Saturday, August 22, 2015

On Rahab

I had been invited to speak at a women's event at the church. There is no shortage of women in the biblical witness, so the options were many. I could choose from Rachel, Sarah, Rebecca, or any of the Mary's--the best of course would be Jesus' mother, Mary. Yet, as these names tumbled about in my mind, none seemed to settle. Until one morning, during my devotion time, I came upon the Lectionary reading from from Joshua 2.  Therein, I was invited into the story of Rahab, and Joshua's spies, and my spirit stirred with this unlikely heroine, whose life-story sounded more like fiction than history. And it was there I sensed Rahab's name settle into my heart and mind. Hers was the story to tell.

A word on preaching: 

After many years of training in seminary, and some fabulous preaching mentors along the way, for me, preaching is deeply personal and profoundly, terrifyingly communal. Preaching is all at once wonderful and traumatic.  It both fills me, and empties me. This Spirit work that happens each week at pulpits all over the world. The pulpits may differ but it is the same Holy Spirit that speaks. The task is not easy: preachers listen in on the authority of the Scriptures, the need of the community he or she serves, and the stirrings of his or her own devotional life with God, and then with care and, some trepidation, he or she sets to this task of bringing the Scriptures to life--pencils, pens or computers begin to shape words enough. But not too many; too many words cloud the message. Just enough. Preaching is not for the faint of heart; for it is sacred work, all because of the steadfast love and radical grace of God in Christ. This grace empowers and strengthens us all, and it this grace alone that enables any preacher to preach well the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So to Rahab:

(It needs to be noted here that this sermon is a narratival sermon, told from the first person perspective.  Because of the limited information on Rahab, portions of this sermon are "fictionalized" but are inline with the historical context of what we understand of that culture and time period. It is not intended to be a historical study of Rahab, rather to be a voice of encouragement and grace in the life of one woman.)

I’ve got a story to tell. One that I hope you like. It went like this…


I’m a nobody really. Just an ordinary woman.  Nothing special about me.  In fact there’s probably a lot more about me that you wouldn’t like to know. I work hard. I have a tavern here in town; lived in Jericho all my life. People in and out of this town like clockwork. So I work hard a lot. Sometimes I have to do a little bit more to get by—that’s the stuff you probably don’t want to hear about.  I guess I’ve learned to do what I have to do to get food in the belly and coins in our purses. I’m a nobody really. Oh, guess I can tell you my name—Rahab is my name. Though I don’t hear it very often—ususlly it’s “Servant!” “Woman!” “Get me some more ale!”.  You know what I mean. But yes, Rahab’s my name. I’m nobody really though. Just a woman, trying to get by.  I take care of people and they take care of me. I like it that way—keeps it simple.

          It’s been busy today. People in and out all day long, like usual, but lately people are all antsy-like. Seems there’s been some wild stuff going on—this army, I guess, led by this guy, Joshua, is making waves around here and it’s got all the town in a bit of an uproar.  The kings got soldiers hanging out all over the streets and some even in my tavern, acting all fearful, asking lots of questions and stuff. But I never pay much attention to soldiers fussing anyway, got my own problems, you know? I just give 'em food and drink, and sometimes a bit more of me. I’m a nobody really so what’s this guy Joshua got to do with me!? Well, you ever got like a vision before? Like somehow you knew that the story was bigger than that? Someone told me that Joshua’s God dried up the RED SEA. A miracle! Something different than some little wooden idol that people talk at, you know? Ever seen a miracle like that? I haven’t. But others did and told me about it. Gossip spreads quick in Jericho. So, yeah, OK, I’m a little antsy. I mean apparently this God is helping those people defeat entire kingdoms—strong leaders. Just Gone. Something got me thinking about such a God, who can do such things. Making me think something fierce. Word is out that Joshua is coming our way—to Jericho. Have you heard to?

So just a last night—something happened. Wanna hear about it?

TWO men showed up here yesterday. Hungry and tired. Normal really but they acted different-like—weren’t from around these parts. I didn’t spend time with them though—in the way you don’t want to hear about. They just ate and drank—nice fellows really. A few hours later, there was a scuffling and a arguing going on right at my front door—I thought it was somebody who drank too much and got in a fight or something, but it was the KING’S MESSENGER! Soldiers all dressed in fine uniforms, not like the ones that are on the street patrols.

But something inside me came awake a little, warning me. Ever felt like that? I knew something was up, and I knew it had something to do with those two men.  I captured the quiet stares of the two men and nodded my head upstairs.  This isn’t abnormal, you know, in my line of work.  They followed me to the roof, and I spoke quickly for them lay under the roof rushes.  As I flew downstairs, the soldiers had already entered the tavern.  They demanded that I bring out those foreign men declaring they were SPIES. Something inside me definitely woke up then!  My days in a tavern have taught me well what to do when caught in a situation that required some delicate words—not lying exactly, just delicate.

I told them the men HAD come (cuz they had!) but they had left cuz the gate was closing. And I got all excited-like and scared that they must be caught—and well, being a woman in that kinda situation comes in handy!   The messenger and soldiers left headed toward the gate.

Then I could think. Think hard, I did. SPIES! In my tavern! Could these be JOSHUA’S spies? Could these be spies sent by their God?! My heart raced the rest of the day until night came, and I could quietly climb upstairs to the roof, where they had been resting. I didn’t want anyone thinking anything secret was going on, but I knew I needed to talk to them. Not just for my sake—but for the sake of my family.

I told the men all I’d heard and that I knew they were from Joshua, and what I somehow just KNEW about their God. That he was the Lord God in heaven, God of everything, the earth and the heavens.   I remember their expressions then, when I said that. They seemed surprised. I kept going though because I wasn’t gonna waste a moment to get a promise from them.

I said, “Please swear to me by the Lord that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you. Give me a sure sign that you will spare our lives, my mother and father, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them—that you will save us from death.” (Josh 2:12)

Their answers was quick “Our lives for your lives.” They made me promise to keep the secret and that they would keep me and my family safe and treat us kindly.  I then told them they should go and quickly, and I helped them escape through one of my windows that is in the city wall as my house is right next to it. I told them exactly what to do—to hide for three days and watch for the Kings soldiers to return and then hightail it out of there.

Then guess what? They gave me a red cord! A beautiful red cord. I've never seen anything so beautiful. They again made me promise to not tell a soul, and that their promise would be fulfilled if and when they came into the land.

I agreed to their vow. And I took the beautiful red cord—so beautiful there in my window—because I knew that one day they would come back.

I’m a nobody really. Just an ordinary woman. But that day, something changed. And I knew that somehow I would never be the same. That somehow I was now somebody.


I tell that story, friends. Looking back upon my life—my life now as a older woman who has lived hard, made choices I regret, but that day changed my life. The men did come back. Carried me and my entire family out of our home, as we watched our beloved Jericho burn to the ground. It wasn’t easy you know. Imagine losing all you had to keep you afloat—and just barely then. But I kept the red cord though—I didn’t dare lose it. Joshua did take care of us; so kind and good. The red cord symbolized so much for me of my God, our God. God who used me in the middle of my messy life; God who keeps his promises. So many years ago now I met a man, my husband, and we had our own family. One of our son’s, Boaz, he’s a wealthy man, and he just met this wonderful girl named Ruth. We like her. She’s a worker, that one; but kind. Oh so kind. Who knows what God will do next, eh? I’ve learned—you just never know what miracle is coming with that God. The God who dries up the Sea, and the God who cares about you and me. Do you know him? Have you heard about him? Oh, you should. You should hear about him.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Wow, time has flown by!

Hello all, who may have missed me, or may have NOT missed me. :) My blog has been rather inactive since my last post in January 2013.  It has been a CRAZY few months, including lots of medical issues and surgeries (for me! ugh!) as well as some great experiences, opportunities and plenty of God-sightings!

As you may, or may not, know, I am a youth pastor, and SUMMER can be summarized in one word easily--CHAOS!  Students have kept me busy since graduation and all through our awesome mission trip, summer camp and Monday Nights. It has been a BLAST.  I am just coming up for air after some much needed days off. Days OFF are after all designed by God.  He designed us for REST, and well, with SUMMER just over, I am low on "rest" days.  After a few days of decompressed, I feel almost "me" again.  And it feels great. So I thought I'd take a moment to update you all.

ONE:  In January, I shared about my new ELDER track status.  I appeared before DCOM in June, and I was APPROVED to appear before the "big board" (aka BOOM for my UM friends). I submit all of my "stuff" by September 1st, and hope to hear that they will accept my paperwork and invite me to appear before them in January. Yes! Thankful to God always for His patience and steadfast love, even when I feel like giving up.

TWO:  I mention "giving up" in the last point because it has been one tough few months. After two major surgeries, in February and April, I have been quite physically impaired.  And those who know me, they know that I can "muscle" through just about anything; unless the "muscle" part breaks down. Well, it happened. And I totally had to learn to depend upon God for strength and courage to keep moving...I am still learning this by the way.

THREE:  In the midst of all of this, I am SUPERBLY blessed to be a YOUTH PASTOR at Indian River City UMC.  These students totally have my hearts, and I pray that they know it (and thus be gentle with it). I adore students and college students as well, and I find that they teach me so much about life, grace and adaptability. Over the years, this student ministry has been through some tougher moments, and these students have handled it with grace, love and mercy. They teach me a lot. This past year and few months has been transformative for me in so many ways.  Thanks to the students who remind me why I do what I do--I can't imagine doing anything else with my life--sharing the hope and love of God in Jesus Christ. We had an AMAZING SUMMER and and awesome YOUTH WEEK 2013 #youthweek2013. I love you guys. Mean it.

What have I learned? Well, to start with--TRUST.  I have had to learn to flex the faith muscle called TRUST more than I ever have before. This I think is growth. GRACE--I have learned GRACE both given and received truly transforms the internal spiritual growth that God calls each of us to. It's a whole new level of love and care. Only God could teach this. And finally, HOPE.  Hope never dies because of my faith in Christ. He is a resurrected Lord, who is in Heaven, at this very moment, and who is FOR ME.  As I seek to follow after Jesus, he teaches me and guides me along the way--picks me back up when I fall, and welcomes me home after a hard day.  He never gives up on me. You know what that means then? I can never ever give up on any other human being on this planet. I am called to love people. Period. Loving people does not mean accepting or excusing their mistakes; it simply means loving them right where they are. That's what Jesus did, and that's I best do.

IN Christ,

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Forward! 2013 is here.

"The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.”
15 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward."

I can hardly believe that is has been over a year since I wrote in this blog.  My last post was December 2011.  Much has happened since then,  I have graduated from seminary (so I really should update the purpose of this blog), I got a job (as a youth pastor in my home church--awesomeness!), and I am now in the track to become an ELDER in the UMC.  If any of you knew me in seminary, you may be really familiar with my story of wanting to be a Deacon, not an Elder.  But alas, as I'm beginning to realize, God has His way at times, and despite my own ineptness or outright disobedience--both are adequate--I came to see things rather differently.  My eyesight was corrected.  So it took two years to realize it! Im human ya know! :)  My hope is to get my paperwork rewritten by March, submitted by April, and go before my district boards to hopefully be continued to BOOM (the big FL board that really makes the call on whether I am fit to be an Elder).

My point in wanting to share all of this today, this first day of January 2013, is because of the verse from Exodus above.  You see, there was about a two year span where I was called to stillness.  Those two years included lots of growth time, spiritually and intellectually.  Mission trips. Preaching. And some very dark times as well.  Yes, I was in seminary. Yes, I was engaged in a congregation of believers.  Yes, I was attentive to my family and husband, and friends. But, I was completely in a place of stillness with regard to my call.  I had no idea where I was going.  My last post described an ending--seminary. It also spoke of an uncertainty. An ambiguity that in many ways truly haunted me.  What was I going to do? Wasn't I supposed to be doing something? For God?  It was a still time...That just about drove me up the wall!!!

Then early in the new year 2012, things began to change.  Small things.  But evidence was showing that God was up to something.  Opportunities appeared. Doors seemingly dropped appeared out of nowhere, wide open.  At the time, I was oblivious to the bigger picture--the one that we call
hindsight.  I have the advantage; Heather, then, did not,  she traveled carefully. Prayerfully considering it all.  Could it be? Was God finally going to provide me an opportunity to MOVE ON? Could it be time?

It was time.  There was a time for stillness. Then I heard God say...FORWARD! And off I go. Still going.  Still stumbling,  Still Bumbling things up.  But I'm learning. Just like the Israelites.

There are times when I miss the stillness.  How it drove me mad back then...and how I crave it now,  so human are we.  So thankful should we be that this God of Grace would gently grow me. Sowing seeds in my soul along this way. I'm in work. We all are.  Fortunately, He is the gardener.  Let him tend me.  His way is best.

Stillness. Are you there? Then be still knowing that the dawn is coming, wrestle if you must. Argue. Complain.  This is our humanity revealed.  But never stop looking up to him. He is the good teacher. The good leader.

Forward.  Are you here? Perched and anxious to move. The door is open. Do you walk through?  Why walk?!  Run!!  He has made the way. Forward!

Are you in between? Ahh, this is the best place of all. And the worst.  Hold tight to him. Anticipating. Eager. Looking for the moment he says... Move! But don't rush this time. Patiently wait.  It's coming.

Most of all, no matter where you are, are you listening? Listening to Him who constantly speaks to us, and has forever spoken to us through the coming of Christ.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

One Adventure Ends, and another begins?

My last post was in September. And then all was quiet as my final semester at Asbury Theological Seminary began with the usual excitement and flurry. There is a measure of bittersweet that goes along with the word "final", embodied in the close of an experience, an exit from one place and hopefully towards another.  The former is quite real. Seminary is over. The latter is less evident. *smile*.  For I have absolutely no idea where I am going next in this adventure, this Calling.  Calling is a curious term, and is often utilized by seminarians, as we are all trying to be obedient to, discerning of, or, gasp, even managing our Callings. As some of my readers know, I spend an exorbitant amount of time reading the Greek New Testament, and having worked my way through John and into Matthew currently, I am increasingly made aware, by the Text, that though we are the instruments through which God has chosen to work through, He is the One who Calls.  You may say, "Well, duh!"  But you know, I think sometimes we get that backwards, implying in our language of "my Call" or "my ministry" that somehow it belongs to us, rather than a Divine source.  I don't think we like to admit that, do we? Perhaps that might reveal more about us than we would prefer to see--like looking in a mirror, that sometimes can be a little scary for some of us, realizing that "I am not in charge."

If God is the One who Calls us, are we listening? And if we are listening, are we preparing to go where He tells us to?  Time and time again, Jesus asks us to "listen" to him. But he doesn't stop there, Jesus speaks into our lives through the parables, those narratives that draw us into their sticky webs, wherein we see ourselves, in all the good and bad (more often unfortunately it is the bad).  He speaks so that we can see ourselves as we are now, and hopefully realize that He sees us quite beyond the "here" and "now".  Jesus saw such an opportunity with one particular person--a young man.  We likely know the story, "The Rich Young Man", but the Text doesn't start out that way in Matthew 19:16.  Rather the Text simply says that an indefinite "someone" came to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good might I do that I might have eternal life?"

Couldn't that be anyone? You, me, your best friend, your enemy? I had a professor post a question yesterday on FB--"What is the big question in life?"  Perhaps this is one of them. In our culture, we like doing "good".  But what does "good" really mean? How do we determine what is "good" and what is not?

Jesus answers the indefinite person, "Why do you ask me about what is good?"
He could have stopped there, letting the indefinite person (you or I, or your cousin Harry) stew.  But he doesn't.

He adds, "There is one who is Good".

The adjective "good" is used in a substantive way, ὁ ἀγαθός, is "the one who is good" or "the good one". Many of the English translations add "only one who is good", which I think is quite effective as the εις, meaning "one", in combination with the 3ps "to be" verb, εστιν, seems to imply that translation.

Jesus continues..."IF (there's that annoying conditional language again) you desire to enter into life, keep the commandments!"

The indefinite person replies, "Which ones?" 

How real does this sound to us?  "I mean how good do really have to be to get in--can I do just a little bit good and still get my ticket to heaven? I mean "I haven't killed anybody...", what's the parameters here, Jesus?

Jesus replies (I wonder if he was smiling at this point) "not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to steal, not to lie, honoring ones parents, and loving your brother as yourself".  

Those are the second half of the Ten commandments, except the last one.  That one is from Leviticus 19.18. The Ten commandments are more than just a list of rules, right? They aren't just an ethical checklist, rather they are a means of learning to LOVE one another.  What commandments are missing that Jesus doesn't mention?

In vs. 20, suddenly, the speaker's identity is revealed (though not clearly yet)--a young man.

The young man says, "I have kept all these. What am I lacking?"  

Consider my question above. What commandments from the Ten Commandments are missing? Now this is just an observation on my part, but I find it quite ironic that the young man knows himself that he is lacking in something.  Obviously, he has come to Jesus looking for help with his life. Something is not right, and he knows it.  So he goes to ask the "Teacher"; but does he realize Who he is talking to? It would not be strange for a Jew to go to the synagogue or temple to speak to a "teacher". But then Jesus takes it to a whole new level.  He does what only Jesus can do--He hits the nail on the proverbial head.

Jesus answers, "If you desire to be complete (perfect), go and sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me!"

What is interesting is the structure of this dialogue--earlier he asked the indefinite person, "If you desire to enter into life..." but now he is asking, "If you desire to be complete (perfect)..."  This seems to imply that you can have a "good" life by just doing what you is required, but that is obviously not the ultimate goal. Following  God is the ultimate goal, but that goal comes with sacrifices.

The end of the conversation is disconcerting and unsettling. And rightly so.  The Text tells us that the young man had alot of land.  But before that revelation, the Text tells us that the young man "heard this word" and became sad. Perhaps because he had a great deal of property, which in today's terminology equates to a vast market share in perhaps Microsoft. :) He had a great deal of security and safety in the things he had, yet he had come to the Teacher because that evidently had not been enough.  Yet, it ends there.

The next scene in the story is Jesus informing the disciples of the burden of wealth, with particular regard for the difficulty of a wealthy person entering the Kingdom of God. Suddenly, the identity of the young man is associated with being rich, or wealthy, and suddenly the Kingdom of God is associated with "Following" Jesus. The young man could not--it was exceedingly difficult for him to let go of his stuff.  The Text doesn't tell us what the young man did, but obviously the story ends with a harsh note of sadness.  The disciples perhaps sensed this, asking in v. 25, in their amazement, "Then how can anyone be saved?"  It was a desperate situation, in the disciples eyes, for indeed many people had land. Land was like social security. Everyone had stuff; some more than others, but stuff was important to surviving.  This was a difficult lesson, not just for the young man, but for all of us. How can we be saved then?  We like our stuff! We need our stuff!

Jesus replies, "With man that is not possible, but with God everything is possible."  

Again, Jesus re-orients the disciples, and the readers, to the Source of All Things.  He is the One who Calls, who Leads, who Provides. And only He is Good.  Therefore, to be "good" is not enough in and of itself; Good, according to the Text, is only God.  Relationship with God is where we will find our Identity, and be called Righteous in Christ Jesus.

So, are we listening to what God has called us to do?  And if we are listening, are we prepared to Go, when he says Go? The young man could not for a variety of reasons that the Text doesn't share with us, but the illustration of his inability to follow Jesus is a powerful one.  The last line, "with God everything is possible", is our greatest hope--God isn't done with us yet. Thanks be to God.

Peace. And Merry Christmas. :)

Friday, September 23, 2011

Reflections on the Vine-Part II

So, what does it mean to bear fruit? When we bear fruit, there is a certain expectation that there will be comfort or ease in this fruit-bearing, yet in vs. 1 it is evident that we see that the Gardener will always continue to prune (cleanse) us so that we bear more. Therefore, there will likely be some measure of pain or discomfort associated with the bearing of fruit.  More importantly, what is the nature of this fruit?  We assume it is the Fruits of the Spirit, which I believe is correct, however what does this text in John say about this fruit and its purpose?

The purpose of the fruit, according to this text, seems evident, but let me share my shot at the translation of the Greek for the segment of text from 15:6-10.

"If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown away, like the branch which dries up and is gathered up and thrown into the fire to be burned (this tense here is a "burning", rather than a completed action). If you all (plural) remain in me and my word remains in you all, then whatever you desire to ask will become to (for) you.  In this my Father is glorified, in order that you all bear much fruit and become my disciples.  As my father as loved me, I have loved you all. Remain (Imperative)in my love. If you obey (follow, keep) my commandments, you all are remaining in my love.  Just as I obeyed my Fathers commandments and remain in His love."

Recall from the previous blog post, that we are all branches connected to the Vine, in the Vine; however, the branches have a purpose beyond just being connected to the Vine. There is a active sense associated with the verb "remain" rather than a passive one.  The passive sense could simply imply that once we are connected to the Vine, then all is well. Well, in a sense, that is true for Jesus is the true Vine, and indeed, being connected to Him is very good. Yet the text does not stop there, does it?  As I mentioned before, verses 1 and 2 state that we all are in the vine yet some branches need to be removed because they are not fulfilling their purpose--bearing much fruit.     But then inevitably, we will ask, "Ok, fine, but what does that mean? How do I bear more fruit? What fruit am I supposed to be bearing?" 

If you are asking these questions, that is good thing! We need to ask questions--spend anytime in the Scriptures and you will see that every person who ever interacted with Jesus always had tons of questions--"Hey, what does the parable mean?"  "Hey, how can I have eternal life?"  "Hey, what does born again mean again?".   These questions came from Jesus twelve disciples, a Rich young ruler and a Pharisee who sought Jesus out in the dead of night.  Even Moses asked God questions like "Who are you? Why do you want to send me to Pharoah?".  So asking questions is good for it is how we grow beyond where we are right now. The important thing is that we listen, really listen, to the answers that Jesus provides for often we continue to ask the same questions over and over again when Jesus has already given us the answer, according to the Scriptures.  So, let's turn back to the Text.  We can always spend time discussing what we think the metaphor of the Vine means in relation to our connection to Christ, but it is essential to look at the Text and let it speak to us, rather than us speaking to it.  

Pay attention first to that all important conditional "IF", which indicates that there is a possibility that "you all" won't do what He is saying.  Or you all might.  It is what is called a subjunctive tense, and it gives us a sense that we are somehow obligated to respond, to assent to what Jesus is describing about Himself as the Vine.  But, essentially, there is a possibility, or danger, that we will not respond, or assent.  Being aware of this tense should give us a sense of how important what Jesus is saying with regard to how we approach our relationship with Him--we are always in danger of somehow slipping away from (consider Hebrews 2:1-4) what we know to be Truth, and that should keep us awake and aware of where we are in relation to the True Vine, Jesus--at all times. If we do not remain in the Vine, (which we should perhaps understand, at least according to the Text, that the branches who remain in the Vine are producing fruit (of some kind) then those branches that do not remain in the Vine are thrown into the fire to be burned (continually--can you say "ouch"!?).  But these branches are not just chopped off and then burned immediately--they are allowed to dry up.  They are left to dry up, then they are gathered (at some point in time?) and burned.

There is a huge oak tree in my backyard, and it is thriving and green, but there is a branch that has been apparently beaten up by a wind storm.  What is evident is that it is still connected to the Tree because it hasn't fallen to the ground (and this has been for three months now), but it is also vividly dying, its leaves are brown and withered, lifeless, against the stark contrast of green, vibrant leaves surrounding it.  But it is still connected to the Tree?  How can this be?  I have watched this branch for months as I sit upon my backyard swing, pondering how this illustration relates to the Vine that Jesus is describing in John 15. Also, if you have ever seen a tree die, over time, it's branches seem to die one at a time--it is a slow, arduous process, almost painful to watch as life seems to seep out of its branches.  I ask myself some questions about the Vine--clearly it is possible to be still connected to the Vine without bearing fruit, and what if I am that branch?  Am I bearing fruit? Or am I dying on the Vine?  So, being in the Vine is not the goal; Jesus says "remain" in the Vine (intentionally active language that describes intentional, purposeful action).  There is a relationship between the branches and the Tree--they both depend on one another, though certainly the branches depend greatly upon the deep roots of the Tree for nourishment, yet the Roots need the nourishment that the sunlight gives to the Leaves of the branches.  There is a "give and take" relationship.  Remaining could mean responding, or giving back, love or adoration--or thanks.  If we must, we will use language like "produce" with regard to fruit, though I am sensitive enough to understand that in the West we have an understanding of "production" that is economically defined--quantity not quality, cheap not expensive, etc.--and thus can negatively impact our perception of what Jesus means when He asks us to produce "much fruit".  We are not a manufacturing industry that produces numerous plastic-molded fruits with efficiency without regard for the longsuffering process of building "authentic, real, true" fruit that LASTS--which is a key theme mentioned later in this chapter.  SO, with that in mind, I suggest that our "production" of fruit may correlate with how we respond to God's love in Jesus and that our response through obedience to his commandments appears to glorify the Father; Jesus is also quick to point out that He too has obeyed and love the Father, just as He expects us to do. This, according to this segment of Text, seems to be the purpose of the "much fruit"--we produce fruit by remaining in Christ, the True Vine, and "remaining" perhaps could be understood as responding to His love and obeying His commandments.  

Consider again the tree and the branches--there is a two-way street occuring in that very essential connection between the two--are we receiving from Christ the grace and mercy that is a wonderful gift without responding in obedience to His Call on our lives as Christians?

Until next time. Peace.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Reflections on the Vine--Part 1

God has been calling me back again and again to the image of being in the Vine.  The Vine that is so beautifully illustrated in the Gospel of John.  The illustration begins by setting forth the main elements of the image of the Vine.  Who is the Vine?  Jesus. Who is the branches? We are.  Who is the Gardener? The Father.  The Scripture seems to want the hearer's of this parable to remember the essentialness of remaining (staying, dwelling) in the Vine. What does it mean to be in the Vine (v.1) as compared to the Scripture's recurrent call for us to remain (stay, dwell) in the Vine? 

For many months, God has kept me resolutely planted (no pun intended!) in these select verses and chapters, reading and reflecting and re-reading and reflecting on these verses in Greek.  I am ever thankful for the God-given wisdom and ability to read the Greek New Testament (albeit exceedingly slow at times! But I am getting quicker!).  The Greek language opens up the Scriptures to me in a way that continues to astound and humble me.  I would like to share my reflections on this text in several parts as I continue to study and read and pray for God's wisdom and insight into this exceedingly complex scripture.  

Complex? You may wonder why I would say that the parable of the Vine is complex.  After all, we Christians know the story of the Vine and bearing fruit, and all that jazz.  We've all seen the vivid illustrations of the Tree, or the Vine, and the fruit--often rightly associated with the fruits of the Spirit in Ephesians. So, what is complex about that?  Well, as anyone who has spent any amount of time in the Gospel of John comes to realize, there does not seem to be anything simple about John's theology, and the manner in which he illustrates the exceedingly abstract conceptions of faith, love and hope.  After many months reading the Gospel of John, I continue to find myself back in the chapters on the Vine, seeking to truly understand the meaning of remain in the Vine, and Jesus' association with loving Him as He has loved His Father, which then seems to result in fulfilling His great commandment to "love one another".

I think the conceptualization of the Vine begins in Chapter 14 of John's Gospel. The Disciples, whom one would think would know to obey and understand Jesus' teachings, are asking him a series of questions that seem to irritate Jesus.  Phillip and others ask Jesus to show them the Father.  Jesus responds with question, "After all this time, you do not know that the Father and I are one? Do you not believe?"  Jesus explains that what He says (λογος) comes from the Father, who is the One doing all of these works that Jesus is doing (miracles, healings, etc).  Jesus then says, "If you can't believe that the Father and I are one, then at least believe in the Works that you have seen."  What a strange thing to say? Is Jesus saying "fine, don't believe"?  If one stops reading there, perhaps they would come away with that understanding, however, one should continue reading for Jesus is explaining to the Disciples the essential aspect of doing faith. See, Jesus explains that he has done the works in obedience to His Father, in order that the Father be glorified. Jesus is pointing to the Father as the primary One who deserves complete obedience and Glory.   Jesus seems to be describing the nature of remaining and dwelling in the Father, which is then further illustrated in the Vine.  Jesus says that the only ways He has done these works is because of His remaining in the Father--remaining perhaps being equated to love, which also seems to be a very evident theme in the segment as well.  The point of remaining in Jesus is not so much about what we do but whom we glorify.  

So, simply to be in the Vine is not the message of this parable. In 15:1, Jesus says that the Father will take away any branch in Him that does not bear fruit.  The Text does not say where the branch will go yet, but it will be taken away. But the branch that bears fruit will be pruned (cleansed) by the Father in order for it to bear more fruit. The former branch that does not bear fruit clearly is in the Vine, yet it is taken away.  Why?  It is not bearing fruit.  So being in the Vine is not goal rather remaining in the Vine, dwelling in the Vine, seems to indicate a more active experience rather than passively hanging out in the Vine.  The Vine nourishes the Branches with the purpose of the Branches producing fruit. In Chp 14, Jesus is teaching His disciples that He and the Father are one, and the realization of this Oneness is His remaining in the Father thus producing the works of the Father.  

Let us take one more step together into Chp 15.  Immediately following verses 1 and 2 in the Chapter, Jesus explains that you all (ya'll) are already clean (which is a noun, but the same root as the verb used in vs. 1, "cleanse, prune") because the Word I have said to you all.  In Chp 14, the Text tells us that the Word has been sent by the Father (v. 23-24), and we know, and are taught, and are being reminded of this Word through the Holy Spirit (14:17), whom is sent by the Father. Because of Jesus' teaching, which came from the Father, we have already been cleansed , pruned and thus should already being bearing fruit. 

So, what does it mean to bear fruit? When we bear fruit, there is a certain expectation that there will be comfort or ease in this fruit-bearing, yet in vs. 1 it is evident that we see that the Gardener will always continue to prune (cleanse) us so that we bear more. Therefore, there will likely be some measure of pain or discomfort associated with the bearing of fruit.  More importantly, what is the nature of this fruit?  We assume it is the Fruits of the Spirit, which I believe is correct, however what does this text in John say about this fruit and its purpose?

More next time. Peace.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Truth in the Church

I have heard it said that Christianity is an ideal value system, a great ethical and moral teacher, particularly for children. Honesty is a foremost ethical and moral issue in rearing children.  Children's first moral test is usually with regard to dishonesty (lying, stealing, etc).

Johnny, who has just turned 3 years old, has gotten into the cookie jar, without his Mommy's permission.  He knows it, and above all, Mommy sees the telltale signs of the remnants that trail directly behind the couch, where the dirty deed was done.

Johnny is oblivious to the trail, and equally so to the crumbs on his shirt and chocolate stains on his lips.

Mommy asks, "Johnny, did you get into the cookie jar?"

Johnny replies, wide-eyed and serious, "No, Mommy."

After many minutes of dialogue, Johnny refuses to admit that he had disobeyed his Mother.  When shown the cookies crumb trail, his eyes fill up and he gets very quiet and still.

The evidence of the misdeed is evident, even to this 3 year old.

Dishonesty is a moral and ethical issue, but I would challenge that it is much more than just a great value system, by which we determine who is "good" and who is "not good".

Johnny's choice to lie to his Mother was indeed a bad choice, but does his lying indicate that Johnny is not good? We would probably say that indeed Johnny is a young child, who must be taught truth.

So, back to where I began, if we say that Truth is important and we believe that Truth must be taught, then we must accept that our culture (in the U.S.) completely has warped the definition of truth.  Truth has become relative, meaning truth has become a personal experience.  What is true for one person may not be true for another. So, what is truth?  This question has been asked since the dawn of time, I believe.  This is where the Truth of God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ becomes essential, for Christians.

It would seem that this is where the Church steps in--as Christians we are shaped and formed by the Truth of God revealed and manifest in the person of the message of Jesus Christ.  This Truth--salvation by faith in Jesus Christ--is what makes us Christian.  So, how is the American Christian Church doing with speaking truth? I think the Church in America struggles with defining and pursuing what I will call real, unbiased truth.  Because of our relative culture, we, as a society, have been taught, without realizing it, that we should not offend or upset other people with our opinions, even IF they are coming from a place of truth.  (Except if you're in the Media, but that's another blog!).  In general, we want to please people so that they will like us, because if people don't like us then we are not successful. I think this is happening a great deal with Christian individuals and Church communities.  Church leaders are successful in America if they produce a certain result--and that result is quantity.  The American way--the more you have, the better!

I want to ask a question of Church leaders and believers--where in the world did we get this idea that the measure of success with spiritual formation was to be in quantity? This simply is not a Biblical truth. Evidenced time and time again in the Gospels, Jesus' had many fans but few real followers. What does the Church want to produce--followers or fans? Do we want people to like us more than truth as revealed in Jesus Christ?  This issue of speaking truth directly correlates to how we want people to perceive us.  If we say what others want to hear, "to tickle their ears", then we are not being truthful to the message of Christ.  Christ came speaking truth in love, filled with mercy and grace, but it was truth all the same.  And in fact, the truth He spoke to the "church leaders" of his day was pretty hard.  Are we, as leaders, challenging one another to speak truth, in all categories of life? Are we dealing with conflict in a truthful manner, or are we simply ignoring issues or overlooking errors, simply because we don't know how to really speak truth?  Do we embody the Biblical principle of Truth? If we do not embody Truth, those who look to us for wisdom, guidance and discernment will not be able to embody it themselves.

Like Johnny's Mommy, she had to embody the real truth by showing him the cookie crumb trail, otherwise Johnny would have continued in his own self-deception.  She had to explain to him that Truth is an essential part of life, and it is integral to maintaining trust in relationships. Do we show one another the cookie crumb trails in our church communities and relationships, or do we cover them up with rationalizations or even judgment (criticizing others behind their back, gossip, etc) because our egos have been bruised or because we are afraid people won't like us anymore?  These behaviors are not the way in which we reveal truth to one another in God's Church.  In fact, the issue of honesty is what has caused many people to leave the church with the word "hypocrite" burned into their religious experience. What cookie crumb trails do we have in our communities, our relationships and our lives? What one's need to be revealed in truth? That old saying, "It is what it is," is one of my favorites.

My prayer is that truth in the American Church is defined according to the truth of Scripture, particularly the revelation of truth in Jesus Christ.  We intellectually like Jesus' idea and concepts and we love to be fans, but becoming a follower often requires a higher commitment to speaking truth, in all circumstances, despite the fear of rejection.  Remember, Jesus warned his disciples iat length, in the Gospel of John, about the rejection and pain that would come when they used His name.  In the Church, we need to stop trying to please others, and focus on pleasing God.  For when we please God, then God gives us the ability to truly love one another, even in the midst of conflict or confrontation.  The Church will always be full of folks who will make leadership difficult and challenging, yet if leaders speak truth with love, then perhaps there would be less time spend on cleaning up the messes and more time focused on building disciples for Christ.

For me, this has been the hardest lesson in my leadership experience, and it continues to be a hard reminder of the cost to truly surrender one's life to Christ.

I continue to be thankful for the spiritual Mothers and Mentors in my life who have shown me my own cookie trails, revealing and pointing out places in my life that needed the light of Truth. May I continue to embody the Truth of Christ Jesus with the help of God's Holy Spirit who fills me anew with God's graceful love each day.