Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Contemplative Prayer

Giving a short 5 minute message tomorrow for a Lenten series on contemplative prayer, so I thought I'd try to get my ideas straight here.

I was first exposed to the ideas of contemplative prayer in some of the readings I got from my Aunt Ann Mary. Who was also the first adult to share nonfiction C. S. Lewis with me. Thomas Merton was way out of my depth, but I at least got the direction to pray in quiet with presence. Time spent out by the River Raisin (bad pun but actual name of the river in my hometown) introduced me to the Holy Spirit. I was amazed at meeting this aspect of God. My practice never became regular or formal, but it was good, and grew my connection to God.

My Catholic high school was run by the Brothers of the Holy Cross, which is not a contemplative order. But Br. Phillip taught a class on contemplative prayer, and started introducing techniques about breathing and position. This helped, because before that if I wasn't feeling it, I stopped. Now, with some disciplines, it became more possible to stick with it through distractions.

In college, I got an opportunity to go teach for the summer in the Bronx with the Christian Brothers. Also not a contemplative order, but prayer was a daily feature of house life. One of the non-monks living and working in the house, Chris, was waiting to enter the Carthusian order, which is contemplative. He taught us centering prayer, and led a session everyday. I frequently fell asleep during it, but Chris really modeled acceptance. When you're with God, He'll give you what you need. Chris also got me deeper into the literature. More Merton, but also Henri Nouwen and Basil Pennington. Pennington's book Centering Prayer is a good place to start for a history and how to of Christian meditative prayer.

After that summer, my spiritual director in the CBs was Br Louis, and he was a good mentor in this prayer. He had terrible back trouble, and experimented with other postures and positions. When he finally got to go back to Africa, the only thing he took with him was his kneeler a student had made for him at his perfect angle.

Somewhere in there I found Merton's Way of Chuang Tzu, which is not about prayer directly, but about Taoist understanding, which led to Merton's Zen experiences and thinking about Eastern religions and their teaching of the disciplines of contemplation. A Buddhist friend recommended Chongyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan writer that taught me a lot. 

In grad school I also got into Tom Brown books and survival classes. His teacher, Grandfather, was an Apache scout and emphasized spiritual practice that was practical. That you could use while crossing a log, for example. He taught the importance of having a key, that would help you access the contemplative state when there was a need. The Grandfather book or Awakening Spirits is the read for more on that. 

Getting the chance to combine all these teachings while living on Mackinac Island, with the woods and the lake, was amazingly fortunate. While my practice has waxed and waned over the years, the benefits of time with God never go away.  While some people might not recognize it as prayer, a mug of tea on the steps of McNally watching the sun rise over the Straights of Mackinac was some amazing communion.

If you're considering starting contemplative prayer, I'd encourage you to find someone(s) with whom to pray. Start with an accepting spirit, that this is a discipline that takes practice to develop.  Your mind does not want to be quiet.
  • be physically comfortable but alert. Americans often need to be sitting upright in a chair, body symmetrical, feet flat, hands at rest together up or palm down on your legs.
  • declare your intent to be with God, Father, Jesus or Holy Spirit. Some people do this with a verse or two of scripture, some with a regular prayer or dedication.
  • be quiet. As thoughts or physical distractions come into your mind, release them. Tools to let them go can be a phrase, as short as Jesus, or two part phrase for the in breath and the out breath. 
  • breathe deeply. We just don't do this. All the way in, hold for a moment or not, then all the way out, gently. Never forced.
  • have a timer or signal for the end. Start for a minute, try five, work up to twenty, or not. The timer frees you from wondering about time.
  • have a key that you will be able to associate with this time. For me it's a breath pattern, for others it's beads, or a stone, or worded prayer, or a physical position. While engaged in the key, appreciate the time/sense/benefit of the time you just gave to God.
At other times, access your key and try to call to mind the spiritual state from your prayer. This strengthens the peace, encourages practice and is just plain beneficial. Talk with someone about your practice, ask questions, and be open to teaching from surprising places. There's a lot of mindfulness training now that we can use to apply to our prayer practice. Their focusing techniques and exercises can be very helpful.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Not Everyone Should Teach

Not a bible study per se, but this sermon from our pastor is the best I've heard on Jesus as a teacher, and what this means for us. I'm a teacher in my real life, so it hit home pretty well. Or it was a not so subtle message to me to shape up? 

Bill Uetricht

16 Pentecost: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 116, James 3:1-12,  Mark 8:27-38

The arrival of Fall and the return of students to school has me thinking about my school days—my public school days at Greenhills High School in Cincinnati. Ms. Meier has been on my mind this past week. She was my French teacher. She loved the language, had a deep passion for the country of France, and, yes, also had a little edge to her—an edge that primarily was about changing the world. She was a progressive, and in Cincinnati I didn’t know many progressives. She contributed to my world being changed and enlarged.

I also have been thinking about Ms. Schmalz. She was a short unattractive, conservative lady. She never married, in part because, I am convinced, no one could put up with her oddity and her preoccupation with gerunds, split infinitives, and dangling participles. (She was my English teacher.) If you know me, you know that odd Ms. Schmalz affected me, shaped me. The passion that came from within her and drove her became some of my passion.
I have also been thinking this week about Mr. Cooper. He was quite good looking; all the girls seemed to like him. He was my psychology teacher. Psychology was new in those days. Before then we were somewhat dumb when it came to understanding human behavior. Now, we were getting smart, and we were figuring people out. Mr. Cooper, however, didn’t misuse the power of this new-found knowledge. This psychology stuff had shaped him, changed him. He taught in a way that indicated that the subject matter wasn’t just some distant intellectual reality, but something real, something life-changing, something that mattered. Human behavior—its oddity, its idiosyncrasies, its predictability—all of a sudden became a big interest of mine.

Teachers change lives. They shape the future of the world. I find it to be a bit ironic that the readings for today deal with teachers and teaching. On the weekend after school starts and the weekend when we begin Sunday School we hear all about teachers and teaching. It amazes me how the lectionary (the list of readings that we are given for each weekend) can connect so much to the lives we lead. For many in our culture, this is a week about teachers and teaching, and serendipitously, our readings seem to know that. What they have to say about both is worth our consideration.

We start with Isaiah who tells us that the “Lord God has given [him] the tongue of a teacher.” Isaiah’s task is to speak to weary exiles in Jerusalem who aren’t so sure that they are glad to be back home. Home doesn’t look so good. They and their relatives had been elsewhere, being forced by the Babylonians to leave their home. Now they are back, and things at home aren’t stellar. Their city is a mess. Maybe they shouldn’t have come home, some of them must have been thinking. Isaiah is to be like a teacher to them. And believe it or not, one of the tasks of the teacher is to bring comfort, “to sustain the weary with a word.”

Interestingly, the word that is translated “teacher” can also be interpreted as “one who has been taught.” The Hebrew there is a bit problematic. But from my perspective, that interpretation is a fascinating take on what it means to be a teacher. A teacher is one who has been taught. The prophet says morning by morning God wakens him—wakens him to listen as one who has been taught. Teachers are fundamentally learners, being passionate participants in their subject. Their subject is larger than they, so they sit at its feet. They learn from it. They learn from those who know about their subject, even their students. And Isaiah would have us know, they learn from the One who is not confined by the wisdom or the understanding of the world. For me, that means that in their being taught and in their teaching they are humble. They subject themselves to something much larger than themselves. For Isaiah that something—God—is that which enables him to stay on track even when he faces such great opposition.

James is our second experience with teachers and teaching. He warns his readers that becoming a teacher is not for everyone. “Not many of you should become teachers,” he says, “for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” Probably his advice has to do with teaching in the church, but I think it can be understood in a broader way. James’ reluctance to allow everyone to teach is rooted in his belief that what teachers must use—their tongues—are not easily controlled. For James the tongue may be a small part of our bodies, but it has so much effect. The tongue is a fire, he says. And a big forest can be set ablaze by a tiny flame. In other words, the tongue can do great damage; it can inflict great pain. Not many people are able to control it, which is why many people shouldn’t become teachers, according to James. Teachers need to control their words; they need to keep their tongues tamed. They do impact many lives; they do shape the future with their words. So James says if you want to teach you need to know how to use your words in a way that brings blessing. And he’s not convinced that many people are capable of doing that. For him, the tongue “boasts of many exploits,” is “set on fire by hell itself.”

While thinking about this sermon, I picked up Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach. Palmer argues that what is needed in teaching today is not the latest teaching technique, the fanciest style of imparting information, the most up-to-date technology. In a world that thinks that what is most important in life and education can be measured or quantified by tests, Palmer says what truly matters is teaching that is brought to us by teachers who have a strong identity and great integrity. You can try all of the latest tricks and still not get at what is at the center of good education: teachers and who they are and how their lives are integrated into their teaching.

The last couple of weeks we have been hearing from Jesus that what makes us unclean is not that which originates from the outside and comes into us, but rather that which comes from within and proceeds out of us. The tongue is such an evil, the words that we speak are so harsh often because of what is inside. And inside is about our identity, who we are. The best teachers are the best human beings.

The best teaching is not about technique. It’s about bringing your humanity, its rawness and also its settled-ness, into a deep conversation with the wisdom of the ages and the students who sit at your feet. And when your identity is strong, when it is, I believe, rooted in your status as a secure child of God, the words out of your mouths, oh teacher, oh human being, oh candidate for president, can bring not pollution, but blessing. You won’t have to be tearing people down with your words so that you feel better about yourself. You won’t have to be spewing out anger or cynicism because you have all kinds of issues that you haven’t worked out within yourself. You won’t always have to be speaking words of defense. You won’t always have to be winning the arguments. Knowing who you are, having a strong sense of your identity—and this is true for all human beings, not just teachers—will mean that with your words, your teaching, you can bring wisdom, affirmation, blessing, good news, fresh, not brackish water. You can begin to change the world, impact the future for good.

We who are Christians can’t talk about teachers and teaching without talking about the great Rabbi, the Great Teacher: Jesus. Our gospel lesson from Mark today speaks of Jesus teaching. After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, he begins to teach them that “the Son of Man [that is, he] must undergo great suffering.” I am struck that Jesus had to teach his disciples about suffering. Sometimes suffering has to be taught. It’s not normally a part of our learning covenants. (Oh, I will become proficient at suffering at the end of the class.) And truthfully, it’s not a part of many teacher’s lesson plans. It wasn’t a part of Peter’s. That’s why he rebuked Jesus when Jesus announced to his disciples his upcoming death. Can’t be! Not suffering and death! That’s what most of us say, which is precisely why we need to sit at the feet of the Great Rabbi, the teacher of much greater wisdom than us.
We want to go into the world ready to conquer it, to overcome it, be victorious. Armed with ourselves, we are prepared to protect ourselves, defend ourselves, keep ourselves away from suffering and death. And the Great Rabbi says, “You are living in an illusion. If you want true life, if you want life that maters, if you want life with God, if you want life that is in keeping with who you are as a secure child of God, then suffering and death cannot be avoided. The way of that kind of life looks like a cross. It looks like death to yourself. Secure selves are not protected selves, defended selves, selves kept at a distance from risk and pain. Secure selves are those who, because they are secure, can let go of themselves for the sake of love in the world, for the sake of participation of the pain of the world and the pain of God, for the sake of the kingdom, the reign of God.

That’s what the Great Teacher taught. And amazingly, he not only spoke those words; he lived them out. He was a teacher, as Palmer says, with great integrity. His lived life matched his words. Secure in God, he loved, he risked, he entered the pain of the world, he embraced the left out, he set his face like flint, he denied himself, he gave up his life, he went to the cross. What he said he did.
Jesus is the Great Teacher. Without a doubt, he has changed lives and is continuing to do so. He is shaping a new future, God’s future. Sit at his feet. Learn from him. Pick up your cross and follow him.

Monday, April 20, 2015

George Carlin

Been watching some Carlin clips... he came up in an education reform article (a clip on why he doesn't vote, which I don't recommend), and then another clip that fit into our church's Holy Hilarity weekend. (Great tradition with a long history.) I went to look for my bible study on him on this blog, and it wasn't here. Then I noticed that it was almost a year since I posted. I was removed from my bible study because of a disagreement with the pastor on a personnel matter. But we've found a new church home, which has had great opportunities to serve and have fellowship.

The clip I sent my pastor, on euphimisms.

So, blast from the past, a study written for Carlin when he passed away. 

Bible Study for George Carlin 
George Carlin, the stand-up comedian who died in June 2008, was a deep thinker.  Who else could ask, “What if there were no hypothetical questions?” But he was also deeply divisive.  It would be interesting to know if he offended or entertained more people – and how many people are in both camps.  He was clearly smart – he figured out “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he will sit in a boat and drink beer all day.”  He presents a real challenge to a Christian – a dedicated opponent and a creator of smart and funny arguments.  We need to compare his thoughts with scripture to be on firm footing.

Sometimes I think Carlin agreed with Christian teaching.  Consider his most famous routine, 7 dirty words.

Carlin: There are some that would have you not use certain words. There are 400,000 words in the English language and there are 7 of them you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is. 399,993 to 7. They must really be bad. They’d have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here, you 7, Bad Words. That’s what they told us they were, remember? “That’s a bad word!” No bad words, bad thoughts, bad intentions, and words. You know the 7, don’t you, that you can’t say on television? “*censored*” Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war.

Mark 7: 14  Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15Nothing outside a man can make him ‘unclean’ by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him ‘unclean.’ “ … [20-23]  He went on: “What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’ For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and make a man ‘unclean.' "

1)    It seems like Jesus would agree that there are no bad words.  So why aren’t Christians supposed to swear?

Carlin:  I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don’t have as many people who believe it.

Gal 1:9-10: As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!  Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.

2)    George seems to be agreeing with Paul about human authority.  What authority should people ever have in the church?

Carlin: “I am” is reportedly the shortest sentence in the English language. Could it be that “I do” is the longest sentence?  (Note both of Carlin’s marriages lasted until death did them part.)

Matthew 9:6-9: Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.”  “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”  Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

3)    How can the church affirm marriage without being judgmental to those who have suffered divorce?

Carlin: There’s no present. There’s only the immediate future and the recent past.
Mat 6:34: Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

4)    What makes it hard for you to live by Jesus’ advice?  What helps you live it?

The Church
George was brought up Catholic, and became a severe critic of all organized religion.  He mocked it with his creation of “Frisbeetarianism,” “the belief that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck.”  And he commended atheism, since “Atheism is a non-prophet organization.”
1 Cor 12:27-28 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.

5)    If the church is going to be a for-prophet organization, what is the role of the prophet today?  Do you know any?

Carlin:  Religion convinced the world that there’s an invisible man in the sky who watches everything you do. And there’s 10 things he doesn’t want you to do or else you’ll go to a burning place with a lake of fire until the end of eternity. But he loves you! ...And he needs money! He’s all powerful, but he can’t handle money!

6)    Is this a justifiable criticism of the church?  If so how do we fix it?  If not, how do we defend it?

Carlin:  I’m completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.

The recent, heavily debated, Evangelical Manifesto states: “The other error, made by both the religious left and the religious right in recent decades, is to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have  lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence, the church becomes  “the regime at prayer,” …  Christian beliefs are used as weapons for political interests.”

7)    What should the role of Christians and the church be in politics and government? 

Carlin:  I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a guy nailed to two pieces of wood.

1 Cor 1:18-19: For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

8)    Obviously Paul foresaw attitudes such as Carlin’s.  Why is the cross hard to accept?

Obviously the saddest thing about Carlin is to think of him dying without knowing Christ.  He knew he was dying, and, characteristically, quipped about it.  “I was thinking about how people seem to read the Bible a whole lot more as they get older; then it dawned on me - they’re cramming for their final exam.” And, “I’m always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realize I’m listening to it.”

9)    How do you testify to someone who seems so set against even the idea of faith in Jesus?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Anne Lamott

Today's my first day/month missing the bible study for which I've written most of these studies. I will miss it terribly! But it was an amazing opportunity for community these last dozen years. Partly as self-therapy and partly to share, I wanted to write about seeing Anne Lamott last night.

Anne Lamott is one of the few non-math people I follow on Twitter. She is laugh out loud funny, and spiritually insightful. Her book, Bird by Bird is amazing, and I have loved everything of hers I've read, with plans to read the rest. So when we heard she was coming to Calvin College's Festival of Faith and Writing 2014, we put together a group to go. (Why didn't I take a picture of them?) We had good feasting together before, and good discussion of the evening heading home.

When I attend a professional seminar, I try to live tweet it. I'm a natural note taker, and it helps me to remember as well as share. If you think of Twitter as a celebrity thing, that's one side of it; the other side of it is allowing like-minded people from all over the world to find each other and form community.

So here's my tweet-guided reminiscence of the evening. She was pretty stream-of-consciousness, but built on a couple of main themes throughout. She layered reminiscences, writing advice, insights on sobriety and professional comedian level delivery of jokes and one-liners.
 Turns out she had turned 60 the day before. Not a good birthday - she attended the funeral for a young man who was a friend of her son and a former Sunday School student of hers.  She had notes for her talk, but at the end of an hour of riffing, she hadn't used them much. Why talk about her recent book Stitches, for which she couldn't remember the subtitle? Because...
I love this principle. Transfer of understanding, finding connections - these things lead to deep understanding.

Building on the senselessness of the funeral she attended:

We're not going to be able to figure out what's in God's head or what Her plan is (Anne flip flops pronouns for Him, regularly). We can receive Her grace. But we have so much going on in us that prevents that reception.
Later, talking about what can you do for parents at a funeral for their child, she commented:

This was a big part of her writing advice, too. Go to the desk. Write today's pages.  They won't be good, mostly. But you need a first draft. How does she edit?
 What are the overwrought parts? They're where you're being particularly clever or erudite. She quoted Jessica Mitford, "You have to kill your little darlings."

So how do you learn to receive the grace? She connected it to her favorite movie, a documentary called From Mao to Mozart . It records Isaac Stern (She says: I figure God either looks like Isaac Stern or Bette Midler.) on the first visit of a western musician to China in 1979.
This connects for her to the oppression of perfection, and how it keeps us from even showing up.
 Probably true for anyone in a creative field, maybe just plain old true for anyone.

 Cycling back to the funeral, and connecting it to showing up, and then often failing...
 She gets to her own work. Surely she can have a break now. Surely she has nothing to write about. But, because she's still living and showing up there are things to write about. However, there's a warning:
 In other words, be truly present when you show up. Later she picked up on this theme of excuses again. This weekend she doesn't need to go to church. (Her failing, 30 member, Presbyterian but secretly Baptist singing church.) She had the funeral. She was in Grand Rapids. She would be tired. Her pastor was away.  So many reasons not to go. It's like if you don't want to get gas, you don't have to. But wait - then you won't have gas for your car. You have to show up to get hugged within an inch of your life, to have a chance to sing loudly, to get what you need.

How to deal with the young man's death with her Sunday School kids?

 You do not have to do that to be loved. No preconditions. But it's what we do when we show up.

And again, we won't be able to figure it out.
But that doesn't mean that what we know isn't important.

When you're at church, or writing, or serving, you're going to be faced with your own brokenness.
 She talked about sitting down to write, all your little psychological problems are going to come with you, and sit on the desk. "And, frankly, they're worried." Later, when you want to go to bed, there they are in the bed. And they've had too much caffeine.
It was a great night, awesome sharing. She was very present. One of her standard lines is:

And, as she hoped, we got a good spritzing.

P.S. She was definitely reaching out to anyone in need of sobriety, so I want to include this short video, which does a good job of touching on how she talked about stopping drinking and starting being a Christian. 

Saturday, March 8, 2014

In Vulnerability

a Bible Study based on a TED talk
ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability or brenebrown.com
BrenĂ© Brown is a Social Work research professor. She has two talks on TED.com, Oprah appearances and a basket of books. Not where bible studies usually start. But this one on vulnerability – without ever mentioning God – had so many connections to the gospel that we’re trying it as a bible study. It’s one of those situations where people do research and find out something new and startling that Jesus told us 2000 years ago.

“So where I started was with connection. Because, by the time you're a social worker for 10 years, what you realize is that connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it's all about. It doesn't matter whether you talk to people who work in social justice and mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is -- neurobiologically that's how we're wired -- it's why we're here.”

Matthew 5:14-16 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

John 15:12-15 “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

1)    Why does our relationship with God involve other people? Why can’t we just deal with Jesus or the father?

“When you ask people about belonging, they'll tell you their most excruciating experiences of being excluded. And when you ask people about connection, the stories they told me were about disconnection. … so I pulled back out of the research and thought, I need to figure out what this is. And it turned out to be shame. And shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won't be worthy of connection? The things I can tell you about it: it's universal; we all have it. The only people who don't experience shame have no capacity for human empathy or connection.”

2) With what kind of shame do you struggle? Brown talks about the feeling of “I am not _______ enough.”

Matthew 5 & 6
21-22 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,[a] and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.”
28 “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
34 “But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all.”
44 “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”
48 “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

3)  If none of us can do what Jesus is asking here, why is he so intent on bringing us down?

Romans 10:9-13 “If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.” For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” ”

4)  How do you deal with shame as a Christian?

Brown studied shame, then, for years. “that's what this comes down to, a sense of worthiness -- they have a strong sense of love and belonging -- and folks who struggle for it, and folks who are always wondering if they're good enough. There was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they're worthy of love and belonging. That's it. They believe they're worthy.”

Romans 5:1-8 “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

5)  Do we – or more to the point - can we be worthy of love and belonging? How does this relate to your faith?

So Brown wondered who had that worthiness. “What they had in common was a sense of courage … the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can't practice compassion with other people if we can't treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they had connection, and – this was the hard part – as a result of authenticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.”

Ephesians 4:32 “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

6)  What are the connections amongst being courageous, being compassionate and being authentic for you or in our faith life?

“The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating -- as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing. They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, "I love you" first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They're willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”

Galations 5:22-26
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

7)  Where are you able to be vulnerable? When is it hard?

“I spent the next couple of years really trying to understand what they, the whole-hearted, what choices they were making, and what are we doing with vulnerability. Why do we struggle with it so much? Am I alone in struggling with vulnerability? No. So this is what I learned. We numb vulnerability.”

8)  Brown mentions many ways we numb. She mentions specifically one for churches: “Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I'm right, you're wrong. Shut up. That's it. Just certain.” Is that a fair description? How else might we as believers try to numb vulnerability?

Brown closes with this: “This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there's no guarantee -- and that's really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that's excruciatingly difficult -- to practice gratitude and joy in those moments of terror… And the last, which I think is probably the most important, is to believe that we're enough. Because when we work from a place, I believe, that says, "I'm enough," then we stop screaming and start listening, we're kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves.”

Phillipians 4:10-14 “The Lord has filled me with joy because you again showed interest in me. You were interested but did not have an opportunity to show it. I’m not saying this because I’m in any need. I’ve learned to be content in whatever situation I’m in. I know how to live in poverty or prosperity. No matter what the situation, I’ve learned the secret of how to live when I’m full or when I’m hungry, when I have too much or when I have too little. I can do everything through Christ who strengthens me. Nevertheless, it was kind of you to share my troubles.”

9)  This is one place where a Christian might really phrase it differently than Brown. It’s not that we are enough alone, but because God is with us we are enough. What difference does that make?

10)  What other scripture or parts of our faith does Brown’s summation remind you of?

11)  How might courage and vulnerability help us to share Christ with our neighbors?

Maybe Superman is hard to relate to.
Resources: Open Bible Info was helpful in chasing down these passages.


Though everyone agrees Paul wrote this letter, there are three views as to when and where he might have written it:  from Ephesus or Macedonia ca 55 AD or from Syrian Antioch ca. 48 AD or from Ephesus or Corinth between ca. 52 AD.  Probably it was to a group of churches in the southern part of Galatia, including Antioch, Derbe, Iconium, and Lystra (cf. Acts 13-14), all of which were founded by Paul on his first or second missionary journeys.   

Part of the letter is a response to a group called Judaizers, who were insisting on traditional Jewish practice.  They claimed Paul removed those requirements just to make the message more popular and this proved he wasn’t a true apostle.  Paul’s response is strong, to say the least (Gal 1:1-2, 11-17).  

In later times, the book of the Galatians played an important part of the reformation.  Though it was Romans that began Luther’s personal awakening, he based much of his theology on Galatians, to the point that one of the nicknames for Galatians is “Luther’s Book.”

From theologygrams, a fun site.
Paul’s authority:  read Gal 1:11-24.  Since he was previously in the position of persecuting Christians, Paul had undoubtedly heard some of there testimony.  
Side note:  Paul in 1:15 is paralleling his ministry with Jeremiah (Jer 1:5)

1) What does Paul mean that he heard the gospel by revelation and not from people?  Why does he make that point?

2) What is important about the information that Paul didn’t go to Jerusalem for 3 years, and then only met James and Peter?

3) Why does Paul remind these people about his past as a persecutor when he wants them to accept his authority?

The dissension:  read Gal 2:11-21.   After noting that his message was approved by the original apostles, Paul tells about this big conflict with them.  The big idea seems to be to add no work to the requirements of salvation.  
4) What works are you tempted to add to the requirements for salvation, or have you seen others require?

5) How was the conflict resolved?

The dressing down:  read Gal 3:1-5.  

6) Is Paul wrong to address people this harshly?  If not, what could make such harsh words okay?  (Imagine being addressed that way by a pastor.)

Unity of Old and New Testaments:  read Gal 3:6-9 and 3:26-4:7.  
7) What does this say about righteousness?  What does this say about us?

How to live:  read Gal 5:1 and 5:13-25.  Paul warns, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.”  (v21)  

8) Why does this not conflict with Paul’s message of righteousness by faith?

9) How do you view the fruit of the spirit?  Something to strive for, or something to wait for, or something else?

The big finish:  read Gal 6:1-10.  

10) Share what this means to you.

11) This is a favorite book of many people.  Is there something we left out that you would like to share?

I have to share the paraphrasing of the close of this book in the Message:  Gal 6:17-18

Quite frankly, I don't want to be bothered anymore by these disputes. I have far more important things to do—the serious living of this faith. I bear in my body scars from my service to Jesus.  May what our Master Jesus Christ gives freely be deeply and personally yours, my friends. Oh, yes!


Sunday, January 12, 2014

May We Come In?

(The study is a bit of a mess, but it really engendered a good discussion. People were interested in the wise men and all the extra layers we have put on top of the story of the first Epiphany.)

Epiphany is Greek for Revelation, and is usually taken to refer to the arrival of the wise men to worship Jesus. As a Church feast day, it is the celebration of Jesus coming to the gentiles as well as the Jews.

Long before Christ, Jewish prophecy held that the Messiah was not going to be for the Chosen people alone.  Read Psalm 68:28-35, a psalm of David.
1)    Suddenly David shifts in this psalm from describing what God will do to addressing ‘you’. Who is you? Why do you think so?

2)    Is there anything here to make this be the Lord is for those other nations instead of just dominating or conquering them?

3)    This psalm is probably partly responsible for people describing the Magi as three kings.  Do you think of the Magi as kings? Does it make a difference in understanding the story if they aren’t?

Psalm 72 is commonly included in Epiphany liturgies. Tradition holds that king and king’s son refer to the Messiah. Let’s read it now.
4)    The psalm clearly says by Solomon, but also by David.  What do you think might be the case?

5)    What characteristics do you see that we usually associate with Jesus?

6)    Are there any characteristics that are different from how we usually see Jesus?

7)    With this as one of the main messianic texts, what would you have been expecting in the Messiah?

A lot of messianic prophecy is found in Isaiah. Isaiah’s prophecy begins during the reign of King Uzziah, around 750 BC. Uzziah (along with Jehosophat) was one of the two most successful kings after Solomon. The first mention of other countries worshipping the Lord is in Isaiah 19. Read vv 18-25.
8)    What makes this sound like Egypt joining in instead of being ruled over? What else do you notice?

Isaiah 60 is another passage strongly associated with Epiphany liturgies. Let’s read the whole chapter.
9)    What connections do you see between this and Epiphany?

10)    What makes this sound like a prophecy about the messiah to you? What do we learn about the messiah from it?

Image: Jones_04 @ Flickr

The story of the magi only appears in the gospel of Matthew. There are only 6 other unique passages of Matthew, including three parables (vineyard workers, ten virgins and the sheep and goats) and the Roman guards reporting the empty tomb. Let’s read Matthew 2:1-18.
11)    One thing to notice is what’s not in this story. What has been added to it in the way we usually imagine it?

The word used for Jesus in v. 8 and 9 here is not used for an infant, but for a weaned child.
12)    If it was a significant time after the shepherds, what might that have meant to Mary? (Is it significant that Joseph is not mentioned here?)

The word used for the Magi is, well, magi. At that time, it seems like it was used in Greek to describe priests of Zorastrianism. That’s a Persian religion that worships a good god who is in opposition to an evil god; they were very involved in astrology. 
13)    Whether Zoroastrians or not, what does it mean for acolytes of another religion to come worship the Jewish messiah?

Balaam (of donkey fame) prophesies in Numbers 24:17
“I see someone who is not here now. I look at someone who is not nearby. A star will come from Jacob. A scepter will rise from Israel. He will crush the heads of the Moabites and destroy all the people of Sheth.” 
Early church fathers believed that was a reference to the Star of Bethlehem. Interestingly Balaam was a rarity – a gentile prophet.  Was the star mystical? It rises (v.2) – normal star behavior – but then points them to a specific location (v.9) – that’s unusual.
14)    Is there anything for us to learn from this stellar detail?

The three gifts are probably responsible for thinking of three magi.  Gold you know about. Frankincense is a tree resin that is used in perfumes, incense (including use in both the 1st and 2nd temples), and a medicine. Myrrh is the odd duck here – though it is also a tree resin, used in perfume, incense and medicine and quite valuable. (At times worth more than gold!) But it has strong connotation with embalming rituals. One reflection on this passage reminds us of the fourth gift: worship.
15)    What meaning do the gifts have for you? Can we use this as a model for what we can give to Jesus?

For me personally, some of these details take me away from what I love about the story of the Magi. God coming for those we wouldn’t expect, and surprising people coming to Christ.
16)    Who has surprised you in your faith walk?

Overtime: if we have more time, it would be worth looking at the “apostle to the gentiles.” Paul wrote powerfully about Jesus coming for the whole world.
17)    Read Ephesians 3:1-12. What do you notice? What connections can you make with the magi?