Saturday, December 19, 2020

Live it Like You Mean it

Two days of crisis

I've lived through 9-11 and 11-8, two great and tragic national, and even international, days of crisis. (Some of this will be in my sermon this Sunday at Brambleton Presbyterian Church.)

Most of us know 9-11, the date of the World Trade Center and Pentagon terrorist attacks. But how about November 8, 2018? It was the day I can't forget—when the firestorm ripped through Paradise, CA, moving at three football fields a minute at one point, and burning its way to within about a mile and half of my house in Chico. The Camp Fire represents the most expensive natural disaster in the world that year, with a price tag of $15 billion, and the deadliest in California history.

I mention to underline one point: preparedness can’t happen while you’re in a crisis. We can't learn to care for those suddenly without homes, to pray when our backs are against the wall, and to live compassionately with those in terrible suffering while it's happening. Those are virtues we have to practice before the crises.

Habits: "We are what we repeatedly do"

About a week ago, I was listening to the leading sociologist from Princeton University about his new book on "lived religion." This isn't represented by scholarly texts of religious doctrine or theories about how people should preach (i.e., homiletics), but how we actually pray, how often we participate in worship services, what kind of small group community we're a part of. As Wuthnow writes, "Practicing religion focuses on what people do and say rather than only on what they think and believe."

Living religion is related to famous philosopher Aristotle's virtue ethics. It what cognitive psychology tells us: practices become habits, and habits become character. It's really what I as a Christian have learned from the Jewish roots of my faith, which calls it halaka, or "walking" in the way of God. 

What we practice. What we do is what we become. In fact, our practice becomes a habit and might even change the world.

Coda: "Does this mean we earn our salvation”?

Some of you might be concerned that this implies we earn our salvation. 

Put simply: No. We are assured of our salvation, and this is Jesus's call to discipleship and simultaneously his offering of abundant life (John 10:10).

Listen again to how Paul sets this so brilliantly in Philippians 2:12-13: 

"Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose." 

Put a little more clearly perhaps, we work out what God has worked in

Or perhaps better, we walk out what God the Spirit has empowered us to do. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Peace in the Puzzle

The theme for this post is peace, which is related to a couple of pieces (yes, pun intended) I'm working ona sermon for Brambleton Presbyterian Church and the Science for the Church newsletter.

Three insights I discovered along the way... 

A key word from the Beatitudes lost in translation

When I first learned Greek at Cal, one day we were reading Matthew 5:1-12. My professor instructed us that we could translate Jesus’s word in the Sermon on the Mount this way: “Blessed are the peaceful” instead of “peacemakers

He was a great professor, and he opened the New Testament to me in many ways, but here his own leanings toward the interiority of spiritual life—he also lived in an ashram—frankly biased his interpretation of this word. 

And so I arrive a truly profound Greek word study: the word for "peacemaker" eirenopoioi combines two words, “peace” and “make.”

This means that the Beatitudes are not simply the "Beautiful Attitudes." When Jesus, the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6) came to earth, he called us to make peace. And that's significant.

I do realize that what I've said here may lead some to ask, Does this mean we earn our salvation? No, it means we work out what God has worked in (Philippians 2:12-13). Actually better than "work out" in the Jewish context is "walk out" because the key image for devotion to God in Jewish thought is halakha, or "the way of walking."

Peace now and then
Just yesterday, I read that even as former South Carolina Governor David Beasley accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the United Nation's World Food Program, while Rush Limbaugh declared there can be no peace between liberals and conservatives and that “we’re trending toward secession."

Yikes! It's hard not to despairand then I remembered Jesus's time was no less contested, which I discovered this article on the New Testament Greek word for "peace."
The New Testament was written in a time during which the Romans overran countless peoples and frequently resorted to mass torture and genocide in dealing with resistance, and the quest for peace was not a romantic one but came with widely felt urgency. Jesus' famous statement "knock, and the door will open" (Matthew 7:7, Revelation 3:8) is not about heavenly doors because in the Biblical model heaven has no doors, but rather about the great War Doors of the temple of Janus Quirinus in Rome. In times of peace these doors were closed amidst great imperial fanfare, and the greatest door-closing festivals were held during the reigns of Nero and Vespasian, just prior and right after the Great Jewish Revolt and subsequent destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. [By the way, the name of the city means "in awe of peace, teaching peace"]

Peace and reconciliation through "fractal communities"
Just a few days ago, I had a breath-taking conversation about race and science and faith with Elaine Howard Ecklund and Cleve Tinsley IV. Among many insights, Cleve said that relationships help us move past the endemic racism in our country. He referred to Adrienne Marie Brown’s concept of “fractal community,” which, of course, borrows an image from mathematics and is a kind of science and faith connection, which I love. At any rate, Cleve reminded us: this is the way of Jesus. Where these relationships are, that’s where we see the reign of God. And as he summarized, “I think we really do change the world then.”

And maybe we can. Maybe we make peace.

Friday, December 04, 2020

On Time

I think a lot about time. You might say, I spend a lot of time thinking about time. 

And here are two core convictions: Time is a gift. And we spend time on what we love. I'll add to those, since it's the season of Advent, that when God comes to us in Christ in the Incarnation and inhabits time, God sanctifies time. This post then is what sanctified time looks like.

Speaking of the Incarnation, perhaps the most profound and counter-intuitive statement Jesus spoke was this: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:19). 

Without reflection, we might think he said the reverse: where our heart is, there our treasure will be. In this version of Jesus, we adjust our inner attitude, and then we do the right actions. 

But the order is different, and that fact is critical: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”Our hearts follow our treasures. I.e., what we spend our time is what we love, and the more time we spend the more our love grows. Invest your time in a church or nonprofit and see how you begin to care more about it. 

But why then do I often spend my time so poorly? Why do I not inhabit the present moment?


The problem is that we seem to live in every other time but the present. We throw away our time like it's dispensable. We don't treasure it. 

Blaise Pascal, the brilliant seventeenth-century scientist and theologian, offered a profound meditation on this topic: 

Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so. (italics added)

Or as the brilliant writer, Anne Lamott puts it, God wants to give us the child’s experience of “big, round hours." 

This thought, like so many, takes me to St. Clive, aka C. S. Lewis, who puts the problem of human existence—or better the ongoing temptation of time—into the mouth of a devil, Screwtape in his fictional correspondence,The Screwtape Letters. 

Screwtape writes to his junior devil, Wormwood, that “we want a man hag-ridden by the Future” because in essence the future does not yet exist and it takes his eyes off the present moment. 

"We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present."

And now back to Pascal; this also comes from Pensées

"So imprudent are we that we wander in the times which are not ours, and do not think of the only one which belongs to us; and so idle are we that we dream of those times which are no more, and thoughtlessly overlook that which alone exists.”