Tuesday, May 31, 2005

fruit of the spirit

The fruit of the spirit are listed in Galatians 5. 22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (NRSV). They are listed by the apostle Paul as an alternative to the “works of the the flesh” (Galatians 5. 19-21), within a larger passage about the obligation of the Christian to use freedom from the law as a means of service and love. Many biblical scholars interpret Galatians 5. 19-23 as a catalog of virtues and vices most likely derived from the primitive teaching (Didache) of the early church.

The fruit of the Spirit are not works or deeds that we accomplish. Instead, the fruit (karpos) are virtues that God cultivates within us as we mature in the Christian life. While some commentaries distinguish the fruit of the spirit from the gifts of the spirit (1 Corinthians 12-14), there are many more similarities: the greatest spiritual gift is love (1 Corinthians 13. 13), and the first fruit of the spirit is love (Galatians 5. 22). The translation by Eugene Peterson of Romans 12. 2, “love from the center of who you are”, captures the essence of the relation between a fruit and a gift of the spirit.

The fruit of the spirit are present in the life of a Christian, but they must always be understood as a gift to the community. God places the fruit of the spirit within the Christian community. In the same way that the gifts of the spirit help us to describe the body of Christ, the fruit of the spirit assist us in understand how God transforms the church apart from our human efforts. Ultimately, the individual and the community reflect the nature of God as these virtues are cultivated.

For further reading see Life on The Vine: Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community by Philip D. Kenneson.

Ken Carter, from The Upper Room Dictionary of Christian Spiritual Formation (2003).

Monday, May 30, 2005

life and ministry on a holiday weekend

I served for seven years as an associate pastor, in two different settings. I learned that the civic holiday Sundays were very different from the others---the congregation was often scattered, here and there, in North Carolina often in the mountains or at the beach. During those seven years I often received the assignment to preach. Of course, this was the senior pastor's call to make, and I always put myself into it, whether it was Memorial Day weekend or July 4th weekend or Labor Day weekend.

At a later time I was organizing pastor of a new church. I really dreaded these weekends, because people truly were gone---their families of origin most often living in other places, Birmingham or Chicago or Knoxville or somewhere in Florida.

Then I was assigned some time later to be senior pastor at a large church. I decided that I would try to arrive at some balance on these Sundays, dispersing them among the different preachers, myself included. Along the way I learned that I enjoyed somehow linking these Sundays to the gospel--one year I reflected on the Vietnam Veteran's Wall in Washington (Memorial Day), on another I spoke about Abraham Lincoln's faith (July 4th), and on another I preached about a Christian perspective on work (Labor Day).

Over time, I also began to enjoy these long holiday weekends in the church. At Providence, as in many U.S. congregations, the church office is closed on the Monday of these three weekends. By nature things tend to slow down. There is always a pastor on call--this year that happens to be me, and crises do arise. But the traffic thins out, there is no early morning rush to school, and so there is a little more time to sleep, the restaurants are less crowded, and there is a little time to think about life and the near future. Since I usually have some kind of writing project going, these weekends are nice for that as well.

In addition, I approach Sunday morning at the church in a different way on these weekends. I try to focus on who is there, and not on who is not there. I have had some long and meaningful conversations with people on these Sundays, precisely because there is no great rush to be somewhere. Whereas I was once apologetic about these weekends---"I'm sorry we don't have all of our Sunday School classes today, our choir is not what it was last Sunday, etc.", now I am more grateful for the people who are there.

I am also more understanding of those who are not present, because the mountains and shorelines are actually wonderful settings to be, and I always love it when I find myself in those places.

These three weekends may have nothing to do with the liturgical calendar, but they have everything to do with the rhythms of our lives: a time to remember sacrifices, a time to cherish freedom, a time to value work.

Time is God's gift to us, like an "ever rolling stream", we sang yesterday. I am learning to appreciate the different times and seasons of life (Ecclesiastes 4).


Let the people scatter, let them return safely.
Let the people rest, let them remember.
Let the people worship, let them rejoice and be glad.


Saturday, May 28, 2005

there's a wall in washington

One of our country's holiest places is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, created by the architect Maya Ying Lin. I invite you to visit, this Memorial Day weekend, and remember.

"There's a wall in Washingon
and it's made of cold black granite.
They say 60,000 names are etched there in it;
in that wall in Washington..."

Iris Dement

Thursday, May 26, 2005


"Above all, above everything else---do not lie.

"Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect toward himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn't it?"

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1. 2. 2

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


The Bobcats ended up with the 5th and the 13th draft picks in the NBA Lottery. My prediction: yes, Chris Paul of Wake Forest will be available at #5, and Sean May of UNC at #13. If you look closely, Coach Bernie Bickerstaff is smiling, but he is really not that happy. And haven't we all done that somewhere along the way?

The Steep Canyon Rangers are nearby, in Gastonia, on Monday evening, May 30. You really do want to hear them, if you are in town over the holiday weekend. They are at the Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden.

Last weekend was the celebration of our younger daughter's 16th birthday. We had non-alcoholic margaritas (sp?), barbecue, and we sang karoake (an aside: I agree that American Idol is "glorified karaoke"). Our older daughter and I sang "I Will Survive", my wife and some of her friends sang "I've Got You Babe", and our friend, Dr. Tim Champion, of the Chemistry Department of Johnson C. Smith University, sang "Love Shack". It was all really too much.

Some friends in my Disciple 4 class this year recommended House, a series on Fox TV. It is about an eccentric professor/medical doctor, and it moves along, which I like. Dr. House is sort of cynical/brilliant/quick-witted and yet also extremely unhappy. I have been reflecting on the similarities and differences between House and Monk. At any rate, both Monk and House are brilliant, both are diagnosticians. Each has eccentricities that are tolerated because of their brilliance. Each is relationally challenged. Each has endured some kind of personal crisis. Each is profoundly unhappy. I am intrigued enough with what I have seen of House to watch it this summer, since I missed most of the season.

By the way, the new Monk season begins on July 8. "It's a jungle out there...".

My piece on Merlefest, which appeared on this blog earlier, was printed in the Saturday Charlotte Observer (May 21, 2005).

For those of you who like to get out and see the world, Bele Chere in Asheville is July 29-31, and
Folkmoot is July 18-31, in Waynesville. Both communities are in the western North Carolina mountains. From Charlotte you face the setting sun, drive toward the mountains. When they get bigger you know you are getting closer.

On a different note, I have been working with Ed Kilbourne on a cd that combines some of his music (songs like "God Who Began A Good Work In You") with some of my teaching on spiritual gifts. We are trying to do something simple, providing a resource that people can listen to as they are driving around in their cars, or as they are stopped in traffic, or when they are waiting for an athletic event to conclude, or perhaps on a long drive to the beach or to the ocean. We think we have come up with the money to do it, and simply want to give the cd to people who want to hear it, or pass it along to others. Nobody seems to have any time anymore, but everybody seems to spend more time in their vehicles. So, we'll see. Let me know if you want a copy. They should be ready in the next couple of weeks. Thanks Ed, for your friendship and gifts.

The peace of the Lord be with you.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

the sufferings of this present time and the signs of the spirit

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God (Romans 8. 14). We are no longer slaves, and here we are reminded of Egypt, and Pharoah, and the oppression of human bondage. We are children of God.

Paul is talking about the new life and the old life, a theme he has been working with since the fifth chapter of Romans. You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, Paul reminds these new Christians. When Moses had led the people out of slavery, he held before them a vision of entering the promised land. But on the way they had to pass through the wilderness. The wilderness was chaotic, dangerous and uncertain. They were hungry, thirsty and confused. Some wanted to go back to Pharoah; “at least in Egypt we had three meals a day”, they said.

Jameson Jones, who was Dean of Duke Divinity School when I was a student, once said that every church he had ever served had a “Back To Egypt” committee! That’s because change is tough, and the future is always unpredictable, and sometimes we know we are on the way to the promised land but now it seems like wilderness, and like the country song says, we long “for the good old days when times were bad”.

You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery, to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. We are not God’s biological children. We are not Christians because of our race or ethnicity. We have been adopted. We are not slaves. We are the adopted children of God. Then Paul tells us what it means to be a child of God.

Growing up in the church I knew instinctively what it meant to be a child of God. I knew it from sitting next to my grandfather and drawing pictures on pieces of paper that he would bring (he didn’t want me wasting the church envelopes). And I knew it from a couple of songs that we would sing. Some of our best theology has always been in our music.

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world
Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world

Jesus loves the children of Haiti and the Sudan, Jesus loves the children of Israel and Palestine, Jesus loves the children of Afghanistan and Iraq, , Jesus loves the children of every corner of Charlotte. Jesus loves children who are healthy and children are sick, children who are safe and children who are missing. All the children of the world…We also sang another song:

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so
little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong
yes, Jesus loves me. Yes, Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me the Bible tells me so.

These songs taught me that I was a child of God, and that Jesus loved me. In the 8th chapter of Romans Paul is teaching the early Christians that they are children of God. And just as those songs stay in our memories, he wants them to remember two things: a word and a sign.

The word is Abba. When we cry Abba it is the spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God. Abba was the Aramaic word for “father”. Aramaic was the language that Jesus spoke. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had prayed, “Abba, if it is possible let this cup (of suffering) pass from me” (Mark 14. 36). The Spirit prompts us to use the same word Jesus used as we address God.

Abba was not a formal word for a cold and distant father figure. Abba is not a word that has to do with parental authority. Abba was an intimate word, a name for a parent that we might only use within the household. We are children of One who knows and loves us intimately, and because we are adopted children we also know that we have been chosen. This is a basic meaning of what it means to be a Christian. God’s Spirit dwells within us, and we know that we are God’s children. We used to sing this: little ones to him belong.

And so we are a part of the family. There is a powerful longing to be a part of the family. Just in our time, think of the stories about children raised by aunts and uncles and father figures and adoptive parents: Luke Skywalker and Star Wars; Bilbo, Frodo and the Lord of the Rings; Harry Potter.

These stories grab people, they wait in line to buy these books and see these movies because they tap into the powerful longing we have to belong. We knew it when we were children. We sang it: little ones to him belong. When we cry Abba it is the spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

We are children of God. And if we are children of God, Paul says, we have an inheritance. Now the inheritance is the future glory, the promised land, the life to come. But on the way we are going to struggle. On the way we are going to pass through the wilderness.

And that brings us to the second way we know we are children of God: the sign of the cross. We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if we suffer with him, so that we also may be glorified with him. And then Paul continues: I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

I think Paul speaks of the suffering of God’s children because he wants us to know that life is not always going to be a playground. We are children of God, but we must also become children of God.

When I was a kid I was a big baseball fan. My father was also an avid baseball fan, and his favorite player was Ted Williams. Ted Williams died about three years ago. It is possible that he was the greatest hitter who ever lived. He was the last player in the major leagues to hit for an average of 400 in a season; in his career he hit 521 homeruns; he took time off, at the height of his powers to serve in the military, both in World War II and in Korea.

After his death, he was mourned. It was the passing of an era. Then a rather unseemly thing began to happen. His son had developed a scheme to have his body cryogenically frozen (“This is not science fiction---I am not making this up”), so that his genetic material could someday be sold. Future parents-to-be could purchase his material so that their sons or daughters could hit a baseball like Ted Williams. They would become, in essence, children of Ted Williams!

It is a strange story, but it caused me to wonder: how do we become children of God? Not biologically. Not genetically. Not by being born into the right family. We become children of God as we discover this relationship with the One whom Jesus called Abba, Father. One of the best ways to discover this relationship is to learn to pray the Lord’s Prayer. We also become children of God as we suffer, under the sign of the cross. And this is sometimes difficult for us to comprehend, because we want to shield our children from suffering. We want to avoid suffering. I want to avoid suffering. I thank God for the scientist who invented Novocain.

But we live in a world that suffers. The image Paul uses is pretty clear. The old world is crumbling, like the stock market in a nose-dive. The creation is degrading, all the signs point to decay. But something is about to happen. It’s like pregnancy. The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains, and not just the creation, but we ourselves. Now Pam, my wife, could stand here and speak from experience, but in pregnancy life is not the way it used to be and life is not the way it’s going to be.

It’s like labor pain. But the pain of labor is bearable because we live in hope, and in hope, Paul says, we are saved. In the meantime, the Christian life can be painful, like labor; messy, like childbirth. It’s like being adopted into a family, and we’re not really like the father or the mother, but maybe if we live around them long enough and listen to them attentively enough, we will become more like them.

We live with a word—Abba—and a sign—the cross, and a hope for what we do not yet see. We await something new, something that will change our lives, something we cannot make happen. It has begun, like the breaking of water on the way to a new birth. Something is going to happen, and it is going to change our lives! How do we know this? It is the spirit, the continuing work of the Holy Spirit, whose gift we celebrated on Pentecost, bearing witness with our spirit.

God is going to do something else. And so, Paul promises, the spirit helps us in our weakness. Suffering and decay all around us, but there is going to be a new world. The contractions have already started; there’s going to be a new birth. We are not going to go back to Egypt. We are bound for the promised land.

It’s true. The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

Friday, May 20, 2005

orthodox without being narrow-minded, evangelical without being joyless

Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation In Spiritual Theology
By Eugene H. Peterson (Eerdmans)

An Appreciation [note: this also appears at Circuit Rider Book Reviews, linked to the right].

Eugene Peterson is well-known as the translator of The Message, a contemporary rendering of the Bible in a North American context. He is also author of a number of highly-regarded and widely read works on pastoral ministry, among them Working The Angles and Under The Unpredictable Plant. Having served as a Presbyterian pastor for a number of years, Peterson knows intimately the rhythms of the local parish; possessing a background in biblical languages, he also writes with depth and passion about the scriptures and their connection with the human condition.

This lifelong pastoral vocation, deepened with sustained attention to translating the scriptures, has come to fruition in a marvelous new book, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places. This “conversation in spiritual theology” begins with an evaluation of what spirituality has come to mean in our North American context: As Peterson “clears the playing field”, he examines our understandings of human nature, biblical revelation and the spiritual life, pushing us back to our basic texts, terms and metaphors.

Peterson laments that we have sought a spirituality apart from scripture; we have searched for a Jesus separated from his own human flesh; we have replaced “soul” with “self”, and we have domesticated the transcendent God and lost the practice he refers to as “fear-of-the-Lord”, the beginning of wisdom according to the writer of Proverbs.

This clearing away of our cluttered spiritual landscape makes a way for a renewed attention to three primary matters: creation, history, community. After reflecting on the birth of Jesus, Peterson comments on the threat of gnosticism, and then gives a thorough exposition of two “grounding texts”: Genesis 1-2 and the Gospel of John. Such an immersion leads us into the practices of Sabbath and wonder. He continues this cycle in exploring history and community, situating the discussion in the life of Jesus, identifying threats within the culture, exegeting biblical texts and concluding with practices that flow logically from the discussion.

According to the dust jacket,
Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places is the first and foundational book in a series of five volumes on spiritual theology. I must confess that I am in awe of the project in its emerging state. Peterson is biblically coherent, cultural relevant, spiritually engaging. He is orthodox without being narrow-minded, critical without being dismissive, evangelical without being joyless, scholarly without being pedantic. His style is conversational, and yet his subject matter is of utmost importance. As I read this book, I had the sense that I was learning from a wise pastor who had somehow held it all together, a love for God and a love for people, an immersion in biblical study and a heart for the world in which we live each day.

Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places is a remarkable work. It is so well-conceived and executed that I found myself wondering, at times, “How does he do this?” But more often, I was led to reflect on the glory of God, in creation, in history, in community, and even in the ordinary life that is the pastoral ministry. In the spirit of wonder and gratitude, I await the future volumes!


Wednesday, May 18, 2005

spiritual guide

The elder Zosima...no doubt struck Alyosha by some special quality of his soul....Many said of the elder Zosima that, having for so many years received all those who came to him to open their hearts, thirsting for advice and for a healing word, having taken into his soul so many confessions, sorrows, confidences, he acquired in the end such fine discernment that he could tell, from the first glance at a visiting stranger's face, what was in his mind, what he needed, and even what kind of suffering tormented his conscience; and he sometimes astonished, perplexed, and almost frightened the visitor by his knowledge of his secret even before he had spoken a word. But at the same time, Alyosha almost always noticed that many people, nearly everyone, who came to the elder for the first time for a private talk, would enter in fear and anxiety and almost always come out bright and joyful, and that the gloomiest face would be transformed into a happy one. Alyosha was remarkably struck by the fact that the elder was not at all stern; that, on the contrary, he was almost always cheerful in manner. The monks used to say of him that he was attached in his soul precisely to those who were the more sinful, and that he who was most sinful the elder loved most of all.

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1.1.5

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

going home, coming home

On Sunday morning we made our way up I-77 to Yadkin County. My wife and older daughter and I were going to participate in the 175th Anniversary Celebration of Prospect United Methodist Church in East Bend, North Carolina. Actually, Prospect is located in the community of Smithtown, which is adjacent to East Bend. East Bend refers to the "east bend" of the Yadkin River, which flows into the Pee Dee River basin in South Carolina. It was one of four churches that I served from 1985-1988, the others being New Home, Shady Grove and Mount Pleasant. The schedule was somewhat complicated. I preached once a month at each church at 9:45, and once a month at each church at 11:00 a.m. They flip-flopped their services, sort of a code that was easily understood by the insiders. Prospect might worship at 9:45 on the first Sunday and 11:00 on the third Sunday, and New Home might worship at 9:45 on the second Sunday and 11:00 on the fourth Sunday. We had Holy Communion at each church once a month, which meant I was able to celebrate the sacrament every Sunday. Each church also had a men's breakfast at 8:00 a.m. once a month, so I had a pretty big country breakfast every week.

Our older daughter was born while we were there, and was two years old by the time we had left. During those years I also completed a master's thesis at UVA, and my wife completed a ThM, at Duke Divinity School, so we were quite the learned couple. We developed close friendships with a number of people, several of whom we were able to reconnect with on Sunday.

Prospect is a strong rural church with amazing lay leadership. I truly felt supported and loved by many of the people, and as I shared with them, they overlooked many of my beginner mistakes. I learned a great deal about death and dying, and got involved in Hospice. I preached two or three times a Sunday. After a few months I had exhausted all that I had learned in seminary. I participated with a group of about ten in a spiritual disciplines group that was pretty rigorous (up at 5:30, scripture reading, journaling, silence, application). I took a large group of youth to Atlanta to see the Braves play, and then we went to Six Flags, and then to Lake Junaluska to hear Ed Kilbourne. Then we spent the night and came through Asheville, stopping to hear my friend Jim Faggart preach at Groce UMC in Asheville. Then we returned to East Bend. An article appeared about the trip in the Yadkin Ripple, the county newspaper. It was great. It all seems like yesterday.

Only it was 17-20 years ago. "Time passes by", Kathy Mattea sings. It's true. But it is fun to go home again, nice to be invited home again. This year I have preached at three former churches: Prospect, Christ Church, Saint Timothy's. Each has been a rich experience.

I did share this comment about large and small churches at Prospect, during the sermon, which was taken from Hebrews 12 ("A Cloud of Witnesses"). Sometimes rural churches, or non-mega churches anyway compare themselves (unfavorably) to larger, more visible ones. Each has strengths and gifts. A small spiritual/ecclesiological insight:

"I am grateful to God for you, Prospect United Methodist Church. You are the body of Christ, the church, and you do need each other, and you do need to remember the cloud of witnesses that surrounds you. I am convinced that churches should not compare themselves to each other. Large churches in big cities are unique; they can accomplish mission on a big scale. Every Sunday I preach to people I will never meet, and they know me, they feel like they know me, but it is possible that I will never know them. These churches have real strengths. God uses them.

"But they cannot be the body of Christ for each other, the way you can. The New Testament churches, I am convinced, were mostly house churches, where people knew each other, by name, and ate meals together with glad and generous hearts, and watched over one another in love. That is just by way of saying: give thanks for who you are!"

After the service, and a wonderful meal, we attended a small graveside service for the mother of a friend, in Winston-Salem, and then we caught a ride with a couple of friends who were returning to Charlotte. It was nice to go home, and nice to come home.

Monday, May 16, 2005

a prayer for the holy spirit

Create within us, O God
a stillness and a peace
form us
shape us with your hands
breathe upon us
make us new creatures
vessels of your Spirit
allow others
to be drawn
to your beauty

your goodness
your love
through us.

Create within us, O God
a fire and a restlessness
move in our midst
grace us with your compassion
plant within us
dreams and visions
allow us
to be drawn
into the hopes
and sufferings of others
for there we will find you.

Create within us, O God
a sense of wonder and awe
awaken us
to the gentle movements
of your Spirit
to sacraments
of family and friendship
to possibilities of
a new heaven
and a new earth
allow us, O God,
to know ourselves
even as we have been known
by you.

Create within us, O God
a stillness and a peace.

pentecost 05
galatians 5. 22

Saturday, May 14, 2005

now that i have your attention

Writing a blog is a fascinating enterprise. Often I simply put stuff in here that I like, impressions of whatever happens to be going on at the time. I also enjoy reading the blogs of others---locusts and honey, st phransus, shane raynor---they are linked to the right--they are people I have not actually met, but whose styles I appreciate and whose intellectual curiousity and creativity I admire.

I do recognize that blogs, like american life in general, sometimes tend to slide down one side of the mountain of the American political/cultural divide. And one way to increase traffic is to stand on one side of the mountain and lob a grenade toward the other side. Another way to increase the traffic is to touch on subjects that get you into the sphere of subject matter that the media obsesses over---sexual expression or deviance of one form or another. I could make a list here, and I am not especially puritan by nature, but none of it seems to advance the kingdom of God, or lead people to the abundant life that Jesus taught.

My political leanings tend more toward the practical and experiential. I am disturbed that the media does not seem to be covering the war. It is hidden, lost in the coverage of Michael Jackson and the Runaway Bride. Like most of American society, I wonder about the sacrifices of these young men and women, and their families, and I question the decision-makers, many of whom never made these kinds of sacrifices. I am also troubled by what is happening to our environment, and felt led to preach about that a few weeks ago. I like the saying of David Brower, which is found at the National Aquarium: "We do not inherit the earth from our fathers and mothers, we are borrowing it from our children."

What do the war and the environment have in common? We are asking the next generation to make sacrifices for our ideals and lifestyles. On these two issues, I am happy to speak and pray and work with anyone who is willing to gather a broad, non-sectarian and non-partison group of people willing connect being a Christian with what is going on in the world. I am convinced that there are no Democratic or Republic solutions.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

God's boundless love

"Do not be afraid of anything, never be afraid, and do not grieve. Just let repentance not slacken in you, and God will forgive everything. There is not, and cannot be in the whole world such a sin that the Lord cannot forgive one who truly repents of it. A man even cannot commit so great a sin as would exhaust God's boundless love. How could there be a sin that exceeds God's love? Only take care that you repent without ceasing, and chase away fear altogether. Believe that God loves you so as you cannot conceive of it; even with your sin and in your sin God loves you....Go then and do not be afraid. Do not be upset with people, do not take offense at their wrongs. Forgive the dead man in your heart for all the harm he did you; be reconciled with him truly. If you are repentant, it means that you love. And if you love, you already belong to God...With love everything is bought, everything is saved. If even I, a sinful man, just like you, was moved to tenderness and felt compassion for you, how much more will God be. Love is such a priceless treasure that you can buy the whole world with it, and redeem not only your own but other people's sins. Go, and do not be afraid".

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 1.2.3

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

it's not about you

A reflection based on the prayer of Jesus in John 17 is at the PUMC website. Click "sermons".

It begins:

One of the most valuable experiences along a life of ministry for me was a few days spent in Bethesda, Maryland with a man named Ed Friedman, who was a rabbi and a family systems theorist. He wrote a book entitled Generation To Generation, which many pastors would place just after the Bible as a reference that they have returned to again and again. Ed was brilliant. He was also a classical Jewish comedian. I miss him.

At any rate, I recall him reflecting with our group about some conflict that was taking place in a congregation, maybe between the pastor and the congregation, and he said, “you know, most of the time, we are too egocentric…most of the time, it is not even about us”...

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

what is a blog?

A nice, brief explanation.

Monday, May 09, 2005

a lesson from the tiger

I am not a golfer. I do own a set of clubs, given to me by my wife's family. I played on an occasional basis when our first daughter was small. When our second daughter was born, golf became too expensive and time consuming. I also never found it that interesting. I did take up squash, for a few years, and tennis. I got more exercise in these sports, and did not lose the ball as often.

Charlotte hosts a PGA golf tournament, and it has just concluded. It was played at a course nearby, and I was invited to volunteer one day.

Here was the volunteer experience:

We met at the school at 5:30 a.m.
The bus picked us up to take us to the course at 5:45 a.m.
We arrived at the course at 6:00 a.m.
I was a restaurant associate, which meant I worked at a concession stand. My younger daughter was also a restaurant associate. Last year my daughter was an ecology ambassador, which means she picked up trash. Later in the would she would be a senior ecology ambadassor, which means she supervised the other people who picked up trash.
The first golfers teed off at about 8:30 a.m., I think. Not much happened those first two hours.
It was 50 degrees, cold for Charlotte in May.
We served hot dogs, and no breakfast foods. Not much demand for hot dogs at 8:00 in the morning, even among guys who have been drinking beer already.
We served no hot drinks, like coffee or hot chocolate.
Along with a partner, I boiled hot dogs, and wrapped them in tin foil. The perfect American food.
We sold maybe 10 hot dogs by noon.
My colleagues, the other restaurant associates, ate about 20.
I took a break, at about 11:30, to go to one of the better furnished concession stands. There I had a cheesburger. I felt a comraderie with the other restaurant associates, and a small sense of power in not actually having to pay for the cheeseburger, like I was an insider.
At about 12:30, I watched Tiger Woods hit a tee shot. To say that Tiger has the adoration of the masses would be an understatement.
A guy from my church walked by and asked, "are you looking for some inspiration?"
Actually, I was only thinking of being warm.
Tiger hit his tee shot, on Quail Hollow # 10, into the woods.
I remembered my own experiences in playing golf.
I felt that I could identify with Tiger.
Then I went to meet the bus, and was taken back to my car.
It was good to be warm again.

Some observations, from a day or two around professional golf:

If a golfer smiles at the fans, he is perceived as Mr. Personality. Golfers are our modern stoics.
Professional golf destroys the myth that people have limited financial resoures and not enough leisure time.
There remains a huge market for cigar smokers.
More African-Americans attend golf tournaments than I would have imagined.
Professional golf is becoming an ethnically-diverse sport.
Tattoo artists are making an impression on young America.
If police wanted to catch a few drinker/drivers, hanging around these events would be a wise decision.

A lesson from the Tiger:

On the last day, I returned in the afternoon, just to watch and follow Tiger around. On the fifteenth hole he had an eagle (that's two shots below par): two shots to green, one put into the hole. Whereas I could identify with Tiger on the tee shot into the woods, I could not with the eagle.

The lesson: we have a capacity for mediocrity and a capacity for greatness, all of us. Even the Tiger.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

can you hear me now?

in John 14, Jesus is preparing the disciples for his departure. Call it his transition plan. Did you read the wonderful little book Tuesday With Morrie? It sold a few copies. I have written a couple of books, actually three, none of them have sold as many copies as Mitch Albom’s book, Tuesdays With Morrie, at least not yet. I do have an idea for a book, however. I haven’t written it, but the title is Left Behind on Tuesdays with Harry Potter.

At any rate, each Tuesday Mitch, the author would meet with his mentor, Morrie, and Morrie would talk about life. That is what is happening here. The teacher is leaving, and the students are wondering: what’s going to happen to us?

The master is direct and to the point: if you love me you will keep my commandments. He had given them a new commandment in the 13th chapter of John: love one another, just as I have loved you. The heart of Christianity has always been love, and the test of Christianity has always been how we live in love, it has been, at its core “faith working through love” (Galatians 5. 6), a favorite scripture of John Wesley’s.

Continue in my teachings, Jesus says. Continue to love one another. And then there is promise: The Father will give you an Advocate, to be with you forever. The New Testament was written in the Greek language, and I want to spend some time with this one Greek word this morning, because it is so important. In verse 16, the word is paraclete. The Father will give you a paraclete, to be with you forever.

This word is so rich that it has multiple meanings, and we need to grasp them all. Our English Bibles are translations of the Greek, and there are four common renderings of this one Greek word: The King James translates the word as “comforter”. The New Revised Standard Version has it as “advocate”. And the New International Version has it as “Counselor”. The Message translates the word paraclete as “Friend”.

Jesus is leaving the disciples, but the Paraclete—Comforter, Advocate, Counselor, Friend---will be with them forever. The fullness of this Greek word is worth exploring.

When we think of comfort we may think of the Peanuts cartoon where Linus carries around his blanket, and that is a part of the meaning: we need someone who will be with us, like that blanket was with Linus. If you have ever had a child who became attached to some object, something that comforted them, you know how important this is…you may know how miserable they can become, and you can become, when they didn’t have that comforter. Life could become pretty uncomfortable!

But the word comfort points to something more. The second part of that wonderful word, comfort, is the word “fort”. A comforter is one who strengthens, who builds a fortress, who gives courage, sustaining us in situations that we never thought we could make it through.

The Holy Spirit as advocate is a sign that God is not only with us, God is for us. The spirit intercedes with us, even when we don’t know how to praythe Apostle Paul writes. An advocate is one who works on our behalf, seeking the best for us, steering us from danger, guiding us to safety. And that is the work of the Spirit. If God is for us, Paul asks in Romans 8, who can be against us?

Sometimes it helps to know that someone is on our side! I love going to high school volleyball games and watching ACC basketball games and sometimes Braves baseball games. And I have to admit: I am not bi-partisan. I am not objective. I am for my team. I want them to win!

Jesus says the Father will give you another Advocate. Interesting word there: another, meaning, most scholars insist, that Jesus also is their advocate. Meaning, the Spirit is pulling for us, cheering for us, encouraging us. If God is for us, who can be against us?

What a wonderful concept. God is not some detached, objective observer. God is an advocate, who will be with us forever, through the Holy Spirit.

Paraclete is also translated counselor. For me, this points to the still, small voice of God, to the wisdom of God that is there, that will guide us toward the truth , if we will listen, to the convicting power of conscience, to the peace that comes when we have settled on the correct decision and begun to walk in the right path.

I have known some wonderful counselors over the years. Many of them are men and women of deep Christian faith. The best counselors are people who listen to us, and because they are such great listeners they force us to say things that express the depths of our hearts. And when we have said these things---gotten them out before another person---there is often a clarity and even a freedom. Sometimes we are in bondage to powers that should have no control over us. And sometimes we make assumptions about life that aren’t necessarily helpful to us.

The Holy Spirit as counselor guides us into the truth that God sees for us, and about us.

The paraclete is also a friend. To me this is one of the underappreciated dimensions of Christianity: the importance of friendship. Friends are people who support us and who hold us accountable, who have seen us at our best and at our worst, who are there for us before we even have to call them. Sometimes they live near us, sometimes a great distance away, and yet, when we need them, they are there.

The Holy Spirit is the presence of God in just this way: supportive when we need it---hang in there!---and accountable when we need that too---you’re really about to mess up! In the next chapter of John, Jesus says something that is truly remarkable:

You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends. (John 15. 14-15)

Jesus is about to leave the disciples, but he is making them aware of a wonderful gift: The paraclete is a comforter. Blessed are those who mourn, he had taught in the sermon on the mount, for they will be comforted. The paraclete is also an advocate, speaking on behalf of a person in a trial, interceding to the judge on his or her behalf. A counselor is one who guides us toward the truth, and away from falsehood. A friend is someone who is there, and that is close to the literal meaning of paraclete: to stand alongside. A friend stands alongside us.

The promise to the disciples, and to us, is that in times of uncertainty, confusion, loss, and grief, we will have the presence of a comforter and advocate, a counselor and friend. This is the Holy Spirit, a gift of God to us, who not only stands alongside us but, Jesus says in verse 17, lives in us.

I will not leave you comfortless, he says to them. That was the great promise of Jesus to his disciples, and to us. I will not leave you orphaned, comfortless, desolate.

I will be with you, Jesus is saying. I will be with you forever.

I am still trying to decide whether cell phones are a good thing or a bad thing. I am driving down Providence Road, and I’m watching the person in front of me juggle eyeliner, a cigarette, and a cell phone, not to mention the steering wheel, and I wonder: are cell phones a good thing? I am minding my own business, drinking coffee in a restaurant in the early morning, and the guy next to me is taking calls about purchase orders and chronically troubled employees, and I wonder: are cell phones a good thing?

Cell phones are changing our lives. Can you hear me now? I am aware of the positive contributions of cell phones. I do imagine that there was a time when a young person went off to college, and perhaps they spoke on the phone with their parents once a week, maybe, or wrote letters once or twice during the semester. Now, with cell phones, you might talk several times a day. Of course, I know that they have assigned us parents particular ring tones, which helps them to screen us out, but there are ways around that, too. We are much more in touch through cell phones. And I can imagine that, in my lifetime, we will probably have something like a cell phone surgically implanted in our ears, a little tone will chime, our own little technological still, small voice. It will become a part of us.

That is the point that Jesus is making. The spirit, the comforter, the advocate, the friend will abide with you, and will be in you. And that is our hope and prayer. That Christianity is not just something out there, but that is also something in here. It is always a part of us. I will be with you, even to the ends of the earth, Jesus says. This is the blessed assurance, but it is also a clear threat.

Once this Christianity gets into our bloodstream, it leads us to do all kinds of things that the world deems absurd: love our enemies, forgive those who harm us, be patient with those who exasperate us, see people not for who they are or for what they own but for who, in God’s image, they might become.

I will not leave you, he says; I am coming to you. If you are a parent, and if you have a child, you have implanted something in them, whether you know it or not. Your child is going to grow up and move away from you, either geographically or spiritually or perhaps both. But they are going to need you. We need to know where we are in the world, we need some kind of global positioning device. Jesus says: I will not leave you, I will be with you. You’re not getting away from me.

John 14. 15-21 is framed by a reminder to keep the commandments (verses 15, 21). God is with those who keep his commandments. Those who keep the commandments love God. Those who keep the commandments are called friends by Jesus. Authentic Christianity is always gift and demand. Parents call it tough love. God is with us, God is never going to leave us, but God is going to require something of us, and that is that we keep the commandments. The new commandment that Jesus had given in John 13 was to love one another.

We know that we love Jesus if we follow his example and love one another. To live in this kind of way, to be loving people, we are going to need some help.

A comforter, because we are going to get bruised.

An advocate, because we are going to get discouraged.

A counselor, because we are going to become confused.

A friend, because we cannot do this alone.

So the teacher prepared his disciples, his friends, for a future that would be very different. Rooted in commandments that are 2000 years old, and yet related to a presence that was as near to them as their next breaths, they were getting ready for what would come next. They had no idea what that would be.

Morrie was helping his student Mitch to adjust with whatever would happen next, and along the way he was passing along his vision of life to Mitch , who had become his friend.

Jesus is passing along his vision of life to his friends, the disciples. And whenever we gather, to break the bread and tell the story, we are passing a long a vision of life. Do this in remembance of me, he says.

Love one another. Keep the commandments. And remember that you are not alone. You have a comforter, an advocate, a counselor, a friend, who will be with you.


Friday, May 06, 2005

bill white's notes on haiti, january, 05

As one is the oldest and most decrepit, one searches for sage and profound things to tell. And frankly, I am at a loss. But, (there’s always a “but”) one must consider Haiti as a life-changing experience. One cannot look on the bad part—only the half-full glass of water. This has formed vocations, even my own baby daughter is my doctor. Others include those “children” who: 1) became medical (MDs) doctors in Japan, 2) missionaries, 3) RNs, 4) and all sorts of people helping others. No one has come without being changed…even the writer who probably had the biggest change and so I say to you “Listen.” The Lord is in this place. These people know it also…otherwise their life would be terrible. But they know the Lord will not cure their problems but He will give them the grace to carry through. Thank you all for coming to be a part of something that is deeper than we can comprehend. God bless you all, Bill White

Ken's note: Bill White, along with Alice, is the co-founder of the Providence UMC Haiti Mission.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

the jesus prayer

Lord Jesus Christ
Son of God
have mercy on me
a sinner.

Sources: The Way of The Pilgrim; 1 Thessalonians 5. 17.
An Eastern Orthodox prayer, with roots in the practices of the early desert
mothers and fathers. Close your eyes, and say this prayer slowly, twelve times.