Archive | July, 2012

David and Bathsheba

I’m preaching about David and Bathsheba on Sunday.  So are a lot of other preachers around the world.  That’s because 2 Samuel 11 is the Old Testament reading this week in something called the Revised Common Lectionary (explaining what that is would require at least another blogpost), and many preachers around the world use the lectionary to guide them in selecting scripture on which to base their sermons each week.

By this point in the week I’ve done a fair amount of reading about the David and Bathsheba story, and I’m pretty sure I understand what’s going on.  It’s a sad and tawdry tale.

Much of what I read this week I already knew, which is often the case when I preach about familiar portions of scripture.  But I did come across a couple of new insights.

One is that the sexual encounter with Bathsheba is often portrayed as a romantic interlude – in other words, consensual – when in reality the story suggests something very different.  David sent for her, slept with her, and then sent her back home.

This is not the language of romance.  It’s the language of power.

It’s true that David marries Bathsheba after having her husband murdered, but the circumstances surrounding their first meeting do not sound like a fairytale romance. Instead, the David we meet in this story is bored and full of himself. I’m thinking that maybe God should have allowed him to build the Temple, as he wanted, because without a project like that David has way too much time on his hands.

Maybe my original understanding of this story was shaped by influences other than the actual words of scripture.  For example, the 1951 film David and Bathsheba, staring Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward, certainly made the relationship seem beautiful and sensual, as sensual as films in that era were allowed to be.

The story, as the Bible tells it, however, suggests something very different.  I’ll need a day or two to process this new information.

The other new insight into this story comes from Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor and writer.  In his wonderful book about the David story, Leap Over A Wall, Peterson argues that David will forever be linked with two names – Goliath and Bathsheba.

Though these two are different in so many ways, they are nevertheless similar, says Peterson, in that each one was something of a test for David.  They reveal David’s heart.

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon about David and Goliath, and I lifted up David’s courage as a model for us.  I suggested that we too aim higher, work harder, and trust God more.  In this other story David is calculating and cruel. So, what’s the message?

That we should copy the behavior we see earlier in David’s life and avoid the sad mess that his life becomes later on?  Sure, but I’m guessing there’s more here.  I’m starting to see that David was powerful in both stories, but in the story of Bathsheba that use of power was distorted.  It was used for David’s own gratification.  It was abused, used casually, thoughtlessly.

This is the exciting part of the week for me, as I squeeze as much of the spiritual wisdom as I can out of the words of scripture.  I know I’ll get there.  I (almost) always do.

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A pastor’s response

Our country has once again had one of those weeks. It was bloody and terrible and senseless, and it’s all of those things every time it happens.

We wake up and turn on the news, and there it is.  We see people running away in fear.  We see people being loaded into ambulances.  We see family members, huddled together and waiting for news, hoping against hope that their son or daughter, mother or father, sister or brother, is not among the victims.

It happens at Army bases, in schools and universities, in post offices, in shopping malls, and now in theaters.  No place, it seems, is safe.

Over the last few months, several church members have been engaged in a conversation about security measures we should probably take here … in this church, in a place of worship. That’s a conversation I never wanted to have.

Look, I have no political axe to grind here.  I don’t think these are occasions to score points on one side or another.

But I’m sad.  And I’m terrified.  And I happen to believe that there’s a spiritual side to all of this.  I hope you won’t be surprised to know that.

When politicians rush out to microphones to make their statements in the aftermath of one of these tragedies, they typically use the language of faith.  They mention prayer.  They call us to reflect on the things that really matter.

And even though those words sometimes seem a little too calculated, I have to agree. This is a time to use the language of faith. This is a time to pray.  This is a time to reflect on the things that really matter.

When we reach within and try to find those spiritual resources – and this is a pastor’s worry for his congregation – my worry is that we won’t find much, or that we won’t find enough.

So, my promise to you is to work harder – harder than ever – to focus on those things…to cultivate the spiritual resources we will need to face times like these.

There will be more, sorry to say.  This latest one is just that – only the most recent. There will be others.

And so, all of us – this is my challenge to you – need to find ways to think about what happened.  We need to make sure our spiritual resources are up to the job.  I’m talking about not giving in to anger or cynicism or despair.

I’m talking about finding ways to have hope, to live with hope, to live with confidence about the future.

That’s a tall order!  I know that. But I think that’s what it means to be people of faith. If we don’t believe that we are in the hands of a loving God, then we will eventually give in to the cynicism of our culture.

I don’t want to do that.  And I suspect you don’t either.  So, let’s find another way. The way of hope, the way of life, the way of Jesus, who once said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

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A church starts to rebuild

In a recent blogpost I mentioned a church in northern New York State that had burned to the ground following a lightning strike.

I had the privilege of meeting the pastor, the Rev. Bonnie Orth, at a worship grants colloquium at Calvin College last month where she told me that her church would soon be rebuilt and that the ministry would continue.

Here’s a link to a TV news report on the ground-breaking ceremony held on Sunday, July 8…

To me, Bonnie Orth is one of the saints in the church today.  Lots of attention is focused on superstar preachers like Joel Osteen and Rick Warren – and they certainly deserve credit for the work they do and the many lives they reach – but I am convinced that women and men like Bonnie Orth, laboring in small towns across North America, are the ones who most deserve our thanks and admiration.

Their churches will never grow to the 20,000 attendees per weekend level, but then the towns in which they serve typically don’t have that many people anyway.  And yet, they work hard and put in long hours and sit at bedside in many hospitals across this country.  They preach on Sundays, but they also lead the youth group and take out the trash and do a hundred other chores not currently in my own job description.

And, in the case of Bonnie Orth, they reach deep into the resources of their personal faith to find ways to rebuild their churches and to move their people from sorrow to joy.

When I go to meetings like the one I attended last month, I can’t wait to meet them and shake their hands and say thank you for what they do.  God bless you, Bonnie.  I’m proud to call you my colleague in ministry!

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Search for authentic faith

The adult education class I’m teaching this summer with church member Mark Schumacher has been especially enjoyable.  I love teaching classes at church, but
something about this particular class has me especially revved up and ready to go each week.

One reason of course is Mark.  He’s someone I met early on because he was a member of the search committee that brought me to Fort Lauderdale, but we had never taught a class together before.  So far as I know, he has no teaching background and no degree in education, but he’s a natural.  He knows how to draw out the quieter members of the class – and how to respond firmly to the more talkative members (you know who you are).  He’s presenting what is sometimes very difficult material in a way that just about everyone can grasp and respond to.

But the most important reason I’m enjoying myself so much is the subject matter of our class.  We’re teaching from Diane Butler Bass’ newest book, Christianity after Religion.

The first few chapters of the book, to be honest about it, are sad.  In painful detail Butler Bass describes the decline of the American church over the last 20 years.  I was surprised that our class members kept coming back, because the news is not good. People are leaving the American church in droves.  At first it was the liberal Protestant churches that were seeing declines, but now the declines are noticeable across the board, Catholic and evangelical Protestant churches too.

Midway through the book, however, Butler Bass makes the case that something good and encouraging might actually be happening. While many people are saying no to church as it has been, they seem to be searching as never before for authentic faith.  In other words, they are rejecting religion in favor of something less institutional, less rules-based, less dogmatic, less building-centered, less hierarchical.

In the chapter Mark and I taught last week about Christian practice – how to live out the Christian faith – both of us were struck by a story Butler Bass tells about her own church experience.  A few years ago, a church member invited her to join the “altar guild,” a group of people who prepare the communion elements each week for the Lord’s Supper.

According to Butler Bass’ description, the church member said to her, “I’ve been doing it for thirty-five years, and I’m really tired. It is time for someone else to do it instead.”

Not surprisingly, Butler Bass turned down this invitation.  Then, later, she wondered “what might have happened” if the woman had asked the question in a different way.

What if, Butler Bass wondered, she had described her habit of waking each Sunday before dawn, arriving to a darkened sanctuary, unlocking the drawers where the linens and silver are kept, and carefully getting them out for use.  What if the woman had said, “I’ve often wondered what it would have been like to set the table for Jesus and his friends.”

Butler Bass says that her answer would have been, “Sign me up.”

I actually wept when I read those words.

The difference between the two approaches could not be more stark. The first invitation was an appeal to duty or obligation, nothing all that appealing.  But the second invitation would have asked Butler Bass to consider the deeply spiritual aspect of the work, an invitation to participate in the mystery of God.

When I read this story, I thought of all the times I’ve said to church members who had been nominated to be an elder, “Well, it’s only one meeting a month,” when I could have said something like, “As an elder we get to practice life in the kingdom of God.”

Church members who serve on committees and boards and who attend to the institutional life of the church sometimes forget the deeper meaning of what they do. And pastors sometimes forget to name that deeper meaning.

And so it’s time we talked more about that, all of us, because people are surprisingly hungry to hear it – and feel it.

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Worship Renewal

For a couple of days last week I did something I truly enjoy – namely, giving away money.  But not just giving it away.  Rather, giving it away for the cause of worship renewal.

For nearly 10 years I’ve had the privilege of serving on the grants review board of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship – yes, that’s a mouthful, I know.  The board is composed mostly of church musicians and worship scholars who make grants ranging from $5,000 to $20,000 – to churches, campus ministries, hospital chaplaincies, prison fellowships, and more (but mostly to churches).  We give away hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.  And each year we invite the grant recipients – those who are just starting their projects and those who are just completing theirs – to a grants gathering in Michigan.

I tried to explain all of this to my brother in law over dinner the night before our grants gathering began, and he said, “Oh, worship renewal.  That’s where you get rid of all the hymnbooks and sing off a screen at the front of the church.”  Something about the way he said it made me think he wasn’t  in favor.

“No,” I said.  “That’s not quite it, though I realize a lot of people think that’s what worship renewal is.”

So, what is worship renewal?  Hard to explain.  Often worship renewal begins with a pastor’s heart.  My favorite grant story – from a few years ago – involved a hospital chaplain at a children’s hospital.  Families would come from miles around with very sick children, and often they would stay for weeks, even months, at a time.

The hospital chaplain asked herself how worship in that setting could allow parents and family members to express what they needed to express, and not surprisingly her grant proposal made ample use of the psalms, most of which are laments (meaning that most psalms begin with pain, loss, fear, sadness, and disappointment, exactly what the parents and family members in that situation were feeling).  When the grants gathering took place that year, I had only known this person through a seven or eight-page type-written grant proposal.  In fact, I remember tearing up the first time I read this particular proposal.  Her pastoral instincts, I thought, were just right.  I wanted to meet her.

And so, at the gathering, held each year in late June, I made a point of finding her and shaking her hand and telling her how much I loved her proposal and the passion she had for the faith of the children and families who were in her care.

My favorite grant proposal this year came from a pastor in northern New York State whose church’s steeple was struck by lightning a year or so ago and burned to the ground.  Nothing survived in the smoldering ruins except for a couple of wood beams from the support structure.  The grant proposal asked if the church could identify a local artist who would fashion something from the beams – a cross, as it turned out – that could be used in the newly re-built church as a way of remembering what was lost and also as a way of being reminded of God’s great goodness and providence.

I shook this pastor’s hand too and told her what an important ministry she had, leading her people from sorrow to joy.

Sometimes grant proposals grow out of more than good pastoral instincts. Some of the best proposals over the years have grown out of an important question – such as, what is the connection between baptism and spiritual formation?  Or, how about the role of the Lord’s Supper in congregational reconciliation?

The truth is, our little board has read so much over the years that has been so inspiring and uplifting.   So many gatherings of Christian people across North America are working so hard, with such passion and creativity in their worship lives, that we as a board are often left speechless and humbled and grateful.

I always come home to my own congregation with a renewed determination to be as creative and dedicated in my own worship planning as the people who received grants. Their work inspires my own.  Their work gives me hope for the church.

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