have come to know in Jesus, we rejoice and thank God. Sometimes, we see that true humanity reflected in the lives of people who have never become part of the Church, but seem to us to be walking in the way of the Lord of the Church, Jesus. And, we remember that our primary allegiance is to God and his way in Jesus, not to the Church. We remember that the Church stands under God’s judgment, seeking to resist those sins of arrogance and selfishness and cowardice that have so crippled the ministries of the Church through the centuries. We remember that the repentant Church has always received forgiveness and healing and courage and joy to love the world as God loves the world, to help the world with a courage and an integrity and a persistence that is beyond our imagination.

It is in this hope that I celebrate the Coming of our Lord, and anticipate the fulfillment of the great hope of all the ages: the Coming of God’s Kingdom, that day when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Movement of the Spirit and the Expansion of the Heart

In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes for us some remarkable events in the early days of the Church. Although the Book is called the Acts of the Apostles, the acts of the Apostles are in response the Acts of God’s Spirit.

In chapter 1 we hear that Jesus told the disciples to wait expectantly for the coming of the Holy Spirit. In chapter 2 of Acts, we hear of the rushing wind and tongues of fire that came upon the believers that were gathered. Then, we hear that Peter is inspired by this Spirit to preach the gospel, and that those who hear are cut to the heart and turned to praise and believe in God’s way in Jesus. And, as the Acts of the Apostles continues, we hear of Stephen and then of Phillip who was in the Spirit preaching and baptizing stretching the definition of who belongs in the community of faith.

And, then we find that the zealous persecutor of the Church, Saul is called by Jesus to become an apostle of the Church.

It is the initiative of God that we hear about in the early Church. That is what is really distinctive about this new movement that they called THE WAY. It is not driven by human traditions and authorities, but by God’s Spirit that shows THE WAY.
Peter was learning something about this WAY a day at a time too. And, Peter is explaining to the Gentiles and Jews what this WAY is all about.

In Acts 10:34 we hear: “And Peter opened his mouth and said: ‘Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but finds acceptable those people in every nation who fear God and do what is right.”

These are amazing words coming from the mouth of a son of Israel, who had been raised on the Holy Scriptures and on the holy traditions of Israel which have taught him over and over that Israel was chosen by God to be a separate people favored by God. In Deuteronomy, we hear that Moses calls the Israelites to come out from the gentiles and be a separate people, to remain a peculiar people with distinctive customs and a distinctive identity.

But, Peter is dealing with what God is doing in the present through the Holy Spirit, and God is showing Peter something new that has never been seen before.
And, Peter is having to figure out what it means to be a Jew who follows this way of Jesus. Peter is starting to figure out what it means to be a Jew who is part of a holy community that includes gentiles just as well as Jews.

Being a part of this Spirit led community really does cause a person to struggle with the roots of his or her own identity.

Gentiles were blessed when they heard the inspired words of a Jew, so these gentiles who formerly despised Jews came to give thanks to God for giving to the Jewish apostles a living word to preach. And, Jews who formerly thought gentiles were inferior, morally and spiritually, were amazed as they saw that God was blessing the gentiles with the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Our scripture says: “And, the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the gentiles.” The Jews had been celebrating the pouring out of God’s Spirit on the Jewish believers gathered at Pentacost, surely they rejoiced as the read the passage from Joel, but now something was happening that went even farther than their expectations. On one hand that passage from Joel just seemed to promise the gift of the Spirit on Jews, but on the other hand, that passage did say the Spirit of God would be poured out on all flesh. So, now they were rereading it with new eyes.
In the early Church, apostles and believers alike must have just shaken their heads and said: “How far do you think this will go?”

Peter and others had begun to answer: “As far as God wants it to.”
Because Peter had become an apostle of THE WAY OF GOD IN JESUS, the way of God in the Spirit. Peter had quit thinking of a religious movement, which is a movement led by religious people and religious ideas and religious traditions. No, Peter was done with being a religious leader. Because this was a way of life led by God’s Spirit. As God had once led Israel in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, he was once again creating and leading a people through God’s presence. Being on This Way was all about attending to the movement of God’s Spirit. It was all about waiting expectantly for God’s Spirit, and all about having ears to hear the Word of God’s Spirit, both deep within one’s soul and through the words spoken by others.

This new way of life was centered on being awake, aware and expectantly listening for God’s voice, and having the capacity to feel the movement of God’s Spirit in life.

This Way was about giving up the authority, surrendering it to God. As a song goes: “My momma used to say: ‘when things fall apart; you’ve got to look higher; higher than the skies; take all your troubles and throw them out over the great blue sea; and turn yourselves over to the Great Authority.”

For Peter, God leads, we follow. God is moving in the Spirit actively present among human beings who are able to sense God’s presence. Being a follower of Jesus is all about being able to perceive the movement of the Spirit of God. Because God is the initiator, God is the creator, God is the one who sets out in a direction, and we must follow. We are no longer talking about religion; we are now attending to the movements of the living God.

But, where do we find those movements in our lives, in our church, in our community? How can we tell when a person is inspired by God or simply self-inspired? Our experience shows us that some of the most enthusiastic religious leaders are deceivers.

I think the important thing is to quit looking for religious leaders to initiate spiritual movements, and start expecting God to initiate spiritual movements. The key message in this book of Acts is that God is the initiator and when God initiates some truly wonderful and new and surprising things happen in communities of faith.
But, as we sit here this morning and prepare to continue on with our lives, how will we be able to perceive the presence of God in our lives and our world? Because that is the real key to following and obeying and glorifying. Feeling, sensing, knowing the movement of God in our hearts, our lives, our world. When we feel that presence deeply, we can respond with commitment, clarity and hope.

I felt God’s presence at a family gathering last weekend. I saw close family members that had not seen each other for 7 or 8 years embrace and enjoy each other like family again. In that I saw God’s Spirit, I rejoiced in God’s presence. God is a redeeming God. God is at work bringing about reconciliation between human beings who have been estranged from each other. Peter and Paul experienced this when they joined with Gentiles for pig roasts. They also found out that smoked pork is a great thing to eat. And, I’m sure Peter and Paul invited their gentile friends to enjoy some good roasted lamb as well. What Peter was experiencing in the coming of God’s Spirit on the gentiles was the breaking down of walls; walls between different national groups and racial groups and ethnic groups that had caused tension for so long that people just thought that tension was a part of normal life.
But, when those ancient tensions have been part of normal life, such prejudice between peoples just goes unnoticed. But, when these tensions start to relax and lose their hold, it feels abnormal for many people. That’s what was going on in the early Church and when Peter was preaching that day. God anointed the gentiles that were listening to Peter preach. God sent his Spirit upon the Gentiles, but perhaps the greatest blessing that day was not the gift of tongues and ecstatic praise, but the simple and profound gift of true human community and fellowship. Because as the Jewish believers saw that God also loved and valued these gentile believers, something happened in their hearts, the tension relaxed.

We all suffer from the Grinch syndrome; our hearts are three sizes too small. That is, our hearts are compressed with tension,when our hearts are meant to be much bigger. All it takes is relaxing that tension that comes from bitterness and prejudice and criticism and judgment of others. Peter had begun to realize that his heart was a few sizes too small, but when he opened his mouth and said: “Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality;” when he said those words that day, his heart relaxed, and swelled out to its natural size and he began to live in the Way of Jesus. And, his blood pressure probably went down 20 or 30 points too. Amen.

Something I Wrote about 20 Years Ago

Here is the Preface for a proposed book entitled the Unproclaimed Gospel. I wrote this preface when I was in law school around 1992 or 1993. There are some rough notes after this preface setting forth the topics I intended to cover in this book.

Preface:

“In my teenage years I began to experience a contradiction between my attraction to both the life of the church and the life outside the church’s faith. I experienced God as somehow free to move in both realms, equally at home on this earth within or without the church. I felt the goodness and mystery of God with believers and with unbelievers, but found that there was no place to express such a feeling.

“In highschool, I attended Younglife meetings, but the character of the fellowship simply mirrored the social structure of high school. Besides, I was particularly offended at the way they packaged and sold God to suit young people. I attended revivals where preachers tempted me to distrust God and “be saved.” But, I trusted God and I loved God. I was looking for a way to please God and to know God more fully.

“In college years, I was told by those who considered themselves ‘spiritual’ Christians, that I needed to attend their Bible studies and forsake friendships with atheists and worldly people. They told me that I needed to live a disciplined life for God. But, their discipline demanded that I close myself off from much of God’s creation that is good, and to close myself off from much of the mystery of God. I knew God to be an incredible, surprising and wonderful God. And, I found that the more I experienced God’s presence and calling, the more I was drawn to all sorts of people, including believers, unbelievers, moral and immoral persons.

“Those who knew nothing of the church’s teaching and renounced the faith often seemed to me closer to God than many believers. Of course, I began to develop my own clear set of beliefs about God, and I am sure at times that I began to think that my beliefs about God were quite infallible. This confidence in my own beliefs was eroded again and again by experiences of God’s judgment and grace. Deep down, what I would not let go of was my experience of God as lover of humanity and as mysterious and wonderful ruler of all life.

“Through Biblical study, relationships, and struggles, I have taken hold of a powerful and deep experience of faith especially through contact with the Reformed tradition of Christianity. In this historical expression of faith, I have found expression for the wonderful longing, love and hope that God has touched me with. “To glorify God . . . – that is the purpose of human life within which human beings realize who they are and what type of community they can be. As I see so many persons running far away from the church, I am struck once again with a seeming contradition: many of these non-church people seem to be exactly those who are ready to celebrate the God I know – the God who wills the salvation of all people, and the God who brings the princes down from their thrones and raises the needy up to places of honor. Of course, there are many non-church people who do not want God’s kingdom of mercy and justice to come. But, there are a great number of “unbelievers” who do hunger and thirst for righteousness, and I believe that it is God’s will to satisfy this hunger and this thirst – and, so I write The Unproclaimed Gospel. Perhaps, it will be of some help to believers in clarifying the nature of Christian faith. I have given thanks to God for the kindness and integrity and love of so-called “unbelievers” for years. And, now I am determined to express as clearly as I can – the living faith in God which I believe is already at work in the hearts and minds of all those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, whether they confess Christ in word or not. For all who yearn for goodness and justice and mercy in human life, Christian and non-Christian, I write this to celebrate the hope we share. For all whose hearts have lost such desires, I write to reawaken such hope. I write to emphasize Jesus’ teaching over against the confused “evangelism” of our day. Jesus said: “Not all those who say, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my father who is in heaven.” Sadly, we in the church have often twisted the truth of God so much that the gospel we have proclaimed is not the gospel revealed in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. The beginning of evangelical faith is the sure and certain belief that all human beings are one in Jesus Christ. There are no outsiders and insiders, only those who celebrate this unity in Christ through showing mercy and love and those who deny it by showing condemnation and hatred. Through Jesus Christ, each and every person is claimed by God to live in his kingdom. In this faith I write. In repentance and hope, I offer this.”

Below are Notes for an Outline of a Book to be Called “The Unproclaimed Gospel: How the Church has Changed the Good News into Bad News” (notes written around 1992, 93, and never developed further). The preface explained why I was interested in writing this book. Problem is I can’t write too well once what I am writing gets any longer than six or seven pages. But, I may see if I can write something longer someday.

Notes:

1. “Making the good bad?” (challenging the theory that everyone has to be brought to the point of a groveling, nasty sinner before he or she can experience the grace and claim of God). Dietrich Bonhoeffer challenges this and refers to this type of evangelistic practice as “Methodism.” See Letters and Papers from Prison. Also, if I only know God’s grace when I’m in the pit, perhaps my religion leads me to the pit over and over again.

2. “Selfishness raised to an eternal plane” (challenging the idea that my own personal salvation is the primary issue of faith, and setting forth the Biblical emphasis on the glory of God). Westminster Shorter Catechism 1st Q and A: “What is the chief end of man? To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The emphasis on the kingdom of God is a thoroughly communal vision of salvation, the salvation of this creation of which I am a part. Rudolf Bultmann (German Theol.) summarized the freedom of the Gospel as “freedom from self-concern.” It is very important on this matter to realize that the Biblical hope is for the kingdom of God to come as this creation is redeemed. As the Blumhardts never tired of saying: the gospel is not about us leaving this world for heaven but about God and heaven coming to this world.

3. “God, the enemy” (challenging the evangelistic practice of portraying God as our enemy, Christ as friend, as if God and Christ were/are at cross-purposes). The evangelism of Billy Sunday epitomizes this, but I think it is still very popular on the evangelistic circuit and in conservative churches. The “God is out to get you and is ready to send you to hell,” but Jesus stands between you and God and satisfies God with his blood sacrifice. Now, I know the judicial imagery is present in the Bible, with Jesus’ death set forth as propitiation for our sins. But, the Bible is quite clear that Jesus is sent directly from God, is actually the presence of God, reconciling the world to God, etc. And, as John Calvin so clearly proclaims: “God so loved the world that he sent his only son . . . .”

4. “God, as a means to our ends” (challenging the role of religion as a help in achieving human goals, as the icing on the cake of human culture, with a lack of reverence for God and God’s name). The practice of thinking God is always in our camp, on our side, for our team, and tacking God’s name onto everything we do. The misuse of God’s name for nationalistic purposes, etc. is involved. The violation of the third commandment is at the heart of this. The Barmen Declaration of Faith (written to oppose Nazi take-over of churches).

5. “Morality that produces hatred” (challenging the teaching of Christian morality in such a way as to make oneself feel superior to others, and as a way to judge, condemn and control others). This ethical stance creates a strong ‘insider-outsider’ outlook. Also involved is the feeling that “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch” and a little uncleaness contaminates a lot of cleanness which is the opposite of the teaching of Jesus in which holiness has the power to mix with unholiness and sanctify.

6. The Unproclaimed Gospel/The Liberty of the First Commandment (The freedom of the gospel begins and ends with praise and reverence for the One Living and Holy God of all creation) The first three commandments contain the power of freedom from all oppression within human life. It is the particular force of the first commandment – politically, socially, theologically, psychologically – that sets free human beings, internally and externally. I have expressed this faith in protest and anger often, in defiance of those who arrogate authority to themselves. “The Lord alone is God,” is always part battle cry against unjust authority. It is this one allegiance and the destruction of all false allegiances, and the demotion of all other allegiances that paves the way for human freedom and dignity. This is a positive expression of the theology underlying the critique in other sections set forth above. I have not really developed this theme, except that I have written a preface which gives a summary of the positive themes I wish to express.

* I suppose the whole theological point could be summarized as “Christology begins and ends with the Doxology,” i.e., The first three commandments find their supreme expression in Jesus Christ life, death and resurrection which leads to praise and honor and glory to the One Holy God of all creation.

Present Note: Now that I read this over in 2011, I see that my mind and heart haven't changed too much, but I would say that my theological views have been much influenced over the past couple of decades by the Quakers. There was always a latent Quakerism in much of my thinking anyway - it is becoming more pronounced as I get older.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The Meaning of Jesus' Death from a Theocentric Faith

In Romans 3:21-27, Paul makes use of an early interpretation of Jesus death through use of sacrificial imagery. 3:24: "they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an expiation for sin by his blood." Paul very, very rarely uses this sacrificial imagery to interpet/declare the meaning of Jesus' death. In fact, I can only think of anything close to this sacrifical imagery in two other places in Paul's letters: 1 Corinthians 15:3; Galatians 1:4. Pauline scholars think that in these places Paul is using early creedal statements from the Jewish Christian tradition and drawing them into his way of understanding Jesus' death, which is not in legal/sacrificial categories of thought.

Scholar Paul Meyer, who taught at Princeton for a long time, and was a wonderful man too, says of Paul's use of this sacrificial imagery (expiation for sin) in speaking of Jesus' death:

"What God has undertaken, in the formula Paul quotes, is "expiation," a means for dealing with human sin, and not "propitiation," a means for meeting God's wrath by offering something to appease it. In all Paul's references to atonement, Christ was crucified "for us," never for God; always as a gift, never as punishment.

"That leads to a second point. Paul does not play God's graciousness off against his righteousness. Instead, God's gift in the death of Jesus is itself a manifestation of God's righteousness apart from the Mosaic law. . . the righteousness of God is in the first place his saving action in coming to the aid of his people."

Paul Meyer, "Commentary on Romans," in The Word in this World, pp. 169.

Though Paul did not utilize legal/juristic imagery as his central way of understanding and proclaiming the meaning of Jesus' death; the Western Christian tradition completely subsumed all other ways of understanding Jesus' death under the legal/juristic (Jesus dies because God can't forgive our sins because he is righteous and demands perfection, whereas we are sinful and can't give it, except by virtue of clinging to Jesus by faith). This Western interpretation didn't come to full form until sometime after Anselm's classic statement of western atonement theology in the 11th century. Eastern Christianity has always had a more Biblical/Pauline approach to Jesus' death, seeing in it the work of God, who, as Paul says: "was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them." 2 Corinthians 5:19. The Gospel of John also sees the death of Jesus as flowing from the love of God for humanity ("for God so loved the world that he gave his only son" and "the son was sent into the world not to condemn, but to save the world").

The real point which was important to John Calvin, and perhaps was missed somewhat by Luther, was of a "God-centered" understanding of atonement, not a "Christ-centered" understanding. It all starts with God whose will is done by Jesus, who through his complete obedience to God accomplishes God's faithfulness and complete love for humanity. Any understanding of Christ's death that leads people to trust Jesus in any way apart from trusting God is really a type of idolatry and Jews are right to object to that. When one looks at Jesus with the eyes of faith, that one sees through Jesus to God. If you don't see through Jesus to God, you are seeing something besides the Jesus who said "not my will, but thy will be done," whose goal in all of life was not his glory but the glory of God on earth.

This post may not make sense for some of you as I have written it. But, the point I am searching to make is one that feels very critical to me as a follower of Jesus. A God-centered understanding of Jesus opens the heart to all humanity. A Jesus-centered understanding of Jesus closes the heart to those outside of this perspective.

From Christoph Blumhardt's Letters to His Son-In-Law, Missionary in China

The following is taken from "The Hidden Christ," a collection of letters sent in the early 20th century from Christoph Blumhardt, a German pastor, to his son-in-law, who was a missionary in China. These letters are a remarkable witness to the true gospel of God, which is free from the dictates of Church and State.

"God's love tears down old divisions. No longer religion against religion, Christians against non-Christians, but justice against sin, life against death. His love embraces everyone. Therefore, every person you encounter should be your concern. Do not settle for less. The whole world must see the glory of God. I long to see you free to share in the gifts God gives the Chinese. This is our hope, but its fulfillment will have to be fought for.

"God protects the oppressed. He will see to it that they receive his blessing. Today his spirit moves the upright hearts everywhere, without asking what kind of religion they cling to. Our task is to spread the gospel of Christ, not the gospel of Christians. Christ does not want separation. This is difficult for us to keep in mind. It is not easy to interact with sinners without yielding to the pressure of either compromising or distancing oneself. I hope, however, that we - you in China and I in Europe - will experience the all-embracing, creative power of Christ.

"This is why I choose to stand on the side of the humble, the working class. Tragically, the church has abandoned them to darkness. Yet this same church lives with this darkness, and in so doing absorbs the very same sinful principles that rule the world. Christians should serve, not rule. Their acts of violence make them worse than the so-called heathen.

"The chief thing is to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, not an apostle of the European Christian world. Have patience, and whatever you do, stay clear of forming a party. Your work must embrace the whole, then your integrity will win you everyone's trust.


-reprinted from www.bruderhof.com. Copyright 2002 by the Bruderhof Foundation, Inc. Used with permission

By Faith: Sermon on Clifford Ross Scholarship Sunday

Hebrews 11:23-28

“By Faith”

The Egyptians became threatened by the growing minority population of Hebrew people. It was a cruel time long ago in Egypt when Pharoah, king of Egypt, ordered that all Hebrew baby boys were to be killed. They didn’t have sonograms back then; they didn’t know whether it was a boy or a girl until the little one came out of the mother’s womb. So,every birth among the Hebrews of that time was surrounded with more than the usual worries and fears of child birth. There was a death sentence if you were a Hebrew baby boy or if you were someone hiding a Hebrew baby boy – that would get you the death sentence as well.

It was a cruel time. And, one day in that time over 3,000 years ago in Egypt, a Hebrew woman gave birth to a son, and she and the father of the child vowed that they would do everything in their power to save the life of this beautiful baby boy. The scriptures say: “By faith the parents of Moses hid the child for three months; seeing the child was beautiful, they were not afraid of the edict of the king.”

They hid him out as long as they could, but the authorities were always coming around trying to find baby boys among the Hebrews – to kill them. And, one day, they knew they were about to be found out, and so the parents waterproofed a basket the best they could, placed the little baby boy in the basket and hid the basket along the shallows of the Nile River among the plants. They hid him in the bulrushes.

But, they didn’t just leave him there alone. His grown sister sat a distance away to keep watch. And, when she saw Pharoah’s daughter coming to bathe, she saw that Pharoah’s daughter had compassion on her baby brother. And, then she walked forward and Pharoah’s daughter said: “Please find me a nurse among the Hebrew women; I am going to save this boy and raise this boy in my house when he is weaned.”

And, she named the baby boy, Moses, meaning “drawn out of the water.” Moses’ family defied the king’s edict to save the child’s life. By faith, they acted. And, they used their minds to form a plan that would work. They hid him out precisely in the place where Pharoah’s daughter bathed. They must have known she was as kind as her father was cruel.

It was a cruel bondage in those days. It was such a struggle just to preserve your life and the life of your children if you were a Hebrew slave. And, God heard the cries of his people, and God came down to deliver them from their bondage in Egypt bringing them out across the Red Sea to freedom. Our scripture says: “By faith, Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharoah’s daughter, choosing rather to share the illtreatment with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” Through Moses’ faithfulness, God delivered the Hebrew people.

And, the first thing God did for his people when they were free is that he began to educate them by giving them instructions about how to honor God and show respect for each other. Liberation and education. They go hand in hand. You have to educate to liberate; you have to liberate to educate. God knew that if his people didn’t learn how to live together, their freedom would once again turn into a type of bondage.

For a people to be free they have to be free on the outside and on the inside.
Bob Marley used to sing: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.”

God spoke through Moses teaching his people, opening their minds to a clear way of thinking about life. He began to teach them how to understand the culture they lived in, how to understand themselves and each other; God taught the people a holy way to live in the world. You shall have no other gods before me. Don’t bow down to idols. Don’t take the holy name of God in vain. Keep the Sabbath rest. Honor your parents. Don’t kill. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t tell lies about each other. Don’t envy your neighbor.

The Hebrew people had been in bondage. Now they were to learn what free people must learn – how to use their own minds to comprehend and shape their own destiny on earth.

At the heart of the faith of Israel were the written and spoken words of the prophets and the words of the law. The people of Israel were to learn these words by heart so that their minds would be awakened and able to understand the challenges of life. God liberated them from their external bondage, and God was educating them to liberate themselves from their internal bondage (from a mind that was asleep and could be fooled, to a mind that was awake and coming to wisdom).

At the heart of every social revolution that brings justice and freedom is education, and the awakening of the mind. Because education brings self-respect and with knowledge also comes power. In the Reformation in Europe, the words of scripture were translated into the language the people could understand so that they could comprehend the Biblical message in their own minds. So that the people would not be kept in the dark but come into the light. Jesus had once said: “they will know the truth and the truth will set them free.”

In the Civil Rights Movement, leaders emerged, and among those leaders none was greater than M.L. King, Jr. He was an intellectual, received his Ph.D in philosophy from Boston University. He studied modern theories of Biblical Interpretation and understood philosophies of social change from Marx to Ghandi’s non-violent revolution in India. And, though many people don’t know as much about Malcolm X’s intellectual training, he also was one who loved to learn and awakened to the power of knowledge. Malcolm X educated himself while serving a prison term as a young man. You don’t have to be in college to learn. Books are everywhere and accessible. Malcolm X said his alma mater was “Books.” But, he didn’t become deeply interested in learning until some religious men in prison taught him that he was a child of God, cared for and valued by God. M.L. King Jr. was raised in a household that reminded him daily that he was a child of Almighty God and that no one could ever take that from him.

It is this first great lesson that is the foundation of life, and the foundation of learning. Once a child experiences in his or her heart that he or she is truly a child of God, cared for and valued by God – once that living faith takes root, then a child can truly discover his abilities, gifts, dreams in life. Then a child can awaken to the desire to learn and engage in life in a positive and creative way.
So long as young people don’t know that they have ultimate worth because God values them, then young people can come to feel worthless in this world. And, when a young person feels worthless then they can be manipulated and fooled, and when you feel worthless, you just don’t appreciate your abilities or respect the importance of learning and education.

When you feel worthless you do worthless things, are interested in worthless pursuits, and hang out with people who share that sense of worthlessness.
So, as a young person comes to have a true belief that they are loved and valued by God, he becomes able or she becomes able to see that they can do many things. But first of all, a person needs to understand that they are able to learn, and we all are. And, to be able to learn as human beings are able is a truly amazing thing. Until this respect and love of learning is awakened a person doesn’t truly come alive.

Moses knew he was a child of God. And, God taught Moses that his fellow Hebrews were children of God. Moses was called to awaken his fellow Hebrews to this knowledge. And, God called Moses to take action in the world on the basis of this knowledge. And, Moses did. He knew who he was, and he learned what he was to do in life. That is what every human being needs. To know who he or she is, and to discover what he or she can do well in life. This is the goal of real learning and using the mind. The human ability to learn is an amazing thing.

It is this appreciation of God’s gift of learning and education that brings us to emphasize the work of the Clifford Ross Scholarship which is given each year to support and encourage learning among college bound male senior basketball players at Austin-East. Mr. Ross had a concern that young people truly become strong and good citizens, and he knew that a commitment to education was one of the most important things in developing into a good and capable person. And, Mr. Ross knew that these young men he taught and coached needed some encouragement and support to get over the internal and external barriers to achievement in our society. He had grown up and faced these barriers that were very heavy at times for black youth, and perhaps continue to be heavy for different reasons in our time especially for young black men.

Howard Thurman said that there are two basic questions that a human being needs to be able to answer deep down in his or her soul:
1) Who am I?
2) What am I?

The first question is about a sense of belonging in the world. And, Thurman says Jesus great answer for all human beings is: “You are a child of God, cared for and valued by God.”

The second question is about a sense of achievement and accomplishment in life. What am I? What am I able to do? And, Thurman says that unless a person finds a way to achieve and accomplish something in life, he or she is likely to begin to doubt whether he or she really belongs in this world, whether she or he really has worth as a person. We have spoken a good word to our youth, saying , “You are loved by God and us; you belong.” But, it seems we are not doing enough to help our youth realize their value as we don’t seem to be helping them get over those barriers to achievement and purpose in society. And, those barriers are a less visible than in former days, but still strong.

Erik Erikson was a famous psychologist that had a theory of human development. He teaches that the first two stages of human development are Trust v. Mistrust (that is when a child learns to either trust his environment or distrust it by virtue of how he is treated by those who care for him); and Autonomy v. Shame and Doubt (that is when a child learns whether his will is valued by others or not). And then the third stage is Industry v. Inferiority (that is when a child begins to learn tasks and skills and achieves a certain sense of competency or comes to a feeling of incompetency/inferiority). There is really some wisdom in this analysis of Erikson. A child learns a sense of belonging and value through those who care for him and how they care for him. A child learns a sense of industry or inferiority based on how he or she is able to perform certain meaningful tasks, how he or she is able to learn or not learn.

These are some basic points about human development. We would do well to get back to basics in the way we care for and teach and support our young people.
What human beings need is a sense of belonging and a sense of accomplishment. A family and friends can certainly give a sense of belonging. But, a sense of accomplishment can’t be given to you by someone else. It can be encouraged and supported by someone else. But, it has to be achieved by you. And, the foundation of a strong sense of accomplishment in life is to develop the mind, to learn and come to understand how to learn and how to live. If you cultivate your ability to learn, your ability to learn will grow and bless your life and the life of others. Because you can learn what others have done; you can learn what others have thought, and then you begin to do and think on your own and teach others as well.

If you go through life without awakening to the powers of learning that you have been given, you are like a plane without a pilot. The pilot of a human life is the mind. If your mind is the captain, the one to direct your movements in life – if that pilot is asleep or not wise, well, you are in trouble. To fail to learn what you are able to learn is to devalue your own life, and to in a sense doom yourself to underachievement. Now, we are all called to learn what we are able to learn, and if we do, that will be enough knowledge to be what we are to be in God’s good will for our lives.

We can do better in our society and in our churches and even in our homes with our children. Our children have these minds that are so capable. But, are they developing these minds? That is a question I send you away with. If our children aren’t reading books or aren’t interested in reading books, then how will they develop their minds? (a short educational video or a short blip on the internet about something are not a substitute for reading books – whole books, but any reading is better than none). It takes a confidence that you can understand, and it takes a desire to understand to read books. And, it takes an imagination. If our children aren’t learning what we feel they should be learning in school, why aren’t they? If our youth don’t think it is a good thing to be a good student, why don’t they? These are questions not just about young people but about us, those who are responsible for encouraging and educating young people.

Malcolm X writes in his autobiography:

“I have often reflected upon the new vistas that reading opened up to me. I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. As I see it today, the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive. I certainly wasn’t seeking any degree, the way a college confers a status upon its students. My homemade education gave me, with every additional book I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America. Not long ago, an English writer telephoned me from London, asking questions. One was, “What’s your alma mater?” I told him, “Books.” You will never catch me with a free fifteen minutes in which I’m not studying something I feel might be able to help the black man.”

pp. 206-207, The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X’s own liberation came on the inside – in his own mind - before he was released from prison. And, he never went back to prison. When he got out, he was a new man. He had a new life. He had a mind awakened. From a man who could barely read and write, he came to be a man who debated with Harvard professors and more than held his own. Education is one of the greatest ways to freedom. For all of us, those words of Bob Marley bear repeating: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; none but ourselves can free our minds.” A mind asleep is a mind enslaved. True education, the awakening of the mind, is a glorious freedom.

By faith, we learn who we are. We are children of God. By faith, we learn what we can do in life. One thing we can surely do as human beings is keep learning until the day we die.

Glory be to God who has created humanity in God’s own image and has blessed us with the ability to learn and to think and plan and discuss and create. May we honor this gift of God in the way that we live and learn and teach others, and especially as we encourage our young people.

By faith, Moses’ parents risked everything that he might survive. By their wisdom which came of faith, they figured out a way that he might not just survive but thrive. By faith, let us give of our time and energy to protect the young. And, let us learn so that in our wisdom we can teach them, not only how to survive, but how to thrive.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The End of This Week and Thoughts about the Morally Ambiguous Job of Criminal Defense

It is Friday evening, and I am very glad to be at home. The weather is very good outside, the view of the mountains is really great, and I don't have any responsibilities to tend to right now.

I am tired. I am not sure why I felt so tired this afternoon as court ended for the week. But, something about the back and forth of cases, the back and forth with judges, and even the back and forth with clients had me worn out. By the "back and forth" I guess I am trying to talk about the emotional tension involved in trying to do my job as a criminal defense lawyer in the criminal justice system.

Working as a lawyer with the Public Defender's Office is not the easiest job - not just because we have a lot of clients to represent, but also because it is a job which is morally ambiguous. We do our work as those who represent the poor who are charged with crimes because we believe that the poor are entitled to a real defense when charged with a crime. We take pride in our public defender's office knowing that we provide better representation for poor people than most private attorneys in our county provide to clients who can afford to pay for legal services. But, we don't get to choose our clients.

And, clearly when you are representing a lot of people charged with crimes, it happens at times that you are working hard and offering your legal skill and knowledge to help someone who is hurting others. Of course, there are many cases in which the question of guilt is not clear or in other cases, an innocent person has been charged, arrested and put on trial when they did nothing criminal at all. But, there are a good number of cases where the charge is valid, where a person has stolen or broken into a house, or harmed another person in some way. Of course, there are many crimes where the person might be guilty, but there is no real victim (possession of illegal drugs or possession of legal drugs without prescription).

As a criminal defense attorney, it is your job to zealously represent your client's interest, which means "try to beat the case if you can within the bounds of the ethical rules, whether it is a good case or not." Of course, if your client says: "I just want to plead guilty, and don't want to fight the case even if it might result in an acquittal," that is their choice. But, most defendants, when threatened with jail time, etc., want to try to beat it if their chances are pretty good, and the risk of trial is not too great.

And, having practiced criminal law now for almost 17 years, I can tell you that the breaks often come to the least deserving, and the hardest results often come to those who really deserve a break. If you want to try and convince me that everything that happens in criminal cases is "God's will" you are going to have a very hard time, unless you can first drug me so that I lose my mind. I have been there; I have been in the middle of it; I have seen horrible injustices, but, then again, some good and just results as well.

But, one thing that makes my morally ambiguous job easier is that often the crimes charged are crimes that people shouldn't be punished for - or, at least shouldn't be punished so harshly as the law requires. So, that makes it very easy to do everything possible to "beat the case." I can't believe any society in the world would decide to lock up people who are 20 years old for drinking beer, or for smoking marijuana. Personally, I really detest marijuana because of experiences I have had living with people that smoked it all the time in college. But, objectively, I have seen people do a lot more harm while drinking too much and I have never seen anyone taken to the hospital for marijuana overdose whereas I have for alcohol poisoning. Still, why are we locking people up for getting a buzz? That is crazy to me.

Why don't we save our jails for people who are going around robbing people or raping people or breaking into houses, etc.? Why do we want to put people in jail for decades for selling some substance to another person who wants it? I understand that drug abuse is a big problem, but so long as millions of people are out there who want to use a drug, some poor people are going to be willing to sell it to them while working for some rich people who make money off of this selling and don't have to face the risk of apprehension and jail.

But, then there are cases in which I really sympathize with the victim or victim's family: murders, sex offenses, robberies, burglaries, felony thefts, identity theft.

There are cases in which I would like to be the prosecutor, because I feel like I would know how to prosecute the case and get the defendant who is dangerous in jail for a long time. But, I am not a prosecutor, but a defense attorney. I have a personal preference for defending other people, not prosecuting and punishing them. But, over the years, I have had a few days when I have really wished the attorney on the other side would do a better job prosecuting. There are cases that the defense should win, and cases that the prosecution should win (of course, the overwhelming majority of cases are worked out by negotiation and agreement in which prosecution and defense compromise). And, the very large majority of those agreements involve a plea of guilty and some type of sentence for the defendant. There is a sense in which most people charged with crimes get a chance or two before "the hammer really comes down on them." But, this is not always the case.

It would leave my soul at peace if the State would win when it is truly just, and the defense would win when it is really just and that negotiated agreements would be truly just. And, when it is really just, for me, does not always mean when the State has charged a defendant who is guilty is found guilty, nor does it mean simply that a defendant who is innocent is found not guilty (though it surely includes that). No, justice means when the result in the end is the will of God. And, God is not bound by human laws and systems of justice.

I do remember that God is merciful, and the God "who raises the dead." Sometimes human beings get another chance in life, a second chance. I like to see people get second and even third chances in life, just as I like to get second chances in areas of life where I have failed. I know there are cases where it seems too risky for the rest of society to let some individuals have a second or third chance at freedom. But, I have to trust that the rest of society will look after that. I am one who advocates for people having second and third chances in life, whether they seem to deserve it or not. There are surely enough straight-laced moral people in society who will be against that to keep the few of us who continue to advocate for those who are considered unworthy of being part of society in check.

Before I start a big trial, I pray: "O God, let your justice be done. Not the justice of human beings, but let your justice be done." I never know for sure what that might be. I try to do my job the best I can, abiding by the ethical rules, to "beat the case," and hope that something truly good and right is accomplished as the prosecutor tries to do her job the best she knows how and the judge and jury try to do theirs. And, as a system, we fail often, but not always.

It is easy to criticize the criminal justice system. We could do better. But, there is always going to be a lot of arbitrariness in it beginning with selecting whom to charge with crimes, to how seriously to prosecute those charged with crimes, to the zealousness and ability of attorneys who defend those charged, to the particular way a situation appears to a judge or jury who decides the fate of the one charged at trial and sentencing.

A good number of us who work in the criminal justice system (judges, lawyers, police officers) still really appreciate our Constitution that provides that no one can be deprived of life or liberty without due process of law, that anyone charged with a crime has the right to a jury trial, that a man or woman has the right to remain silent in the face of the demands of government to answer questions, and that anyone charged with a crime is entitled to have an attorney represent them - whether they can afford it or not. Our country's Constitution has built into it a strong suspicion of governmental authority. When government wants to charge someone with a crime and lock them away, we say: "you've got to prove he or she is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt - otherwise, they walk."

A real respect is shown to individuals through these constitutional rights and their implementation in our criminal justice system. It is a system where many mistakes are made, where there are certainly some corrupting influences, but perhaps more than any other system in our society, it reminds us of the importance of each individual person in our society. Because when we treat the most despised person in society with respect and fairness, it secures our commitment to treat all people with respect and fairness. Maybe the core values of our criminal justice system are really not that morally ambiguous at all.

A God Who is Really Involved in Creation

If God has a real relationship in time with this creation, including human beings, then not only does God act to affect events in the world, but God is acted upon and affected by events in the world.

The Old Testament's so-called "anthropocentric" way of presenting God in a simple dramatic relationship with human beings and the created order at times may be the only "realistic" way to express how God is related to the created order.

God is not presented in the Old Testament as if everytime God says: "jump," the created order comes into complete line with God's will. God is presented as ruler over creation, but not a ruler whose actions have a one-to-one correspondence with events in the world. God acts upon the forces of the world and gives shape to them, but there are other agents in the animal world, particular human agents, who act from their side as well giving shape to the created order and perhaps influencing God, working to effectuate God's purposes or working in some real sense to hinder or frustrate God's purposes.

Whether one understands God to be in a real, dramatic relationship with this creation and its creatures, or whether one understands God to simply sit at the switchboard and order all that takes place is very important in theology and faith and life.

If a person thinks deep down that God has simply designed everything beforehand and willed each thing to take place that does take place, then the death of Jesus is not part of God's dramatic and passionate efforts to save a rebellious humanity and a broken creation. Because if God has simply set it all out beforehand, and the death of Jesus is simply the unfolding of the irresistible, set-in-stone will of God, and not part of the dramatic back and forth between God and the created order, then it is as if God willed to have humans rebel and Jesus' death was God's affirmative will as well.

If it is all understood this way with God planning it all out like the script of a play before hand, then God is not really in relationship with humanity and creation; we are just actors inevitably acting out a drama we have not part in shaping; and then Jesus is simply the same kind of actor in the inevitable history dictated by God.

There used to be two concepts that were used in theology to try to hold onto the truth that God is in complete control over creation, while acknowledging that there is much rebellion against God's ways in creation. These concepts were the affirmative will of God and the permissive will of God.

The affirmative will of God is that all human beings obey God's law by loving God and neighbor. The permissive will of God allows (while still not losing control or the ability to mold) humans to both obey and rebel and cause good and evil on earth. In fact, as God remains involved in creation, God works at bringing the "out of control" under control at every moment. This is a way of saying God is in relationship with that which is anti-God, and does not lose control of it ultimately. Jesus seems to have represented this type of view as he prays: "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done - on earth as it is in heaven."

This way of speaking is at least much better than the common way of simply saying that "nothing happens that God doesn't want to happen." As if God affirmatively wills all that happens or else it would not happen. This, to me, seems very wrong unless you believe in God as some operative concept and not as a real Being who can be in relationship to other personal beings and other forces in the world.

All of these thoughts become very, very important as we turn to understand what happened when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. How was God involved in that? It is accepted as "God's will" by almost all Christians, but was Jesus' death God's affirmative will or God's permissive will? I believe that it was part of God's permissive will as the deepest desire of God was not humanity's rejection of God in human flesh, but the deepest desire of God was to save all human flesh. God's affirmative will was to save humanity from the self-destruction that comes of rejecting God's authority and truth and grace. In order to accomplish his affirmative will, God must in a sense get in the mix with other forces in creation - act and be acted upon by them - in order to shape that creation in a real way. I believe that God did exactly that in Jesus in the most dramatic way possible. He actually allowed his very Being to be affected by human response and rejection, and took that rejection into himself and in an act of creation out of nothing just as grand as the original creative act took the hatred and rebellion of humanity and transformed it into a life-giving,saving presence for humanity.

It is in this area of the permissive will of God that the real action of history takes place. The concept of "the affirmative will of God" is how we perceive that God had wanted to be in relation with the world. But, in this thinking about "the permissive will of God" we really come into touch with the real world of God and humanity and all creation, and begin to have some chance to touch on the real, dramatic relationship within which God works out the salvation of the world. But, God is in the midst creating out nothing, actually creating good out of less than nothing.

Jesus is often presented in conservative Protestant theology as simply an answer to the problem of how sinful humans can be forgiven by a God who cannot accept sin. That is, Jesus' death is presented as the solving of a problem that was God's problem,not our problem. I understand Jesus' death as God's response to the ultimate rejection of God by humanity, as a response to the deepest problem of humanity: a will that was opposed to the great Will of God to save and bless humanity - a human will that was bent on self-destruction. The problem was on the side of humanity,not on God's side. Jesus' death didn't convince God to give humanity another chance; Jesus died because God just couldn't help but reach out to save even if it cost him the one human who was closest and dearest to his heart.

So, in simple terms that a child can understand, I ask: "Did God want Jesus to die?" No, that is the last thing God wanted. But, how can something happen that God does not want to happen?

"Did God allow Jesus to die?" Yes, because God is in a real relationship with this world. Did Jesus death affect God? So deeply that it shook all things, even the heart of God. And, what poured forth from the heart of God was not vengeance against humanity for killing Jesus, but love for humanity and the resurrection of Jesus. God could have raised up Jesus to conquer and destroy humanity,but he raised up Jesus as the first-born of a new creation from within humanity to save humanity and all creation.

I guess it begins to become abstract at this point. But, then the dramatic relationship of God with this world and especially with humanity is a story about real events, and about real choices and responses that have shaped reality at its depths.

But, the history of Christianity carries within it two distinct and very different strands of belief: on one side there is the belief in an abstract concept of God from which one can deduce all sorts of theories about life and salvation; and on the other side there is a devotion and commitment to a Real Creator who is dramatically involved with the created order and with human beings and who, though God of all, can be felt to be struggling, working, fashioning a new world, not from some throne up on high, but through a real presence in a real world and real events that sometimes almost break the very heart of God.

The first strand of belief in the abstract concept of God carries with it a rigid view of Jesus' death that actually doesn't have God involved in the death itself. This is the strict substitutionary atonement theory of Jesus' death. It goes like this: God has all humanity under judgment for sin. Jesus serves as a sacrificial lamb to cleanse humans of sin and make them acceptable to God. Those who believe this receive the benefits of Jesus' sacrifice and are acceptable before God. Those who don't believe this remain under God's judgment and rejection for being sinners. In this view of things, God was unable to reach out to humanity because he couldn't accept that which is unholy. But, the sacrifice of Jesus in dying, makes humans acceptable (so long as they come under this acceptance through faith).

The second strand of commitment and devotion to the dramatically involved Being, God, believes that it is the very nature of God to accept the unacceptable and that God's love is precisely that which "justifies the ungodly." The first strand of belief contends that only that which is holy may approach God. The second strand believes that the holiest of all shows his holiness by approaching that which is unholy and transforming it through his will to save and heal and reconcile. What is so shaking about the death of Jesus is what Luther caught on to: God is in the very center of it - not as the one who sacrifices Jesus, but as the one who is in a real sense subjected to and harmed by the sacrifice.

Sermon Notes: "Thinking About Worry"

Exodus 32:1-6, 15-20; Psalm 94:19

“When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, thy consolations delight my soul.”

Howard Thurman was a black Baptist minister and theologian who used to write meditations to be read and used by the members of his church, the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples which began in 1944 in SanFrancisco and continues to this day. At the beginning of one meditation on the subject of worry he quotes a little rhyme called the “Worry Cow.” It goes like this:

The worry cow
Would have lasted till now,
If she hadn’t lost her breath.
But she thought her hay
Wouldn’t last all day,
So she mooed herself to death.

Thurman goes on to say of worry:

Most often . . . worry is a lack of confidence in life, in its purpose, in God. Faith in life, in God, is native to the human spirit. It cannot die as long as a man lives. It turns into pessimism, into depression, into anxiety, into worry, into drawn-out fear, but it will not perish. . . when we worry, the most obvious things to do in our situation are overlooked, we should relax our tension by trusting in God and putting at the disposal of that trust a clear head.

I want to focus on two particular points Thurman makes as a way of understanding our scriptures today. One point is this: 1) when we worry we overlook the most obvious things to do in our situation of concern; 2) if we can relax our tension, our natural faith in life, in God arises and we can offer to God a clear heart and mind.

Our second scripture today says: “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, thy consolations delight my soul.” The Psalmist had found his way from anxiety to trust in God. But, many times in human life, we get lost in our anxiety, we get lost along the way.

Our first scripture today was about such a time of lostness among the Hebrew people. As I was thinking this week about the Ten Commandments, I was remembering the rest of story of the Exodus that I don’t tell each week. I tell of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery. I tell of the giving of the Holy Law to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but I don’t tell of how those first two tables of stone were shattered into pieces before Moses even told the Hebrew people what was written on them.

And, the reason I am referring to this incident is because while the Hebrew people waited for Moses to come down from the cloud of darkness on the mountain, they got anxious – they got real worried. They were in the wilderness, and for all they knew Moses was dead and they had no one to lead them. They were overwhelmed with anxiety; they were desperate to have something to rely on to calm their nerves (they didn’t have xanax back then or valium). And, they hadn’t had time to grow grapes and allow them to ferment. There they were at the foot of the smoking mountain, scared to death and needing some assurance of religion, needing the assurance of some god. So, they went back to the religion they had known before. They asked Aaron to make them gods to worship –that would go with them and save them. And, so he made an idol.

And, they were having a real religious celebration and worshipping these false gods and relieving their tension when Moses finally came down from the mountain with two tables of stone in his hands. You heard the rest of the story. Moses got so mad, he broke the tables of stone, grabbed the false gods, the golden calf, ground it into dust and put it in the water and made the people drink it!

Their anxiety led them into idolatry. Idolatry is to submit yourself to some force or being or substance that should have no such power over you. The high or relief feels good for a time, but then it passes leaving you lower than before. That is the emotional side of idolatrous living. In the end, it is demeaning, because human beings are made in the image of God and are not to bow down to anything in all the earth but the living God.

We don’t make idols of golden calves any more, but we still bow down to people and forces and things that don’t deserve such homage. A more clear way of stating the first commandment for us might be: your girlfriend can’t save you so quit spending all your time serving her and serve the living God; your drinking can’t save you from worry so quit spending all your extra money and time serving the bottle and serve the living God; your boyfriend can’t save you; and, if you don’t have a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife and you want one, remember, they can’t save you either; your looks can’t save you – so quit wasting all that time and effort on that; quit bowing down to these idols and trust in the living God for salvation in this life and the next.

Their anxiety led them into idolatry. But, the people could have alleviated their anxiety in some other way, but turning to the wrong solution for anxiety and worry is such a common, human mistake. It may be at the root of most of our problems in life.

I return to Howard Thurman’s two points about worry: 1) when we worry, we tend to overlook the very things that we need to do to address a problem; 2) when we can relax the tension, faith in life and God arises, clearing our mind and giving God room to work with us and through us. We are not created for idolatry but to worship the living God – that is what is natural to us. If that is what is natural to us, then why does our anxiety so often lead us to idolatry instead of reliance on God? How do we relax the tension and rediscover the goodness within? This is not simply a question about how to relieve a psychological problem but a crucial question about how to keep a psychological state from turning into a devastating problem, idolatry, that twists body and soul.

The Hebrews who were waiting for Moses in anxiety could have surely done a few practical things to help themselves, like set up camp, prepare a fire, seek out some food from the land. And, they could have worshipped the One who brought them across the Red Sea, instead of looking to a lifeless golden calf made by Aaron for their help. But, when we turn ourselves over to something or someone who has no business ruling over us, we become so much less than we are meant to be. Or, as I heard someone say once: “When you bow down to stupid, you become stupid.”

The Psalm writer shows us a better way: “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, thy consolations delight my soul.” Somehow this holy man had found a way into God’s presence in the midst of his worry. He had been able to experience God in the depths of his soul and feel a calm repose of heart and mind. When we turn ourselves over to God, we become so much more than we ever dreamed we could be.

So, why is it that the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai found their way from anxiety to idolatry, whereas the Psalmist found his way from anxiety to worshipping and trusting in God?

Why is it that one woman who is anxious finds her way to praise God or rest in God while another woman finds her way to some hydros or a bottle of vodka or crack to relieve her anxiety? Or, why does she find her way to God one day and fall into the hands of false gods on other days?

And, for many of us, we have known two very different ways of relieving anxiety: through over consumption or even addictive behavior on one hand; but also we have known healthy ways like moderate exercise, fellowship, prayerful solitude to relieve our anxious thoughts, communal worship, or perhaps we have had some good counseling or proper medication as well. God’s help comes in a number of different way.

Thurman says: When we worry, we ignore the very things we need to do to address the concern.” And, he adds: “If we can offer to God a clear mind and heart, God can really do something with us and through us.”

But, how do we get to that place of having a clear mind and heart? How do we get there, so that we can see clearly what needs doing and have the resolution to do it? It is all good and well to say to someone: “trust in the Lord,” but trust in the Lord is an experience you have to find your way to, not some ritual you can enact or state of mind you can always will.

I think we can start right now with seeking God’s Holy Presence in this time of worship and trying to let our anxious thoughts come to rest before God.. Stop trying so hard to think your way out of your worry. Just let your thoughts run until they run themselves out before God. Some scriptures might help us with that right now. “When my anxious thoughts multiply within me, thy consolations delight my soul.” “Be still and know that the Lord is God.” “O, Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high. I do not occupy myself with things too great or too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul. Like a child at its mother’s breast, like a child that is quieted, is my soul.” We will find our way to trust and peace with God when we learn that we enter into the place of holiness – not by coming to a place of knowing, but by coming to a place of not knowing, not by getting ourselves all full of ideas and inspiration, but by emptying ourselves of all thoughts and presumption. I have calmed and quieted my soul . . .

This is the inner path to peace.

But, there is also an outward path of human fellowship that leads to peace. Sometimes our need for shelter or friendship or medical care or food are just so pressing that it does little good for someone to tell us: “Trust in the Lord,” when we are in desperate need of these necessities of life. Maybe those of us with these necessities ought to be turning those words back on ourselves:”trust in the Lord,” and sharing what we have with others, trusting that God will take care of us. Then, a feeling of belonging and the ability to relax in the human community will come to those of us in need – whether those desperate needs be shelter or friendship or medical care. The inner path to peace; the outer path to peace – they are the same path of faith and trust in the living God who cares for body and soul, who calls us to care for self and other. They go together. We will always need to take the inner path, but we must not forget the importance of the outward path to peace, because we are created both for solitude and for community. We come to true peace when we know how to walk both paths with God and each other.

And, when we take ourselves too seriously, we can turn to the little rhyme and maybe laugh at our worrying selves a little:

The worry cow
Would have lasted till now,
If she hadn’t lost her breath.
But she thought her hay
Wouldn’t last all day,
So she mooed herself to death.

What good does our worry do us?

In their anxiety, in their worry, the Hebrews worshipped a golden calf. Now, I doubt if any of us – even in our greatest anxieties -are likely to worship any golden calves. But, we may have been serving the worry cow lately instead of the living God, bowing down days without number to the way of the worry cow instead of the life-giving ways of our Creator God. . . wearing ourselves out with worry which Jesus said wouldn’t add a day to our life, and as we are finding out might end up taking days away from our life.

Our anxiety does not have to lead us into idolatry. Anxiety or worry is something that comes with living, and we can share it with each other and that helps it subside, and we can share it with God who will in turn share his peace with us.

God has revealed to us the way to peace: it lies in that native faith in God and life in the depths of our souls and that native trust in each other that waits to be discovered and celebrated.

As the prophet Isaiah was inspired to say: “In quietness and trust is your strength; in rest and returning you shall be saved.” God calls you to take the inner path of solitude, and the outward path of human community. Let those of you with ears to hear listen to the what the Spirit is saying in your own life.

May God have mercy on you and me and help us to hear this message in our minds, but also in the depths of our hearts where we need God’s help so badly.

Amen.

Thinking About Reconciliation and Reform

Paul, a Jewish follower of Jesus, says: "God was in Christ reconciling the world to God's very self."

And, deep down in my heart or soul or being, it is that spirit of reconciliation that lives and brings a sense of meaning and purpose in life. It is that commmitment to true and thorough and universal reconciliation that characterizes a "follower of the way of God in Jesus." If this desire for reconciliation among human beings and groups of human beings is unquenchable in your soul, then you have been touched by something divine that is at work in this world.

When I see a person who is a filled with this spirit of reconciliation, I conclude that that person is in the way of Christ, one of those who may not have said, "Lord, Lord" to Jesus, but who does the will of Jesus' father in heaven. When I see a person who is filled with a spirit of discrimination, I conclude that that person is not in the way of Christ, one of those who may have said, "Lord, Lord" to Jesus, but who does not do the will of Jesus' father in heaven.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Jew of the 20th century who had a profound understanding of God's will for reconciliation among humanity. The way he interpreted the prophets was in itself prophetic and the spirit of Heschel seemed so much in accordance with the spirit of those who have followed Jesus' path most faithfully.

And, I do see a good spirit and hope of reconciliation in life among many who do not have a close connection to any religious institution or tradition. Will it produce a more just society? Time will tell. On one hand, the Church needs to catch up with the freedom of spirit among the younger generations, and on the other hand, the Church needs to assume a voice with some authority in those essentials areas of human experience where so many younger people have no center of gravity, no foundation.

On one hand, I am part of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., an ordained pastor who has been active for the past 22 years. On the other hand, at many times in my life, I have felt a strong revulsion for "church" as an institution and even some trouble with the identity of "Christian" when that means identifying myself more with a group of like-minded people than with the way of the God in Jesus. I seem to have always had this strong critical force inside me that questions and criticizes all commitments, especially religious ones, and wonders if these commitments are idolatrous. It has made it fairly hard on me as a minister to have this critical voice inside, because it breaks down certainties in my own faith. But, I am coming to the point of being very grateful for this critical voice inside, because it clears away false constructions and leaves me seeking God who can never be trapped or controlled inside some human construction. But, it leaves me spending a good bit of time in the "cloud of unknowing," as a wise person once called it. To really take the first commandment to heart, means spending a lot of time in this "cloud of unknowing."

And, I think that it is in this "cloud of unknowing" that we will unite with the faith of our younger generations. As we come to this profound sense of humility and reverence before the mystery of God, those who are younger will sense that there is once again something real in church. The younger generations are tired of arrogant religious authorities, and arrogant human-centered religion that like an insurance saleman can tell you who and who does not have the eternal life insurance policy. If we can't point to something beyond "our own beliefs" and "our own projections about God," then why would anyone have an interest in church?

When we come to the point of "not knowing" and to the point of true reverence for the Holy One, our praise of God and our treatment of other people will really give encouragement and hope to other people.

Authority

I am grateful for a certain distrust of human authority that was passed on to me with a deep and sure confidence in Divine authority.

If you look at the Ten Commandments, there is the Great Authority, God, above all. And, then there is at the human level only one authority established: parents.

That's about enough authority for me. Every other form of authority is simply necessary as a practical and organizational matter, but not essential to life.

I just don't buy that it is to be assumed that there is Divine legitimacy to political authorities and authorities in society. I know this emphasis about all authority being established by God is included in Scripture - most particularly in Romans 13 - but so much of Scripture is critical and even undermines this teaching about "rulers of this world." Even Paul's own teaching in 1 Corinthians, chapter 1 seems all about challenging every human authority in light of God's revelation in Jesus' death. Also, consider the Bible's view of the authority of Pharoah in Egypt, or of King Ahab in Israel, or the Roman authority at the time of Revelation to John. And, consider how Paul dealt with Roman and Jewish authorities and ended up in prison again and again for it. So, I have to interpret what Paul wrote in Romans 13 about respecting authority in context of what he wrote in other letters, what he did, and what is written in other parts of Scripture. As I interpret passages like this, I also seek understanding from the experience I have in life of God's guidance and truth in dealing with authorities.

Authority and authorities play an important role in human life. The real trick I guess is to figure out how any particular authority is in relation to the Great Authority to determine if that authority has a measure of legitimacy. It is also important to realize that each one of us has to exercise authority in our lives whether we recognize it or not. I might say that all authority is to be suspected, but then what about my "parental authority" or "pastoral authority" or the authority I have over certain matters in the legal system. Yes, we all have a sphere in which we exercise authority. And, yes, it is good to be a little suspicious of all authority, even our own. Because there is only One who has authority that is beyond question.

Albert Schweitzer and “Reverence for Life”

I have been reading “Out of My Life and Thought,” an autobiography by Albert Schweitzer. One thing that amazes me about Schweitzer is how little respect was given to his “thought” by my bible and theology professors at Wake Forest, Columbia, Princeton, and Vanderbilt. Sure, everyone conceded that he had been a great man, and had done a great thing with his hospital in western Africa, started in the early 1900’s. Schweitzer was an accomplished organist, biblical scholar, and then went to medical school around 30 years of age. And, he kept up his scholarly writing and organ playing even after becoming the overseer of a mission in Africa as its lead doctor for decades.

Two things have really impressed me in reading this book: Schweitzer’s explanation of why he decided to be a “jungle doctor,” and his explanation of how he came to the central conviction of his theological and ethical thought. Schweitzer said of becoming a doctor: “I wanted to be a doctor that I might be able to work without having to talk.” He also explains how everybody who knew what a promising scholar and musician he was thought he was crazy for deciding to be a mission doctor. And, later in the book, when he was explaining how he had begun to reflect on the erosion of modern western civilization by the turn of the century (1900)), his thoughts had come to full bloom while in Africa during WWI. Schweitzer was driven to diagnose the societal sickness that had resulted in loss of meaning, loss of true ideals, and warring around the world. His reflections show that he was interested in Eastern thought as well as Western. Eventually, one day while he was travelling upstream on a river in Africa to make a house call on a missionary’s wife who was real sick, it came to him: “Reverence for Life.” This was the deepest spiritual and ethical principal that drove life in a positive direction. Reverence for life, all life, as he like to say. Schweitzer puts it this way:

Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal conception of the ethical which I had not discovered in any philosophy. Sheet after sheet I covered with disconnected sentences, merely to keep myself concentrated on the problem. Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase, “Reverence for Life.” The iron door had yielded: the path in the thicket had become visible. Now I had found my way to the idea in which affirmation of the world and ethics are contained side by side.

- Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, 1933

I want to let Schweitzer explain in his own words what he means by “Reverence for Life” as the foundational conception for thinking and living.

If man affirms his will-to-live, he acts naturally and honestly. He affirms an act which has already been accomplished in his instinctive thought by repeating it in his conscious thought. The beginning of thought, a beginning which continually repeats itself, is that man does not simply accept his existence as something given, but experiences it as something unfathomably mysterious. Affirmation of life is the spiritual act by which man ceases to live unreflectively and begins to devote himself to his life with reverence in order to raise it to its true value. To affirm life is to deepen, to make more inward, and to exalt the will-to-live.
As the same time the man who has become a thinking being feels a compulsion to give to every will-to-live the same reverence for life that he gives to his own. He experiences that other life in his own. He accepts as being good: to preserve life, to promote life, to raise to its highest value life which is capable of development; and as being evil: to destroy life, to injure life, to repress life which is capable of development. This is the absolute, fundamental principle of the moral, and it is a necessity of thought.

The great fault of all ethics hitherto has been that they believed themselves to have to deal only with the relations of man to man. In reality, however, the question is what is his attitude to the world and all life that comes within his reach. A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help.


-Albert Schweitzer

Earlier, Schweitzer explains his view on spiritual views that deny the will-to-live as thus fail to affirm life. He considers the Christianity of the Middle Ages and Eastern thought as world-denying spiritualities. He finds unnatural and thus unspiritual, the detachment of other-wordly Christianity and the detachment taught in Eastern religion. He says this:

Man has now to decide what his relation to his will-to-live shall be. He can deny it. But if he bids his will-to-live change into will-to-not-live, . . . he involves himself in self-contradiction. He raises to the position of his philosophy of life something unnatural, something which is in itself untrue, and which cannot be carried to completion. Indian thought, and Schopenhauer’s also, is full of inconsistencies because it cannot help making concessions time after time to the will-to-live, which persists in spite of all negation of the world, though it will not admit that the concessions are really such. Negation of the will-to-live is self-consistent only if it is really willing actually to put an end to physical existence.

-Albert Schweitzer

About this will-to-live, I am reminded of one of my favorite passages from the book of Ecclesiastes which discovers this persistent will-to-live even in the midst of a depressing reflection on the fact that death comes to all.

But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate man does not know. Everything before them is vanity,since one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As is the good man, so is the sinner; and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath.

This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all; also the hearts of men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and they have no more for ever any share in all that is done under the sun.

So go eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already approved what you do.
Let your garments be always white; let not oil be lacking on your head.
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.
Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.


- Ecclesiastes 9:1-10


We find this will-to-live as a surprise at times. Times when we thought we were empty of life, it has swelled within us like an invading presence, mysterious and gracious. As Schweitzer says: “as something unfathomably mysterious.”

Struggling with Envy: A Meditation on Psalm 73

Psalm 73: “Wrestling with Envy”

The Psalm writer remembers a time when he was worn out with the unfairness of life. He remembers a time when his mind was riddled with doubt. He says: “Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart, but as for me, my feet had nearly slipped, I had almost tripped and fallen . . .”

But, what had happened to cause this holy man to fall into a place of doubt and trouble? What happens in our lives to make us fall into a place of spiritual struggle?

For this man who surely spoke for many men and women of Israel, it was a painful struggle with envy and a painful struggle with the unfairness of life.
He says TROUBLE CAME TO MY SOUL BECAUSE I ENVIED THE PROUD AND SAW THE PROSPERITY OF THE WICKED.

Have you ever looked around and noticed that there are a good number of people that seem to get many of the good things of life even though they continue to do a lot of bad things towards other people? There was a book written about 20 years ago entitled: “Why bad things happen to good people.” This Psalm is concerned about that, but the title of these complaints would be: “Why Do Such Good Things Happen to Such Bad People?” That’s what really filled the Psalmist soul in his time of trouble. “Why Do The Best Things Seem to Happen to Some of the Worst People?”
And, then he takes us back into that time of trouble. His mind goes back to that time of bitterness and he begins speaking like he did back in that past time of trouble. Here is what he was talking like back then:

“These proud and wicked people suffer no pain, and their bodies are sleek and sound; they don’t have to share in the misfortunes that the rest of us bear in life. They wear their pride and arrogance like a necklace for all to see. They wrap their violence around them like a cloak. Their sins arise from corrupt minds, and their hearts overflow with wicked thoughts. They make fun of others and enjoy hurting others with the way they talk. They are conceited and they make plans to exclude and deprive others of their rights.”

This holy man gets all worked up again recalling this state of mind and soul when he was so overwhelmed with complaining and so sick of the evil people getting the good things in life while the righteous were struggling to just get by.

Truth was, he was complaining to God, and angry in his soul. The Psalms contain many complaints showing that true prayer often contains complaints as part of the song of faith. Of course, as the Psalm writer shows us, if the complaining spirit continues to turn to the Holy God, something more happens in the heart and in the soul. Something more than just complaining.

And, though we are going to be involved in complaining in our hearts and minds and conversations and even prayers at times, we get tired when we get to the point of having a COMPLAINING SPIRIT. Because once that complaining spirit takes over within us, it alienates others from us. Now, we know everybody has got to complain some in life. And, if someone never complains, we may think they are putting on an act in life. But, we do get tired of being around someone who complains all the time about things being unfair to that person. And, we start complaining about our friend complaining so much, who may in turn be complaining about someone else who complains so much. But, surely we all do have some serious complaints in our hearts and minds, whether we speak them or not.

Because we can’t help but wonder at times in life why one person is given so many advantages and another person is not; why it is such a struggle for one child to get a decent education while an education just seems to come as a matter of course for other children. We may wonder why some seem to find a good man or good woman so easily while that is something we can’t ever seem to find. We may wonder why some of our good desires in life don’t ever seem to get fulfilled. We may wonder why someone we love and care about so much just has such a struggle to get by in life while others just breeze by as if living was the easiest thing in the world to do.
And, when those complaints reach a point of deep bitterness, it gets hard for us to do anything positive in life. When we fall to the point of having a COMPLAINING SPIRIT, it gets for us like it was for the Psalmist. He says: “I had reached a breaking point. I turned to God and said: ‘In vain have I kept my heart clean, and washed my hands in innocence. I have been troubled all day long and beat down each morning as if I had done evil.”

I remember conversations through the years with friends who had children with debilitating sicknesses, illnesses that you don't get over, but that day by day weaken the body and mind of the child. One man had a little daughter with cancer; another man had a little son with another degenerative disease that weakens the body day by day. And, I have seen pictures and heard stories of women who have walked 20 miles through desert lands carrying a sick child to a medical clinic only to have the child die on the way. The parents I knew spoke of their struggle to face the tragic reality of their child's illness, and then go on working, living, and staying strong for their child and families. These parents I didn't know bear the pain of loss in their souls as they finally arrive at a medical clinic but it is too late.

I think of all these parents as I think on this Psalm. Who knows, our Psalm writer might have had a child like that. And, I think of all of us who deal with our own disappointment and worries and struggles in life and are tempted to just give up and give up caring as much because life seems unfair. And, then I remember what happened to the Psalmist one day. He says: “Had I gone on in this complaining spirit, I should have betrayed the generation of your children.” He knew he had to pass on more than a complaining/bitter spirit to his children. He says: “When I tried to understand it all – why things like this continue to happen – it was too much for me to understand UNTIL . . .

UNTIL I ENTERED INTO THE SANCTUARY OF GOD AND DISCERNED THE END OF THE WICKED and EXPERIENCED THE PRESENCE OF GOD.”

He says: “When my mind became embittered, I was sorely wounded in my heart . . . (I was hurt by the disappointment and worry and sorrow of life) . . . it was as if my mind and heart were numb . . ..”

But, when he went into the sanctuary, something happened to his mind and heart. He experienced the reality of God, the presence of God. It is a mystery what happened when he went into worship.

But, he came out saying TO GOD: “Yet, however low I had sunk in my heart, I am always with you; you hold my right hand. You will guide me by your counsel, and afterwards receive me with glory. My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”

What happened? How was this holy man who had about lost his way transformed from having a complaining, bitter spirit to having a greatful, trusting spirit?
When he was alone, he surely had the chance to pray and read the scripture. Why was it so important to him to go to the sanctuary of God? Certainly, he could have had a transforming experience of God when he was alone or with one or two others. But, for this man, his transformation came in worshipping God with others in the sanctuary.

And, I can only begin to guess what happened. I am thinking today that it has something to do with looking around and seeing and feeling other human beings coming before God and really praising God. Maybe the real antidote to a bitter and envious spirit is to experience the truth that there are a good number of human beings who do want something better for this world, who are sorry for hurting others when they do, and who really yearn for God’s justice on earth. To hear other human voices raised in praise OR to see other human heads bowed in confession is sometimes to experience the presence of God in human flesh. It is a mystery of grace in human community.

Or, it may have been something he observed as he walked into the sanctuary one day. He may have walked in and seen the devotion and commitment of those who kept things going in the temple. . . like I did last week. I came into the sanctuary on Friday evening – day 5 of Vacation Bible School – and I was tired from the work day in court. And, I was frustrated by it, and angry about some of it, in a complaining spirit. And, I look over and noticed two women from our church, both of them in their 80’s who were cheerfully working their fifth evening in a row of Vacation Bible School, caring enough about passing on something to the children to do what it takes. And, that hopeful determination and belief in the next generation lifted my spirit, encouraged me.

It is my guess that something like that happened to the Psalmist that day he went to worship. Maybe some other human being looked him in the eyes and showed him love. He may have experienced reconciliation with someone he was estranged from. He heard some other people singing God’s praises with a pure heart; repenting of sin with a broken spirit; and felt embraced by something greater than them. Yes, we can experience the presence of God powerfully when we are alone, but for those of us who have well nigh slipped and fallen as we so often do, there is something powerful and mysterious about coming together to worship with other human beings – human beings who are struggling just as we are but who continue to find a way to praise the living God. And, then we can say together: “MY HEART AND MY FLESH MAY FAIL, BUT GOD IS THE STRENGTH OF MY HEART AND MY PORTION FOREVER.“ It is my hope that whatever struggles you have, that you are able to find these words in the depths of your heart – MY HEART AND MY FLESH MAY FAIL, BUT GOD IS THE STRENGTH OF MY HEART AND MY PORTION FOREVER. IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT. AMEN.