Thursday, May 19, 2011

Another Fine Mess

I had the blessing/challenge to give the Communion Meditation at the May 17th meeting of the Presbytery of Redstone. Considering the events of just the week prior within the denomination, it was a trying, emotional and tiring few minutes for me. Sometimes, I have discovered, that is when I am most open to being used by the Lord. The following is fairly close to what I said....

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23 I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

24“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.” -John 17:20-26 (NIV)

I am envisioning scenes from my early days of watching television. Black and white television, mind you. Some of you already don’t have any idea what I am talking about. But I’m suddenly and terribly realizing that I am not a young man any more and so, allow me for a few moments to embrace my inner oldness and share with you. When I was young and all we had was a single small snowy-screened black and white TV in our home, one of our local television stations in the Los Angeles area bucked the Saturday morning trend of showing cartoons, and instead they showed a full two hours of what were even then, old Laurel and Hardy films. Some were just short features – nothing more than abbreviated skits, other were more movie length and showed the beginnings of rudimentary plot formation. But at the time, I really relished the rather old style vaudevillian flavor of their humor.

But inevitably, this rather inept duo would find themselves in some sort of ridiculous simulation and jam; and the bulk of show’s length basically showcased their often hilarious attempts to get themselves out of the pickle that they were in. Almost always on their shows, there was a catchphrase that that became rather famous across the land (but usually misquoted). As the duo considered the pickle that they were in, Oliver Hardy would shoot this rather condescending look over at his often quite innocent partner Stan Laurel, and proclaim, “Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!” Through the years though, this phrase, as I hinted at, has most often been inaccurately quoted as, “Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into. And far be it for me to change the inaccuracies of recent history.

For here we are, gathered here this evening as a church, as a presbytery, as a functioning part of the Presbyterian Church (USA), as part of the Body of Christ. And as most of you know by now, I think we can all look at each other this evening and say to one another, “Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into.” A rather historic vote has been taking place, and the history is being made by the outcome of the vote. Some certainly are celebrating the outcome of the vote and saying, “It’s about time. God’s justice and mercy is finally being manifested in the Presbyterian Church (USA).” Others are profoundly mourning this week, not understanding how the truth and Word of God could be so easily dismissed. Now I suspect that the largest number (a plurality) of Presbyterians just want peace in the church, and are not overly concerned about this or other issues that seem to mess us up. They just want peace and don’t want issue the to effect them. They don’t want the mess. Fine or otherwise.

Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into! Mess? Maybe. Another? Well, yes, we’ve been in them before and there will be more down the road. Maybe the church was something that was divinely established, but it is filled with people that are spectacularly human.

In the Scripture that I chose for this evening, the implication is that our Lord knew that the church, such as it may be, was going to finding itself in ‘fine messes’ throughout its existence. We find ourselves in a fine mess now, no doubt. But it is nothing that Christ can’t handle.

Of course the passage is Jesus' prayer for, not just his disciples' unity in their mission, but is easily extended into being directed for our unity just as well. Mess…and all.

Allow me to share just a few comments about his passage before we go into a special time with the Lord and each other. The passage, of course, is all about unity. Jesus says, "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." But unlike what I was taught in seminary and what you and I have heard through the years, this passage is not a command for unity. Far from it. It is a prayer for unity, partly because our Lord and Savior knew that humanly, we could not do it. Imagine that. Yet somehow, someway we continue to run on the false impression that we, on our own power, out of our own goodness, out of the shear force of our own words, can create unity in the church. Fat chance.

For far too long we have felt that it is up to us to do it all. And how have Presbyterians typically sought to create unity? Well, by codifying unity in the Constitution. Here is some tough news. Unity will not and has not been found in the Book of Order. It is not found in the property clause in the Book of Order. Unity has not and will not be found in the fidelity and chastity language that is currently in the Book of Order. Unity will not be found in the new language that will be replacing the fidelity and chastity language in Book of Order. Unity will not be found in adding or subtracting from the documents in the Book of Confessions.

Unity will only be found in Christ. The way, the only way out of this fine mess, and yes we are in one – is Jesus. Jesus alone. And the key to this thought is found just before the Scripture that I shared with you; in verse 17 of chapter 17 of John. Jesus is praying for the disciples and just before he shifts his prayers over to the church he says, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” Jesus earlier in John says he is the Truth (along with the Way and the Life). Earlier than that we read that he is not just the truth, but that the truth will set us free. If we are to have any real unity in the PC(USA) and beyond, it is going to be based on Jesus and what we know and proclaim about him. If we have been sanctified by the truth, and that God’s word is the truth, then where in the world or universe does that leave us?

Charles Spurgeon, when talking about these passages from the gospel of John said this: “Unity without truth is hazardous.” And friends, I believe it.

Some how, some prayerful way, we need to explore and find our common ground regarding the truth of Jesus. The nature and the mission of the Messiah of the world as exposed in Holy Scripture has got to the be the one and only foundation for the church. That is what we have to work on. All of our disagreements, whether major or petty, seem to have more and more their foundations in misunderstandings and a lack of unity on the basics that revolve around the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ.

Folks, in spite of our apparent and obvious disunity we have something that is so important, so important, so prized that in our arguments….we are letting it slip out of the palms of our hands. The church is supposed to be the transport vehicle carrying the precious cargo of the Gospel to the lost and dying world. I don’t apologize for the truth that the world needs to know that “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” The message we have so simple that all we have to tell people is that if they "declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. That Jesus’ main mission was to seek and save that which is lost and folks we are the carriers of the mission that his Spirit uses to accomplish his purpose. And how have we been at accomplishing that? Another fine mess. If you ask me.

Here is some great news for us this evening. In spite of what we may be feeling, in spite, frankly of what I have said over the past few minutes, in spite of what the rest of the world or the rest of the church (remember we are not the church but just a part of the church) may or may not be thinking about us at this very moment. Jesus is praying for us. Right here. In this sanctuary. Right now. Jesus’ words that say, I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

Jesus is praying for us. It will be only by his power, by the work of the Spirit of truth, that maybe unity will be achieved. Maybe as we settle down go into this time of communion….can we hear the Lord praying? Can we hear him praying for this part of the body that we call the Presbyterian Church (USA)? Can we?

Can we, for a few brief moments leading into the Sacrament, hear him praying? Is it a still small voice or maybe even a roaring thunder? Can we unite enough to allow him to lift us up into his presence? Can we let go of our anger and hurt or stifle the celebration enough to humble ourselves in a sacrament that places us in the very presence of the crucified and risen Christ? Yes, we’re in yet another fine mess.

But Christ is praying for us. Right now. At this moment. He is praying for us. What a blessing. That alone should be enough to point us in the right direction….

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Pursuing God (pt. 3) Wrestling the Bear

Revive us, and we will call on your name Restore us, O LORD God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.”-Psalm 80: 18,19

My first decade or so as a Christian were heavily influenced by a compassionate pastor who very much fit into the mold of the social justice theology that I had been introduced as a young person in the Methodist church. He preached frequently about one cause and then another; some of which I agreed with some others, well, I would give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, he was theologically trained, and I, well, I still rather rarely cracked open a Bible.

In the late 80’s this pastor started preaching and teaching a rather seductive doctrine of universalism. After all, if God is love, doesn’t that love extend to all people no matter what it is they believe in? And if God did not do that, would that not be unjust? And we all know that God is a God of justice. Frankly, Jesus Christ began to seem almost an afterthought in his teaching and to a point in my thinking. I know I was beginning to worry Susie more than a little bit. Then one evening, after not opening up a Bible in several weeks, I opened one up (I can’t remember why), and it opened up to John 14:6 –

"I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me...”

In the electrical trade (I worked as an electrician for 22 years), when one has a difficult day, or more specifically when one spends a day terminated large, heavy and stiff wires, it called “wrestling the bear.” A day of wrestling the bear guaranteed a good night’s sleep. I believe at this moment when I opened up that Bible the Holy Spirit was chastising me, disciplining one of His own who was being led astray, God again was in pursuit. I remember needing to come to a decision. I had one heck of a bear to wrestle. Was I to believe what I was being taught (and what I wanted to be true) that salvation, or whatever you wanted to call it, was a given no matter how you did or did not approach God? Or were these words that I had read in the gospel of John for seemingly for the very first time, mean what they clearly seem to say? I knew I had to make a dreadful decision. Was I to trust the message of the world that had been creeping into my home church and into my life, or was I to trust the words of Jesus Christ, whom I professed to be my Lord and Savior?

I had a terrible choice to make, but in reality there really was no choice to be made. I believe that those who are in Christ will be tugged at and pursued by the Lord to stay on the right road, and that is what so clearly happened to me. Needless to say, I chose to believe and trust the plain words of Jesus, and that was the beginning of what I sometimes describe as the weird call of Christ on my life.

From that moment on in what time and energy I could muster, I became a student of the Way. Christ transformed me from what had been a worldly pursuit of the things of God into a gospel oriented Christ follower. In 1990 I read the Bible front cover to cover for the first time. Wasn’t easy, but I did it. I was determined to become a better educated and prepared elder in the church (having been ordained in 1985). To that end, my then interim pastor convinced me (after several tries) in 1992 to take a church history class at the Southern California extension of San Francisco Theological Seminary. My pastor added that I ought to consider continuing taking classes in case “God might be calling you into doing something else.” That something else, of course, would be ordained ministry. A thought that at the time I thought was rather funny; well actually the thought still is rather funny. But a pursuing Lord of the universe, sovereign and in control, was dead serious….

Like my parents, I am flawed and decent. And His.

I think there will be a part 4 to this series, but it will probably have to wait a bit. I'll be on study leave next week in Green Lake, Wisconsin. It's been a summer for car traveling. Got to keep the petrolium companies in the black....

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Pursuing God (part 2): In Clyde We Trust

Revive us, and we will call on your name Restore us, O LORD God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.”-Psalm 80: 18,19

In my teenage years I was well engrossed in an unorganized agnosticism. For a short while, I hung with a small group of high schoolers that professed to believe that humanity had been placed on earth by benevolent space aliens that had crash-landed on this planet. So help me it’s true. Didn’t say I believed it! But it made a really cool story for a geeky high school kid. By the way, the original man’s name (via the space interlopers) was Clyde. There. You learned something new by reading this blog.

Yet even in those days I admired the few people that came into my life (as I look back now, people whom a pursuing God placed in my life) that were committed Christians. My first full-time job was at a department store, and there I was witnessed to by two of the kindest and gentlest people you could ever want to meet. One of them had been in a Hell’s Angel’s type gang in his younger days. I knew him as he eased into his mid 50’s; he was just an amazing irenic gentleman. Faithfully, God had used them both to plant seeds (I can so relate to Paul’s discussion about this in 1 Cor. 3). I can remember, as I went through some difficult times (mainly with relationships), praying basically out of hopelessness to a God that may or may not exist. Now that is true desperation. And I can remember, especially with a little retrospection, how those prayers were so vividly answered, and yet I was still blinded to the truth. God was after me, but I fought Him off as long as I could. Until…

In early 1980 (at age 23) I started attending a tiny Free Methodist Church about 35 miles east of Los Angeles; I like to joke that I attended a Free Methodist congregation because I didn’t want to pay to go to one. I can’t remember the sermon, nothing about the worship, I can’t recall the preacher’s name and the church itself has long since been closed. But at the conclusion of worship the pastor gave a gospel presentation that finally made both the emotional and intellectual connection that apparently I needed. Jesus Christ became real to me, my Lord and Savior. Even if I did not comprehend at that moment what it did then and what it eventually would mean to me, I knew that my life had been restored and revived, and that God’s face was shining upon me; that I had been saved. Although I was not about to walk forward for the pastor’s altar call, I knew at that time that God had pursued me and finally caught me. I was His, although the reality is I had been all along.

About a month later I met a fine Christian who happened to be a member of a great evangelical Presbyterian church (God’s providence again). Two years later Susie and I were married in the same Methodist church that we both had attended as youths (the one in which “The Graduate” was filmed), although we did not know each other way back then. Point of trivia: our wedding was officiated by Vic Pentz, Susie’s pastor at the time. He now is the senior pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, the largest church in the denomination. We gave him his start. And there was no need for Clyde anymore.

Friday, August 1, 2008

A Pursuing God (part 1): Methodist Bunnies

Revive us, and we will call on your name Restore us, O LORD God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.”-Psalm 80: 18,19

Part of what I am posting originated from a request of the Pastor Nominating Committee of Third Presbyterian Church in Uniontown, PA. In the process of being considered for the position Senior Pastor, they wanted to read my testimony. It was a refreshing request; I had not written anything like one in quite a few years. And it told me volumes about the PNC in Uniontown. Volumes. I’ve had a chance now to revisit it, do some re-writing and updating…. This will get posted as time allows in a series of three or four parts….
As I work on this in August of 2008, I have been a Christian, a Christ follower, over 28 years- over half of my life. It is good to look back and reflect, but I even more so look forward to the prize that we have in Lord Jesus in the future. Please know that what I write is not meant in any way to glorify me, for I have and continue to fall short of the Glory of God that is found in Jesus Christ. But what I write is meant more to reflect on the faithfulness of Christ in my life….
After living my first three years of life in a dry wheat farming town in eastern Washington, my family moved for the economic greener pastures of Southern California. I was raised in a small Los Angeles suburb a by two flawed but decent people, my parents. They were always quick to state they, and therefore - we, were Methodists; we lived in a Methodist household. Their method was this: Christmas and Easter. Even though we lived but a block away from the Methodist church, the church, much less Jesus Christ, was not an integral part of the household and my upbringing. Oh we enjoyed the Christian holidays, Santa Clause and Easter Bunnies. Methodist bunnies I’m sure.
And yes, I was at that nearby Methodist church frequently (it is pictured above); I spent one whole day hiding with my friends behind the bushes on the church grounds as the famous closing scene from the movie “The Graduate” was being filmed in the Sanctuary. Hiding behind some temporary artificial greenery that the film crew had wheeled in. We were looking for John Wayne. After all, who had heard of Dustin Hoffman back in 1967?
I can remember occasionally attending the youth group (MYF) on Sunday evenings, more often when my interest in girls began to blossom I suppose. With the adult leadership of the youth group I participated in the very first Earth Day, in prayer-protests-vigils over the Vietnam War, and participating in other social justice events. And I was never introduced to Jesus Christ at that church.
I like to say that I come from a distinguished line of agnostics, my mother’s family being involved in Unitarian churches and my Father’s family being two Sunday a year Methodists. As I entered my early adulthood I embraced that agnosticism; however I always wondered if, no, I really hoped that there was something more to life; that maybe, just maybe, there was a God. And that possibly that God could be known. Maybe there was more to life more than Methodists bunnies…..
In my next post in this series, I’ll reflect on my early ‘spirituality’ (ha!) and how God pursued me anyway….