Reconciliation At, and Beyond, the Table: a Communion Meditation for 4/14/2013

Paul, whose conversion we have heard about today, played a key role in developing the theology of reconciliation, both between God and humans, and between Jews and Gentiles.  We have also heard how Peter went through a kind of reconciliation, both to Christ and to the ministry Christ called him to.  And we heard in Revelation about the final fruits of reconciliation, the worship around the throne of Heaven, where those who God graciously reconciled to Himself are united in worship.  Even the psalmist experienced a separation from God, but then experienced the joy and relief of being reunited with his Lord.

This table is a table of reconciliation, drawing together people to God, and the people of God.  We are united as the Body of Christ by the Blood of Christ.  Rich and poor, old and young, various ethnicities and nationalities, divergent political beliefs--all are called to this table, to unite in humility and worship to the Master of this Table.

So what happens to that unity, that reconciliation, when we leave this table?  It’s hard, it takes real work and serious grace, to embody and fulfill the unity Christ calls us to.  And sometimes it seems like living in the age of the Internet makes it even harder to do so.  We have less need to speak face to face, or even to hear another’s voice over the phone, what with text messages, emails, and the like.  And then there’s the anonymity of the Internet--in hiding us from each other, our fallenness all too often is revealed, as civility disappears with our names.  

We retreat into our comfort zones, where everyone we see and read thinks and believes like us.  We don’t have to do the hard work of understanding people who are very different from ourselves. Reconciliation takes really listening, treating others as fellow well-beloved children of God, by loving them with all the ways they differ from us.  It takes a kind of strength of will and spirit to keep your focus on love, even as you genuinely, deeply, seek the truth, prayerfully asking that God would reveal the truth to both of you.

I challenge you to do more than just eat the bread and drink the juice of remembrance here, remembering the Prince of Peace and Reconciliation at His table.  I challenge you to also make a specific, conscious, pre-planned effort to eat a meal with someone in this congregation that you disagree with.  Over food and drink of perhaps a more mundane sort, learn more about, and pray for, this other.  Speak the truth--don’t politely avoid the hard subjects--but do it always in love.  Find your common ground.  Don’t demand or expect that the other will change their minds about the areas where you differ.  But perhaps in knowing more about the other person, you will find more fertile ground in which to grow a deeper love for them.

For this is what the Lord himself said, and I pass it on to you just as I received it. On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant between God and you, sealed by the shedding of my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it." For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord's death until Jesus comes again.


Offering Meditation:

Bridges of reconciliation can also be built by sharing resources.  I know that many of you understand this because I’ve seen you do it.  I believe we are called to support the work of this congregation, this community, by putting our part into this plate.  But just as you can invite someone to your table outside of this table, you can use your resources in other, more direct ways to acknowledge the kingship, to spread the kingdom, of God.  This plate is just the beginning.

The Blossoming Kingdom: a Communion Meditation for 1/26/2014

In today’s gospel reading, a phrase caught my eye: “the kingdom of heaven is near”.  I am certainly no biblical scholar, but I understand from reading some of them that the concept “the kingdom of Heaven,” or its parallel, “the kingdom of God,” has been assigned a wide spectrum of meanings by various theologians and scholars through the millennia.  One of those possible meanings has interested me lately.

It is the sense that the kingdom is always near, and yet always still coming.  It would seem that its arriving is never completed.  It is always among us, especially as we gather and endeavor to live as Christ taught and modeled, and as the Holy Spirit leads.  But there’s always more.  The Creator of a universe billions of light years wide, who holds each of the atoms and quarks and who knows what else in place, never stops creating.  He never stops the blossoming entrance of the Kingdom into the lives of His children.  

That kind of creativity appeals to me.  It awakens my hope.  It reminds me of resurrection.  The mustard seed grows into the full plant… and that plant has more seeds.  If we remain in Him, we will bear much fruit.  And in His hands, our lives will continually, creatively, fantastically blossom in ever-new ways.

But we need to abide.  We need to return.  The closer we allow ourselves to be drawn to the Father of beauty and truth, over and over again, the more we put ourselves in a place to witness Him continuing to bring near His ever-blossoming kingdom.  One of the ways we do this is that, every week, every opportunity we get, we accept His invitation to this table.  The Son of God, like a seed, was buried.  And God raised Him from the dead, alive, that He might bloom, that He might scatter more seed, and that the Kingdom might continue to be, and to enter, continually and again.

For this is what the Lord himself said, and I pass it on to you just as I received it. On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant between God and you, sealed by the shedding of my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it." For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord's death until Jesus comes again.


Offering Meditation:

The plant needs to be watered.  The roots need to be fed.  And in the ecosystem of the kingdom of heaven, plants that need each other and feed each other come near to each other, to benefit each other’s blossoming.  One of many ways we offer sustenance to each other and to the Kingdom is by pouring our funds into this community’s purse.  Be generous, and watch the Kingdom ever-grow.

Who We Meet: a Communion Meditation for June 29, 2014

The fellowship of churches sometimes known as the Restoration Movement has several distinctive characteristics.  One of these is that celebration of the Lord’s Supper happens weekly, not monthly, quarterly, or yearly, as in other denominations and churches.  The most common rationale I’ve heard from people who don’t practice this sacrament weekly is that if it were practiced too often, it would lose its power, its meaning, its “specialness.”  

So I tried to think about an event that would be special to me, to think through whether it could become routine, too common, “unspecial.”  And I thought, what if I was allowed to attend a concert of one of my favorite singer-songwriters, something that now happens maybe once a year?  What if I got to go to a live concert of his every single week?  How could that become too common?

Well, if he played the same set, week after week, and there were no new songs, no new lyrical insights, no new melodies—that would get old.  It would be predictable.  So maybe newness is the answer.  But even then, if there were new songs in the concert every week, would it still carry the importance and meaning that a once-a-year concert would?  Probably not.  If something else came up that conflicted, I would be tempted to skip one concert (unlike a once-a-year opportunity).

But what if that weekly concert wasn’t just a chance to be one-in-a-thousand, cheering from an anonymous distance?  What if instead, I got to meet him?  And not just meet him, but talk with him, ask him questions, and listen to his answers?  I have enough respect for my favorite singer-songwriter that I think that would be a great opportunity.  And it would certainly make the weekly event more meaningful.

But even then, no matter who it was, their insights would sometimes be wrong.  Sometimes they would have an off week, or be in a bad mood, or write a bad song.  And there I’d be again, tempted to skip when something more interesting came along.

The aspect of the Lord’s Supper that changes this, that makes it something we can never take for granted, is Who we meet at this table.  His insights are never wrong.  His creativity never comes to an end.  We will never come to the end of the riches of His wisdom, or His mercy, or His love.  He is really in this room, in your heart, in your life.  And as easy as it gets sometimes to forget His presence, at this table we set everything else aside to focus on the One who offered Himself in the Body and the Blood, and who continues to offer Himself, through the unceasing presence of the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.  Because the One we celebrate here never ends, the depth of meaning in this celebration is also unending.

Gratitude at the Table: a Communion Meditation for 11/23/2015

I read today’s psalm in different translations, side by side, and here’s what I found, starting in verse three:

“Know that the LORD Himself is God;”
“Acknowledge that the Lord is God.” 

It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; 
He made us, and we are His.
He made us; we didn’t make Him.
He made us, and we belong to Him.

We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
We are His people, His well-tended sheep.

Enter His gates with thanksgiving 
Enter with the password: ‘Thank You.’

I was struck by that wording.  We are not to enter God’s presence with pride, or self-satisfaction, but with thankfulness.

We come to this table to, after a fashion, enter the presence of God.  We come to share the Body and Blood of God, the Body and Blood of Christ, with the Body of Christ.  And the classic name for this event we’re sharing?  The Eucharist.  Eucharisteo.  Thanksgiving.  Coming to this table should form within us thankfulness.

So what are we here to be thankful for?  Everything.  Our very existence is not ours; He has made us.  We belong to Him.  Is there anything good that has come out of your life?  Anything that you’ve ever done that is good?  There’s a very limited sense in which yes, we can take a kind of credit for such things.  We hope to hear someday, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”  

But in a deeper sense, we owe everything to the One who gave us life, who gave us our abilities, who gave us the circumstances of our life, the people around us who modeled what God wanted us to become, even the good judgment we used when we made good decisions: all this and more came from God.  And so, to Him goes all the glory.  Like the elders in Revelation that are continually taking off the crowns from their own heads and throwing them at the feet of Christ, we must always be diverting the attention of those around us from the good things we do, the good decisions we make, to the One who made us to do good.

He is the One we come to this table to meet.  He is the One who invited us here.  And it is to Him that we say, in profound gratitude, “Thank You.”  We are thankful that He offered Himself as a sacrifice on our behalf, giving us life, reuniting us with Himself, and with each other, and with everything good.  As we tear off a piece of bread and take a tiny cup of juice, and quietly consume these little gifts, we need not conjure up some mystical vision or prayer to celebrate and join in the life of the body of Christ.  We need only search the depths of our hearts and say, “Thank You.”

For this is what the Lord himself said, and I pass it on to you just as I received it. On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant between God and you, sealed by the shedding of my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it." For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord's death until Jesus comes again.


Offering Meditation:

The rest of Psalm 100 says, “Give thanks to him and praise his name.  For the Lord is good.  His unfailing love continues forever, and his faithfulness continues to each generation.”

The generosity of God, giving love unfailingly, continues forever, through every generation.  He never stops creating.  He never stops providing.  Mimicking His generosity starts with creativity, and continues through providing out of that creative work.  But that’s not just a one-time thing.  Our generosity, to follow His, must continue.  Our creative work must continue, and, given provision by that work, our generous giving must continue, week after week, year after year, generation after generation.

A Family (not) Divided: A Communion Meditation for June 7, 2015

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  This sentence, which is part of today’s gospel reading, is so deeply linked in the American imagination with Abraham Lincoln and the U.S. Civil War that reading it in context this week, especially across various translations, kind of caught me off guard.  A house.  A family.  If a family is divided against itself, it will not survive.

This really resonated with my experience now as a father of five growing children.  I see how they bond with my wife and I, and with each other.  I see how their selfishness, brokenness, and the injuries and insecurities rooted in their individual pasts start fights between them.  And part of our job as parents is to help them, as we put it, make the conflicts “smaller, not bigger.”

When I think about what “a family divided against itself” might look like, I extrapolate from these children, whom we know so well, but who are also deep mysteries, both to us and to themselves.  The thought of them developing deep, long-lasting divisions and animosities against each other is a chilling, frightening thought.

These children, whom we love so deeply, whom we long to see blossom, thrive, and become all God created them to be: it would break my heart to see them become enemies against each other.  But in a broken, messed-up world, with broken, flawed parents, in spite of our best efforts, I know it is still possible.

One of the things Danielle and I do to try to build the children with ourselves into a family is to eat together, every chance we get.  Most mornings I’m off to work before the rest of the family is up, and I’m rarely home for lunch.  But everyone who is home is generally expected to show up at the table if a meal is being eaten.  

I’m sure that this will become a greater challenge as the children grow older and gain more independence.  But we still hope to instill in them the importance, the vitality, of sitting down at the table together and sharing a meal.  We hope that this shared time together is one of the ways our children are brought closer together to each other, and closer to us as their parents.

Perhaps something like this is behind Christ’s invitation to all of us to come to this table.  Especially in this particular congregation, there is a wide spectrum of viewpoints: theological, social, political, etc.  One of the practices that I believe does pull us together is this table. It directs our attention together not just to an abstract set of principles, a shared bloodline, or chanting some magical ancient formula, but to a Person.  We are called here to focus on The Person of Christ, by whom all things (and people) were created, and through whom is the only redemption and connection with life eternal.  Through the sacrifice of His body and blood, we have become His body, and we share these elements to remember that sacrifice.

For this is what the Lord himself said, and I pass it on to you just as I received it. On the night when he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, he took the cup of wine after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant between God and you, sealed by the shedding of my blood. Do this in remembrance of me as often as you drink it." For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup, you are announcing the Lord's death until Jesus comes again.


Offering Meditation:

As a family of seven, we hold all things in common.  We have a decision-making structure in mind where, as the children mature, we intend to pay attention to their ideas and growing opinions, including how we use our money.  But ultimately Danielle and I make decisions about how we as a family spend our money, and we are thus the ones held responsible for those decisions.

I see a similar, though of course not identical, structure in our congregation.  As believers mature, their voices are raised in discussions about all matters in the life of the congregation.  As those voices are recognized for their maturity, they are elected to places where they help make decisions for this part of the family of Christ.  And of course they are the ones held responsible for those decisions.

That is an oversimplified picture of the people we are voting for after the worship service, the ones who make decisions on the money put in these plates, that goes into the budget also voted on.  May God be glorified by these gifts, and by the decisions and actions of this congregation, and the leaders of this family.

No Partying in Hell

Hell is permanent separation from any and every comfort we have ever known. Every means we have ever accessed that would remove, soften, or alleviate pain and suffering will be removed from us. Every expression, whether human or divine, that would console us in our agony or desperation will disappear beyond all hope of ever returning. Even our ability to be numbed to continual torture, our ability to internally distance ourselves from endless pain by those internal mechanisms we call "scarring," will vanish. 

All of these coping and comforting mechanisms are gifts of God. When we have chosen separation from the God of all comfort, we have chosen separation from His gifts of comfort as well. 

All this is why I shake my head in sadness at statements like "We're gonna party in Hell!"  It reminds me that what such a person sees as good things represented by the word "party" are really comforts and gifts from God (however inappropriately used they may be).  They seem to see Hell as being the place where rebels are sent, not alone, but with the sum total of the lives they know, as-is.  Under this picture, they would have access to the same things there that they enjoy here. But the reality is that they won't even have those things. They don't understand who God is, the nature of His gifts, or how those good gifts can be misused in a way that separates us from their Giver. 

Finding Hope

Getting out of bed each morning is a choice.  We must decide to put one foot in front of another, to engage in life.  Such a decision needs a foundation.  Why do we choose to step out, to move into the world and make a contribution?  Part of that foundation is inertia, the power of habit.  We may be motivated by the expectations of others around us, or by rewards we hope to receive for our work.

But ultimately, when other reasons fail, when our lives "bottom out," we look for a reason to hope.  When the relationships and mechanisms we had come to rely on finally fall away, when rewards seem less and less likely, what is left?  What reason do we have to go on, to hope that anything positive or true could rise out of the rubble we see?

We need hope.  We don’t need wishful thinking, an empty, floating desire with no basis for confidence that it will actually come to pass.  We don’t need a naive optimism with no rational footing or foundation.  That kind of "hope" is ultimately empty, and certain to disappoint; the only question is how soon the disappointment will come.

None of us can precisely predict every event that will happen.  In a broken, fallen, unpredictable world, how can one hope?  Where can we find a sure basis for hope?

In the salvation story of Scripture we find the answer.  Hope that will not fail must rely on, and point to, something beyond this beautiful, yet flawed and finite, creation. Such a hope must be impervious to our greatest efforts, more perfect than our foulest evil.  The only source of a truly reliable hope is God Himself.

Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, we are offered the opportunity to acknowledge God as Master and Lord, but not with a groveling that leads to despair and anxiety.  Instead, we are offered the promise of God’s Kingdom, in eternity beyond our deaths, to be sure, but also today, here and now.  The Holy Spirit of God Himself comes to live within us, to be the beginning of the proof of the reality of this hope.  The faithfulness of our infinitely powerful God, the sacrifice of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit mean when we lean into His promise of salvation, the Hope that this brings is a hope that cannot fail.

Such a hope becomes the ever-refreshing reason we can lift our eyes, and lift our foot, to take another step forward. Hope based on the promises of God is a resource for the will, strengthening our ability to choose right instead of wrong.  Because it is built on the eternal promises of a faithful, loving God instead of something flimsy and contingent, our hope is not strained or broken by the circumstances of a fallen world. 

As we search for fulfillment and meaning, there are many places we can look and experience the frustration of a failing hope.  But when we let our vision be shaped by the reality of God’s love, and the hope that is undergirded by His promises, we discover a hope that does not fail, but instead a hope that finds.  The hope Christ gives is a finding hope.

Whoever Shows Up

After I graduated from college, I moved into a small apartment within walking distance from campus.  Over the next ten years or so, I continued to make friends with new students, then bid them farewell as they graduated and moved on.  I had those friends over for countless meals, cookies, card games, and deep spiritual discussions.  I was there as they explored their own humanity, dealt with victories and disappointments, and struggled with the big questions (Does God exist?  What is He like?  What career path should I pursue? etc.).

I made a lot of mistakes in those friendships.  I was sometimes heavy-handed, overstating this or that argument.  I had my own emotional weaknesses and struggles, which made it easier for me to cling a little too close, or misread important situations.  But gradually I came to a principle that seemed to work for a healthy way to approach those friendships.

Love is striving to understand what someone really needs, then doing whatever is appropriate for you to do to help that other person's needs to be fulfilled.  It doesn't always mean helping them get what they want.  It doesn't always mean that you'll be the one to actually "do" anything at all.  It won't mean that you understand all of what they need (only God knows that).  What is appropriate for you to do will vary, as well, depending on what your role is in the life of the other person.  

This principle is, for me, flexible enough that I can usually find a way to apply it to anyone I meet.  If I have a brief interaction with someone, say, a checkout person at the grocery store, I only have a tiny window to see into their life, and guess at what their needs are.  I have been given virtually no permission or privilege to speak with any boldness into their life, even if I knew some of their needs.  And my opportunity for face-to-face interaction ends after just a few minutes.  But the command to Love Your Neighbor should push me to try, even in this brief, impersonal interaction, to help this person.

Conversely, my opportunity, privilege, and responsibility increase enormously when you consider the children my wife and I have been given.  We see them all the time, we know tons about them, and bear a huge responsibility for their guidance and development.  Our ongoing burden and privilege is to keep learning about them, keep connecting with them, keep guiding them through their life's journey.  It includes handing out both benefits and discipline.

So this principle guides what I believe we are called to do.  But who do we do it to?  Everyone we meet--whoever shows up.  So when we go to the store, fellow shoppers and cashiers become our neighbors.  When we adopted our children, they became, very profoundly, our neighbors.  

I'm not very good at actually practicing this, by the way.  But it stands as a living principle in my life, pulling me forward, then running behind and kicking me in the butt to push me as well.  Learn the needs, then help to meet them, for whoever shows up.  Love your neighbor.

Getting Started

I have fretted and worried over what to write in this blog for the past month or two.  Burdened with a clear sense of the mistakes I made in my last blog, and painted into a corner by a sense of perfectionism, I have been frozen, finding it impossible to write anything.  So this is my attempt to just get things started.

The View From Here

I have spent my life, as far back as I can remember, trying to take seriously the pursuit and obedience of God.  In the different phases and periods of my life, that has taken different forms, which sometimes stood in contrast to how I attempted the same overall drive in a different part of my life.  But the idea that God is real, and that we, His creatures, should find ways to somehow take Him seriously, has been a fairly constant motivation over the course of my life.

I don't know exactly what form this will take, but I want to use this blog to share with you some parts of my experience of this pursuit.  In the past I have written communion meditations, daily devotions, pop songs, choral church music, and primarily (though mainly privately) journal entries.  I have also taken pictures, performed music, and on rare occasions spoken in public.  All of these, and perhaps more, are possibilities for what this blog may contain.

What I don't want to do is for this to just be a self-gratifying experiment in spilling myself on the digital page.  I really do hope to bless you, for God to bless you, my reader, through these words, music, and images, that ultimately He would be glorified in the process.  I would appreciate your prayers as I attempt to do this, for both your and His benefit.