A Worship Service that Changed my Life

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     One March in 1993, my pastor asked me to come to a worship service, but it was unusually on a Thursday night.  “Why Thursday night?” I asked.  “Because it focuses on the Lord’s Supper and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.” she responded.  As soon as she said, “Gethsemane” she had me hooked.  I had spent 1989-1992 up in Alaska and and one things I had done during their long winters was to get back into all my old music I loved growing up.  I had repurchased albums I had lost long ago on those new fangled compact disks!  And one of those CDs was Jesus Christ Superstar.  And, of all the songs from that musical, “Gethsemane” was the song I listened to over and over again as the snow fell.  I felt that it packed the most punch.

     The early nineties was a time in my life where I was trying to get back in touch with more than just the music I loved early in life.  It was a time when I was trying to re-engage my faith.  I had, as many twenty something Christians regularly did in my days, wandered away from the church.  I always would have described myself as a Christian.  But the practice of my faith and my relationship with God was spotty at best.  There was something really missing (beyond my lack of participation in a Christian community).  I increasingly became aware than even my thought out teenage theology was lacking.  I had seen enough, even in my twenties, to know my pat answers to complex questions were lacking.  And “Gethsemane” brought that into focus for me.

      I knew all of the orthodox teachings about Jesus growing up.  I could have recited all the facts.  I had learned them and spent many an hour in the pew, in classes, and even reading the Bible on my own.  But, what was lacking, I increasingly realized, was a human Jesus.  My young self had, for all practical purposes, envisioned a “superman Jesus” who really wasn’t humanity as God intended but an almost other worldly being.  Infinite power and infinite knowledge were at this Jesus’ fingertips.  Yes, he loved us.  Yes, he died for us.  Yes, he rose for us.  But, I wondered, with such knowledge and power how could he really empathize with us – really empathize with me?  That Jesus was a magical figure who was less and less satisfying to me as an adult.

     But Gethsemane in the musical (although not totally Biblical) captures what must have been a poignant moment in Jesus’ life.  Here he was outside of Jerusalem.  He had done everything he was supposed to do.  And now, he could leave, and everyone would be happy with him (from his friends to his enemies).  All he had to do is go back to Nazareth.  If he stays, he is going to die (and it isn’t going to be quick either). And, he is less than clear on why he must die in this way. But he stays because he knows he has made this commitment to God.  He stays because he believes it to be the will of God.  He doesn’t quit when he so easily could have.  To me, every time I read the Gethsemane story in the Bible, knowing human nature, I think this proves his divinity more than any of the miracles.  He stayed, even without all the answers, when anyone else would have left.

     The worship service that helped changed the course of my life was called a Maundy Thursday service.  It took this feeling I had of a fully human Jesus struggling in the Garden of Gethsemane and the service not only affirmed it but began to widen that view to earlier in the night during the Lord’s Supper (which, to me, had been pure ceremony before that).  It opened my eyes that Jesus never was this superhero, otherworldly person, with powers like the Greek gods come to save the day.  He was one of us.  I have never wavered in my belief that God gave Jesus miraculous powers, that he was able to heal the sick, multiply loves of bread, turn water into wine, and the like.  But, the older I have gotten, the less important all that is.  What is important about Jesus is he taught us how to love.  He taught us not how to be a superhero, but how to be people – real people.  He showed us how we can help others (and help ourselves) just by being the people we are all now capable of being.  And he showed us that he so wanted to correct our relationship with God that he stayed the course when any of us wouldn’t have.

    And my journey really pivoted after that Maundy Thursday.  I stopped missing Sundays.  I stopped trying to be a  ‘lone ranger’ Christian.  I rebuilt who Jesus was in my mind.  Prayers came again more naturally and less terse.  And I began to make friends anew in the church and not just try to retain old friendships as I had been doing at that stage in my life.  I didn’t see it in 1993 but seminary was in the future, the pastorate, the chaplaincy, my future family, and so much more.

     What got me thinking about all this?  Today is Maundy Thursday (as I write this).  I hope you will look out such a service tonight.  If you are in greater New Orleans, Kenner Presbyterian is hosting a joint service tonight with Parkway Presbyterian.  Kenner is located on Iowa Street.  But, whenever you read this, and wherever you are, I hope Jesus become more real and less otherworldly to you on this day.  I deepens our journey on the road of life when we do.

What do you think?

Tom

Age, Relationships, and the Bible

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A funny thing happens to me these days when I listen to pop songs.  In many ways, they are no different than the pop songs I grew up on.  They are filled with lyrics of love, passion, sadness, betrayals, and recoveries.  But what is different as I listen to them today, is I no longer think of my situation.  Instead, I think of my children and youth in the church.  It isn’t that my kids (or many of the kids in church) are yet old enough to be falling in love, or someone falling in love with them.  But some are and within a few years the time will be coming for the rest.  And I consider the advice I will offer when those days come.

But, the pop songs situation, to a degree, parallels the Biblical stories.  I once remember a pastor saying, “I wonder what Jesus would have said if he had lived into his 50s or 60s.”  I was 30 at the time and the idea sounded strange to me then, but much less so today. Almost all of our Biblical stories feature people as children, in their teens, twenties, and thirties.  Even the “old” prophets probably weren’t so old by today’s standards.  There are some characters though that are older.  There are even those whose age seems extreme to us (but that might have been a literary device to say they were really old.  I struggle with believing people literally lived 900 years and so).  Nevertheless, the main focus of stories in the Bible are on people who are younger than forty.

Therefore issues that we face as forty plus Christian people in the 21st century (living also as parents, step-parents, grandparents, and even wise men and women in our various communities), is really breaking new ground. Even in the 19th century, people did not live as long as we do (or wait to get married so long).  People got married in their teens, not their late twenties, in Biblical times.  People certainly didn’t consider marriage optional as some younger people do today.  So, what advice should we offer?  We can’t just pick up a Bible and find a law or a story with a direct answer.  We need to talk it out, pray over it, and discern what God is calling on us to say.

In Biblical times, elders often would gather at the gate to give advice to younger ones going to and fro the cities.  In the end, I think we in the church may be tasked to do something similar, at least conceptually.  God is blessing us with more years.  What does our age and experience have to say as we look out at younger generations today?  How can we be the “men (or women) at the gate” to advise those starting out?  There may be nothing new under the sun in regard to the human heart but lifestyles are increasingly different from previous generations (more-less from life millennia ago).

And again, we can’t just look up rules in the Bible for an answer.  How many monogamous relationships can we list in the Bible?  Not many. And yet we all know that that is the most sound footing for a long and lasting relationship.  How did we come to believe this?  And today, how should people handle birth control?  Whose advice on relationships should people listen to when contradictory advice is everywhere?  Is marriage a must?  Is living together morally equivalent to being promiscuous?  When should couples get married?  Are the standards for divorce and remarriage the same as in the first century?  The Bible is not going to give unambiguous guidance on any of this because it isn’t a 21st century book but rather a 1st century library of ancient sacred texts.

The Bible may not give us 21st century black and white answers but it surely continues to inspire 21st century people.  God speaks to us through prayer and the study of Scripture.  What passages should we study when thinking of modern relationships?  Where does that inspiration lead us to say?  We can only find the answer together.  And together, we can plot the way ahead and give our best moral advice to our younger counterparts.

The challenges of 21st century life are many and complex.  But the potential blessings are even more.  Let us face the challenges as God’s people – together.  And let us help as many as we can as we travel The Way.

Until next time,

Tom

 

Forbidden Topic #3 – Remember the Sabbath and Keep it Holy

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Ok, I know this isn’t in the news like sex or guns are but I do think it is an interesting phenomenon what has happened in our nation just in my lifetime regarding Sundays. Remember when nothing was open on Sunday mornings?  Remember when you could not buy all sorts of goods on Sunday?  Remember when many stores did not open on Sunday?  Our culture has done an about face and more and more, Sundays are like most other days (if not in work, at least in activity).  “Sundays were made for the New York Times!”  “It’s Gameday!”  “See you on the Greens this Sunday!”  Most Sunday mornings easily have more folks at Wal-Mart than at church.

But the surprising thing is not that our culture made an about face on what Sundays are for but rather that the church, by and large, has joined in.  Where is (insert name) today?  “Oh, he/she is at brunch / boy scouts / girl scouts / golfing / camping / fishing / hunting / the jazz fest / the football game / the little league game, etc.” And this isn’t surprising at all.  It is normal.  It isn’t that the church has criticized or even silently resisted the appropriation of the Sabbath.  We largely join in with it with enthusiasm.

Please understand, I am not being legalistic.  Pastors complaining about people doing other things on Sunday sounds like yet another pastor just trying to get folks to come to church.  But that isn’t exactly what the Sabbath is for either.  The Hebrew Bible tells us that we are to keep the Sabbath holy because it marks the day that God rested after creation (probably modeling a little of what we are supposed to do).  Jesus famously reminded the pharisees that we aren’t made for the Sabbath but the Sabbath is made for us.  And, understanding that we live in this 21st century world, more than anyone I advocate for flexibility.  You very much might be required as a part of your job, or having a child who is part of a school, to be somewhere and do something on a Sunday.  Please note that we Christians are inherently flexible regarding the Sabbath because we moved it!  It used to be from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown (that’s when Jesus observed it) but now we have simply said it is Sunday to mark the day of the resurrection. I see nothing wrong with this.

But there is no Biblical warrant for us to spend our Sabbath (whenever we observe it) rushing from place to place, simply replacing one type of busyness with another.  There is no Biblical warrant for us turning the Sabbath Day into the Sabbath hour (or three).  There is no Biblical warrant for us making the Sabbath simply “fun day” for us without any consideration of our Creator and what he has done for us.  I enjoy going to movies, for example.  It is relaxing to me to watch some good movies.  But I can’t exactly call going to a movie marathon holy.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we are to be distinctive.  We aren’t just to try to blend in with the society around us.  That doesn’t mean we can’t do something fun on Sundays.  I surely hope we all do.  But I do think it is well time that we reclaimed a day of our week as sacred time where we relax, have fun, but also and most importantly intentionally focus ourselves on God.

And talking about this commandment, in church, would move it out of the “forbidden zone” and we can again discuss how we can all make our Sabbaths a little more holy.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Lent – It’s Not About the Chocolate

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I don’t often write two posts to the blog in a day but one was topical and this one is seasonal.  Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.  Lent is a forty day season of reflection and preparation as we approach Holy Week and Easter, marking Jesus’ death and resurrection. It is a time of repentance, of considering Christ’s suffering, and of Christ’s call for us to take up our own crosses to follow him.  Pretty powerful stuff, eh?

Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have uplifted this season for many generations.  We Protestants, in pockets, have embraced the practice as well.  But my question is how we have taken such a spiritually significant topic and devolved it to, “I’m giving up chocolate/television/burritos” for Lent? Do we really think giving up something we enjoy eating/watching/doing is the key to being faithful to God?

Peter, James, John, and the rest of the disciples heard Jesus, in what they must have considered the peak of his ministry, stating that he had to go to Jerusalem and die.  It shook them to the core.  The Transfiguration helped turn this around.  But following Jesus required faith – strong faith.  Jesus’ mission was significant but dangerous.  Are we willing to follow him as the disciples decided to (even knowing his path)?

This season needs to be a time less of considering what personal habits would help us to give up (or would challenge us like we were trying to maximize the amount of weight we could bench press) and think through what is causing us to be hesitant to be more faithful to Christ.  I don’t think this needs to be public (quite the contrary).

But, make no mistake, Lent is important.  And now is the season to enter into it.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Guns (Forbidden Topic 2)

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A few weeks back, I lifted up a topic that I believe we largely don’t talk about in church to keep things “nice” and that is sex.  Today, I’d like to bring up a second topic along that line – guns.  But, as I do, I want to say I am not writing about the second amendment or what government policy should, or should not, be.  I am simply talking about what we largely don’t talk about.

When I was a kid westerns were all over television.  And an added area of excitement in the shows was that if any conflict arose it could quickly elevate to being a deadly conflict because everyone was armed.  You hoped that the hero was a quick draw in such a case.  But as I watched this glimpse of the 19th century, little did I realize that it would be a part of my future as well as my past.  More and more, the society around us seems to want to advocate for an armed citizenry.

Both sides in the secular debate in our society tend to want to paint this as a black and white issue.  Either you are for gun restrictions (which means you are for the government taking away all weapons and tyranny will ensue) or you are for no restrictions on guns whatsoever (and more and more tragedies will ensue which we are enabling).  But I don’t see this as black and white.  I see shades of gray abounding.

The issue I would like to raise to discussion is what should the Christian position be?  What do we think Jesus would tell a Christian living today in this society?  Would he encourage us to get more guns?  Would he encourage us to do something else?  What would it be?

I live in a city where murders abound.  I surely  understand the need for safety.  There are many men and women I am thankful that they know how to use a firearm.  At the same time, I have encountered people who I genuinely hope are not armed.  What can we do as Christians to encourage a safer world?

Should we talk about it some more?  Or should we get a holster and practice how quickly we can draw like in the westerns?

I am for a little more dialogue.  Most of all, I hope the church can find its voice on moral and ethical issues anew.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Who Speaks for God?

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“Who among you wants to be a modern day prophet?” one of our seminary professor’s asked a group of us back in the mid-90s.  I didn’t raise my hand because I thought it was a baited question.  But his answer surprised me, “Be prophetic, but remember, the people didn’t treat the prophets too well during their lifetimes.”  As I dug into the Bible I found it to be just so.  Jeremiah,  Hosea, Ezekiel, and many others had a rough road during their lifetimes.  Another important lesson I learned was that, unlike the popular image, prophets weren’t primarily holy future tellers of the distant future.  More often than not, the prophets were talking about their present and what could soon occur. Prophets looked at the world around them and said what God thought of it, what we should be doing, and what God would (or would not) be doing soon in response to human action (or lack thereof).

The problem I see is that we have many people today who seem to have appointed themselves as God’s prophets in the church and in the political arena don’t seem to have the same focus.  Instead, they often appeal to is fear – fear that society is changing, fear that the people are soon going to lose something, fear of a person (or persons) in power, and fear of their neighbors.  And they do so for popularity and to advocate for some issue they feel strongly about (which coincidentally, so does God (or so they say)).

Jeremiah, Hosea, and Ezekiel and many others challenged the leaders and the people of their world. They based their prophecy upon the people’s fidelity to God (or lack thereof), their treatment of the weakest among them (which often wasn’t all so good), and where the people were ultimately putting their trust.  But so many of our “modern day prophets” do not sound like this at all.  They argue not for the weak but for the strong.  They do little to challenge their base’s religious practices or where they are placing their trust.  And they often do so at minimal personal risk.

I do believe in modern prophets.  I believe they make me uncomfortable.  They make me uncomfortable because they make me realize I am often complicit in the problems of this world. They make me realize we can all do better.

However we stand on social and political issues, I think it is important for us to distinguish between them and what our faith tells us.  Is our position really really really what Jesus would say in this situation?  I think it is fine to take a political or social stand if we simply say that is what we personally think.  But I find it hugely problematic if we couch our support in theological terms. We need to be very careful when we say we are on God’s side of an issue (more-less that we are speaking for God).

The church shouldn’t be timid.  We do need people to speak up and take a stand.  We need prophets!  But if they aren’t challenging us (personally and collectively), we need to ask ourselves if they are really prophets at all.

What do you think?

Until next time,

Tom

Sex as the Generational Divider in Church

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Note: The following is not about Parkway or even about the Presbytery of South Louisiana.  It is about how I see Christ’s larger Church in our culture today.

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Yesterday, at the Presbytery of South Louisiana’s Presbytery meeting, there was a breakout session on three different topics (pensions/health care – packed; synod mission and grant programs – packed; and youth ministry – half full).  It may just have been in my rotation because everyone was supposed to go through all three break out sessions.  But it also seemed fitting as youth ministry always has usually not to be a top tier issue in the larger church.  The conventional wisdom seems to be that youth ministry is an issue for youth, and their parents, but not for the larger church.  We have “more important” topics to consider.  But the conventional wisdom is coming at a higher and higher cost.

In the breakout session we got to watch a video by the Barna Group called “You Lost Me.”  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jitHsBPGtUY .  Barna asserts that the divide between generations has come for a variety of reasons but I believe when you dig into it, the largest  dividing issue is Christian sexual ethics and it eclipses all other differences between young and older Christians today.  If we are ever to address it, we need to address it before our youth become young adults and are likely gone.

In many churches, I think we use the old southern culture maxim of “not talking about anything uncomfortable” most of the time. It was like when I was back in school and somehow, mysteriously, each year history class would end with World War II.  No need to talk about the messy Korean and Vietnam conflicts (not to mention the Civil Rights movement and everything else that happened in the 50s and 60s).  It was just more comfortable timing it out to end with World War II.  In much the same way, I believe most churches simply don’t talk about sex (yet it is a major topic to most young people).

Some young people in my breakout session talked of their experience with another option their church tried.  Their church did raise the issue and drew the lines between right and wrong very very clearly.  The only problem is the young people, much like the cartoon characters in Barna’s Youtube video, went straight to the internet and found that many people today have different answers than they were hearing at church -  it isn’t all so black and white.

Use this simple statistic – the large majority of couples today live together before getting married.  This was not the answer for many older Christians when they were in their 20s and 30s.  Add onto this some substantive disagreements over homosexuality, marriage, women’s careers, and child rearing and you have a gumbo full of potential discord.

And so, for many people of faith today, the answer is to stay away from Christians who have different views and the easiest way to do that is to stay away from church.  And we are all weakened in the process.

Church needs to be the “Google” of moral questions.  People need to be able to come to church and in a very non-attribution and nonjudgmental atmosphere – and ask some of their deepest questions.  And together, we also can wrestle with the fact that if any of us were born 20 years ago we would likely have different views on some big topics than if we had been born forty, sixty, or eighty years ago (with a variety of answers even within those groups).  Still, God loves us all.  Jesus died for us all.  The Holy Spirit dwells within each of us and calls us together.  How can the best answer be to stay away from one another?  I often think today when I hear adults outside of the church question their faith it comes from the fact that their image of God is like that of a mid-teenager instead of whatever their age actually is.  Frequently, this is because that is just when they stopped going to church and their image and understanding of God largely stopped changing at that point (even though all of their other knowledge kept growing).

I also remember back in the 90s hearing a speaker say it was time for the church to sit down and openly discuss what Christian sexual ethics should be in the 21st century.  A number of people attacked saying, “It is the same answer as it was in the 1st century. What an immoral question!”  So, the conversation went nowhere.  We didn’t end up really talking about it then.  And we largely don’t talk about it today (except for people in extreme positions who seem to want to only talk about such topics one way or the other).

I simply believe Jesus would talk about it if he were here.  He would not let sex divide his people.  Maybe it’s finally time for us to talk about uncomfortable topics.

What do you think?

Tom

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