Uneasy Worship

“I know your works. Look! I have set in front of you an open door that no one can shut.
You have so little power, and yet you have kept my word and haven’t denied my name.”
Revelation 3:8 (Common English Bible)
     Increasingly today people go to church when their lives are uneasy and other resources for restoring calm and order have been exhausted. What they seek from church is a healing balm; they look to be soothed with inspirational music and drugged with holy words that promise security. This romanticized notion of church must be confronted with the facts. Church was never intended to be a stable, smug and conventional purveyor of religious sedatives. The prophet Amos corrects this polished impression of God’s gathered people, “Doom to those resting comfortably in Zion! (Amos 6:1a)
     If the church is called to be uneasy, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is doing something right. There is a deep divide in the present leadership of the church over the Palestinian and Israeli conflict and the question of divesture from companies that are abetting Israeli violation of Palestinians’ human rights. The recent Authoritative Interpretation concerning marriage is viewed as not only an act of dishonesty but as unfaithful to the Church’s own polity while others celebrate the correction of injustice toward persons marginalized by the church. Absent is the stability and assurance many seek within the walls of our sanctuaries.
     The author of Revelation is well acquainted with uneasy worship. Church as an amiable and undisturbed place of comfort is unknown to John. Present is a deep and pervasive uneasiness. It is in the midst of this angst that God speaks a word to John, “Look! I have set in front of you an open door that no one can shut.” God’s people must now decide. They can withdraw from the present discomfort of the church and seek some physical or mental drug to relieve the distress or accept the challenge to new life and hope; to walk through the open door at the invitation of our Lord.
     Acceptance of the Lord’s invitation must begin with a new commitment to spiritual formation. If our shared worship and ministry is to be a springboard for a revival of faith and a renewal of the church, we must place our parched lips once more to the springs of spiritual power that flows from a growing relationship with Jesus. It will be the renewal of what the church only occasionally now calls “piety” that will give rise to a new dynamic for engagement in the secular world. The future of the church depends upon the renewal of faith in the living and active Christ and an uneasy worship that recognizes that the kingdoms of this world are in conflict with the Kingdom of our Lord. God sets before the church an open door that welcomes us to a deeper understanding of God’s will and a greater reception of God’s grace. Moving through that door will demand honestly facing the present uneasiness of the church and the trust that God’s Word is true; that what God opens before us can never be shut.

God\’s Victory in Life\’s Disasters

But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God?
You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it,
 in order to save the lives of many people, just as He’s doing today.”
Genesis 50:19, 20 (Common English Bible)
     Joseph is a man with a large life, a great soul. Never does he dip below God’s highest desires for him. Always a man of considerable dignity, Joseph is humble in service, in a prison or in a palace. His life unfolds as any life does, in circumstances that are both tragic and blessed. His greatness is untarnished, even after years of unjust imprisonment. And in the national crisis that shakes Egypt and brings alarm to the people – a famine of biblical proportions – Joseph seizes the situation with uncommon wisdom and saves the country. He shines in the stiffest test of a great person, the management of prosperity. It is his management here that emphasizes Joseph’s sterling quality and offers a glimpse of the face of God.
     Those qualities that distinguished Joseph are tested at an early age. Joseph incurs the jealously of his older brothers. Desiring that Joseph is removed from the family forever, the brothers sell him into slavery. Now, because of the famine, the older brothers stand before their younger brother once again, this time within Joseph’s power. They come from desperation, cringing, hoping for gracious treatment. Joseph is now on a world’s stage – at least throughout the Egyptian empire. People are watching. More important, God is watching. Joseph’s response to the brothers who once sold him as a slave would be the biggest test of what he is made of. The brothers cared little for Joseph’s welfare when he was young. Now the brother’s welfare was in Joseph’s hands.
     Joseph answers his brother’s plea, “Don’t be afraid. Am I God? You planned something bad for me, but God produced something good from it, in order to save the lives of many people, just as He’s doing today.” Only the greatest of women and men can confess to those who have wronged them that the injury has turned out to an advantage. Joseph rises to such a stature. Joseph’s response is suggestive of two motives for such a grand and expansive heart; two things that help Joseph to forgive.
     First is that Joseph is able to see that God is at work upon those who injured him. “Am I God?” It is as though Joseph is saying that the work of retribution is none of Joseph’s business. It is a dangerous position of heart for anyone to think they are the instrument for God’s justice. There are matters to large for us to assess, turns of the heart of which we are unaware. God always works beyond our understanding in the hearts of others including the hearts of those who have wronged us. Joseph understands this. More, Joseph sees that his brothers are different, that they have changed from the early days when they sold their younger brother as a slave.
     Second, forgiveness is made easy for Joseph because he has the clarity of insight to see how God has handled the wrongs he had suffered. God has taken the evil Joseph’s brother intended and turned it into a blessing for the nation of Egypt. The cruelty Joseph endured did not loom large in his mind, thoughts of revenge occupying his life. The wrong inflicted upon Joseph became the impetuous for a chain of events that would result in his being named Prime Minister of Egypt. God worked ceaselessly and mysteriously to savage the wrong and build a structure of a mighty purpose for Joseph and for the world. Joseph’s clarity of God’s hand in his life, his gratitude and worship of God, swept all bitterness clean out of his life. Joseph’s disaster has given way to God’s victory. Such is the result of wreckage that is placed into the giant grip of God.



Cool Christianity

“They told him, ‘Jesus the Nazarene is passing by.’
The blind man shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, show me mercy.’”
Luke 18:37, 38 (Common English Bible)
     There is a cool, casual note in this familiar story asserts David H. C. Read. Jesus is passing by. He is interrupted by the beggar’s cry. Jesus turns to the beggar, and to the astonishment of everyone asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The question seems utterly ridiculous. Those who are blind rarely blend into a crowd. Blindness is a physical condition that is fairly apparent to anyone paying attention. Here, this man who is blind asks that Jesus show some mercy for him. Yet, Jesus asks what it is that the man wants. Jesus sounds like a young child, adsorbed in a hand-held electronic game only half-listening. Present is the desire to rip the game from the child’s hands and demand that they pay attention when they are being spoken to.
     Our difficulty with this story is how casual Jesus is. Jesus didn’t approach the blind man and offer help. Jesus doesn’t even seem to have noticed the blind man. The story tells us that Jesus was simply passing by. Had the blind man not called-out to Jesus we are left to assume that Jesus would have simply kept walking. What are we to do with a Savior that apparently walks right past such obvious need?
     Perhaps the reason many find this story so troubling, says Read, is that it challenges the prevailing assumption that Jesus has come to help us; that the Christian Church exists for nothing more than to meet the perceived needs of others. What if our assumptions about Jesus and the Church are wrong? What if it is Jesus’ intention here to challenge – and correct – our entire understanding of the purpose of Jesus’ mission?
     Any rethinking with regard to what Jesus is about must take seriously that Jesus did feed the hungry, friend the friendless and heal the sick. Even in this story, Jesus does restore sight to the man who asks for mercy, albeit after the man asks. The mission of the Church is to participate with Jesus in what He did and continues to do today.  So it follows that the Church’s role is to help wherever there is human need. But to follow Jesus authentically demands that we pay attention to the “how” question; the manner in which Jesus cares for human need.
     A careful reading of Jesus’ ministry results in a rather surprising discovery, Jesus comes within reach of human need, but He doesn’t intrude. Absent in Jesus’ ministry is intrusion, or pushing, or arrogance. Jesus comes to meet us in our need but always waits for our movement toward Him. It is important to recall that image of Jesus in the Book of Revelation where He stands at the door and knocks. Notice, Jesus doesn’t intrude by opening the door uninvited. What is meant by “Cool Christianity” is that the way of Christ is always loving concern that prays, that is present and ready to act – but never intrudes.

     An adaptation of a longer sermon by David H. C. Read, former pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York City, by the same title.

Living Water

“But whoever drinks from the water that I will give will never be thirsty again.”
John 4:14a (Common English Bible)
     What a bold claim! “Whoever drinks the water I give will never be thirsty again.” The question presses, does Jesus mean just what He says? Is this a figure of speech that is to be held loosely or is this an absolute truth we can stake our lives on? Jesus is claiming to provide something necessary for life; something we can’t do without.
     What Jesus is promising here is to annihilate our thirst of the soul, a thirst which is now the source of so much anxiety and pain. Pause to grasp the significance of this claim. Jesus is making the claim to have the power to appease all that causes us to be unsettled. Jesus removes the threat of forces and circumstances that diminish life.
    What is the thirst of the soul? Is it not a thirst for assurance; the assurance that the fears which trouble the heart and fears which occupy the mind will not defeat us? We are familiar with these fears. They accelerate the pulse and stir a tossing restlessness in the night. Some may state the condition more urgently, an experience of panic and dread. Jesus promises to annihilate the dread and remove the threat. Jesus gives assurance.
     Jesus is the fountain that is never depleted. Rivers have their seasons of drought. Springs run dry. Other resources fail us. They lack the ability to sustain us consistently. Their uncertainty aggravates the very thirst they profess to relieve. Jesus announces that He is the eternal spring; the living water. It will be in Him that our souls find rest and contentment and abiding peace.

Ministry of Imagination

“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader.
He came to Jesus at night and said to Him,
‘Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher who has come from God,
for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with Him.’”
John 3:1, 2 (Common English Bible)
     Nicodemus calls the church to a ministry of imagination. A Pharisee, Nicodemus departs from the narrow, walled-in sectarian views of his colleagues and comes to Jesus in sympathetic inquiry. Perhaps Nicodemus is weary of the wooden, cramping and belittling understanding of the Bible that limits fellowship with others of another point of view. Perhaps Nicodemus fears that barriers of thought and divisions in the fellowship of faith can produce nothing higher than spiritual dwarfs. Perhaps Nicodemus simply wishes for a more expansive and imaginative faith and believes that Jesus can offer the necessary nutriment. For whatever reason, Nicodemus comes to Jesus.
     A large faith, a full-grown faith, must borrow from others. The genius of maturity is the recognition that a wider vision of this life demands the stimulus of thought found in another’s wealth. No one discovers adequate nourishment for their own development within the poverty of self-centeredness and narrow-mindedness. If we are to exercise ourselves in the wider vision of imagination – as does Nicodemus – we must listen sympathetically to understandings not our own. Otherwise we exist only in an echo chamber, our thought never growing, never expanding. It is well documented that even Shakespeare fetched his water of inspiration from the wells of other great thinkers and writers.
     J. H. Jowett reflects that one’s life, thinking and theology will remain comparatively dormant unless it is breathed upon by the bracing influence of fellowship of thought that is beyond our own. Communion with viewpoints on every side, viewpoints to both the left and right of our own grasp of the Bible and the world of thought, lifts our powers for imagination. It is in a grand and inquisitive imagination that our faith discovers strength and grand proportions. It is where we acknowledge that Jesus is more than anyone can ever fully grasp.
     It would be well if persons of faith were to exercise the same imaginative curiosity of Nicodemus. A sincere recognition of another’s position, appreciation for another’s point of view and discovery of another’s purpose and aim in faith strengthens the fellowship of church. Rather than “leaving the table” when disagreements of faith arise perhaps it would be a richer and more spacious church if we recall that largest common denominator that has always held the people of faith together, the Lordship of Jesus Christ.