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    Wednesday
    Sep142016

    Living What We Know

    In Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton writes:

    A purely mental life may be destructive if it leads us to substitute thought for life and ideas for actions. The activity proper to man is not purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind. Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.

    When Merton speaks of "man" he addresses all of humankind, both male and female, who are equally adept at the substitutions described above. Within the same chapter, Merton states, "Spiritual life is not mental life. It is not thought alone. Nor is it, of course, a life of sensation, a life of feeling--'feeling' and experiencing the things of God, and the things of the spirit."

    This understanding of the spiritual life does not exclude the mind or emotions. Merton states plainly, "It needs both." Spiritual life is human life, and encompasses every aspect of our being. Merton writes, "If man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit. Everything must be elevated and transformed by the action of God, in love and faith."

    Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets by saying that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and spoke a parallel command to love one's neighbor as oneself. Love directed toward God leads to proper self-love that overflows to those around us. Both Jesus' exegesis of the Old Testament and his sequencing is significant. When the entire self is directed toward God and then metamorphosized by God's grace, the natural result is action.

    Action within the spiritual life is characterized by living what we know. What we know is the God who has decisively been revealed in and through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In John 17:3, Jesus says, "Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."

    In John 20:21, the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples as he has been sent. To encounter the resurrected Christ is to be incorporated into his action, his mission. Jesus is no longer a concept, but the living Lord who calls us to act as agents in his eternal kingdom, which is our newfound reality.

    God's action always precedes our own. It is grace that initiates, sustains, and brings our faith to completion. Grace also calls, activates, empowers, and sends us forth to act as servants of Jesus Christ. Knowing him, may we live what we know.

    Tuesday
    Sep132016

    Prayer: Making the Familiar Strange

    In The Work of Theology, Stanley Hauerwas argues “that a theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange.” Writing theological sentences that accomplish this aim is good but difficult work. Hauerwas writes, “I have the sense that few of us have thought about the conditions necessary to write a theological sentence that has the potential to make readers stop and rethink what they thought they think.”

    I recently completed Karl Barth’s brilliant lectures on the Lord’s Prayer, and I was struck by how his writings fit the criteria offered by Hauerwas. The familiar became strange, I stopped, and I rethought what I think. I concluded that Barth’s writing on prayer was compelling not only because it was theological, but because all too often the sentences became prayer. Barth moves seamlessly from addressing “we” and “us” to “Thee” and “Thou.” In doing so, I found my prayer joining with Barth’s prayer; his petition became my own.

    In Barth’s introductory remarks he offers several observations. His exploration of prayer will draw from the Reformers: Luther, Calvin, and the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism. Barth writes, “The Reformation appears to us as a great whole: a labor of research, thinking, preaching, polemic, and organization.” However, “it was more than all that.”

    Barth continues by claiming that the Reformation “was an act of continuous prayer, an invocation.” He adds that the Reformation was also “an act of human beings, of certain persons, and at the same time a response on the part of God.” The Reformation consisted in great action (research, thinking, preaching, etc.), but the fundamental action undergirding it all was the act of prayer.

    Barth warns that the weaknesses of any age may be the result of those failing to heed words like those of Luther, who wrote, “For we know that our defense lies in prayer alone. We are too weak to resist the Devil and his vassals...For what has carried off these great victories over the undertakings of our enemies which the Devil has used to put us in subjection, if not the prayers of certain pious people who rose up as a rampart to protect us?” With that one well chosen quotation, Barth convicts and challenges. Who, in our time, is our rampart? Who stands in the gap? Is it I? And who among us, outwardly seeking a gospel movement, is inwardly a true person of prayer?

    For those who feel “familiar” with prayer, Barth makes the familiar strange. He reminds us that prayer is a “problem,” for “How is it possible for me to have an encounter with God?” To pray, Barth says, “is a grace, an offer of God.” It is also an “altogether simple act by which we accept and use the divine offer; an act in which we obey this command of the majestic grace that identifies itself with the will of God.” Barth clearly reminds us that prayer is possible because of Jesus Christ, who has made us his brothers and sisters within the family of God.

    Barth writes:

    God is the Father of Jesus Christ, and that very man Jesus Christ has prayed, and he is praying still. Such is the foundation of our prayer in Jesus Christ. It is as if God himself has pledged to answer our request because all our prayers are summed up in Jesus Christ; God cannot fail to answer, since it is Jesus Christ who prays.

    What follows is an interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus invites us to pray. Prayer is not only a command, it is an invitation. Jesus has instructed us, and also accompanies us in the praying of this prayer. Barth writes, “Jesus Christ invites, permits, commands us to join him, especially in his intercession with the Father.”

    Barth examines the Invocation, the Six Petitions, and the Doxology of the Lord’s Prayer. At every turn he makes the familiar strange. He makes the reader rethink what they thought in praying the Lord’s Prayer. His sentences do the work.

    In the invocation, “Our Father,” Barth reminds us that we may address God as such because of Jesus Christ. Barth writes “We are his children, he is our Father, by virtue of this new birth realized at Christmas, on Good Friday, at Easter, and fulfilled at the moment of our baptism.” We petition our Father “who art in heaven.” Barth reminds us that God “is in heaven, on his throne,” and it is through him that we have freedom, which includes the freedom to enter God’s presence.

    When we pray for the hallowing of God’s name, for the kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done, we seek to align ourselves with God’s action as it has been revealed in Jesus Christ. The world belongs to God, the cause of redemption is his, and the fulfillment of his purposes is the result of his initiative. We cannot accomplish this on our own. This is why we pray. Barth writes, “We pray so that we might receive the power to show this great joy and this great peace of which we so often speak. May this joy and this peace be noticeable. We pray in order that the Christian arrogance and ignorance and unbelief with which we daily dishonor thee may be a bit arrested, a little suppressed.”

    Our prayer for daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from temptation are admissions of dependence on God, as well as expressions of simple trust in God’s provision. Barth observes that in the Old and New Testaments “‘the word ‘bread’ is also the temporal sign of God’s eternal grace.” Barth goes further, saying “each meal, whether it be modest or sumptuous is something sacred, for it is the promise of an eternal banquet, of an everlasting feast.” To  ask for bread is to remind ourselves, again and again, that we are dependent creatures.

    Beyond our need for bread is our need for forgiveness. While we may be unsure of where our next meal may come from, our forgiveness is a certain, established fact. Barth writes, “What God’s forgiveness is must be clearly understood. Here it is not a question of an uncertain hope, of an ideal to be sought or imagined...Forgiveness is already given, and this is the reality in which we live.”

    We are forgiven because of what God has accomplished in and through Jesus Christ, the one who has reconciled us to God, atoned for our sin, and secured our hope. Barth writes, “In thy Son thou hast exchanged roles between thyself, the holy and just God, and us, perfidious and unjust human beings...Thou has obeyed and suffered for us; thou hast abolished our faults, the faults of all humankind. And thou hast done it once and for all.”

    Our petition for forgiveness leads us to forgive those who sin against us. We do so as those empowered by the Holy Spirit. And we ask for God’s help in resisting temptation. In the cross of Christ, the Devil has been defeated and his powers have been broken. Barth reminds us that we do not overcome the Devil through our own “moral and religious excursions,” but by the power of God. Because of this, glory be to God! Barth writes, “Thou hast loved us; thou still lovest us. And thy love is efficacious. It delivers once and for all.”

    Barth, by making the familiar strange, brings us into an encounter with the one commanding us to pray. For those so moved, those wishing to respond to God’s gracious action by the practice of prayer, new possibilities emerge, and not only for the individual but also for the church. And we may enter these new possibilities, not because we are determined, but because God has graciously sought and redeemed us through Jesus Christ. Prayer, thus, is the response of a glad heart joined to God. It is not a duty, but a delight. It is not only a privilege, but a service of the saints.

    We worship a God who hears, yet God is greater than our petitions. As Barth reminds us, “The most certain element of our prayer is not our requests, but what comes from God: his response.” Because of this we remain confident. We anticipate God’s redemptive future. We celebrate God’s salvation secured for us in Christ.

    And presently, we pray, “Our Father…”

    Monday
    Sep122016

    First Seven Jobs

    The #firstsevenjobs hashtag emerged several weeks ago on Twitter. The Atlantic wrote about it. I enjoyed it. I have had fourteen jobs that I can count. I have probably had more.

    Here is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s list:

    Bill Shakespeare:

    Buzz Aldrin:

    My list:

    1. Lawn Care Worker
    2. Retail Clerk
    3. Day Camp Counselor
    4. Grocery Warehouse Worker (Pallet-Man)
    5. Youth Ministry Intern/Interim Youth Pastor
    6. Student Aide - Department of Religion
    7. Children’s Ministry Intern

    Since then I have worked as an associate children’s minister, a barista, a youth pastor, a writer, a lawn care worker, and as a youth and college pastor. Now I am back to being a writer.

    Jeff Sharlet asked a question (serious or not, I cannot tell), as to whether or not #firstsevenjobs was a middle class thing where people claimed “Horatio Alger cred” prior to having “made good” in later occupations. That could be the case, I guess.

    But I took it as a narrative that tells us not everyone ends up where they began, and many people share similar beginnings. Many of us worked the same summer jobs. Someone kindly gave us a shot and helped us learn what it means to work.

    In one of my first job interviews I told a Best Buy manager that I wanted to work in the warehouse because I preferred being behind the scenes and didn't really enjoy working with people. After that answer, the interview quickly drew to a close and I never received a call back. I wonder why.

    I learned from that experience.

    I learned a little about working hard while sweating under the sun and cuttin’ grass, and I learned a great deal about good (and bad) management while working for Service Merchandise. My earliest experiences in ministry taught me about myself (I have been given some gifts and possess very real limits), but also about the basic nuts and bolts involved in good systems work and in developing personal relationships with people that are defined by love. I learned this through successes and failures. I have made a lot of mistakes.

    I think I am still learning a lot about work. And I am still searching for the right “job,” whatever that might mean.

    For now I am working on becoming the kind of person who will bless others, always. I won't be idle while doing so. I do have goals. We are a two vocation household and there is a way of being married, given that consideration, that we are still in the process of figuring out. Molly and I want to be responsible and generous wherever we may find ourselves in ministry.

    Have thoughts on work? An odd job or anecdote? Leave a comment.

    Friday
    Sep092016

    Read Along: New Project Available Monday

    Friends:

    This coming Monday my latest project will be available online. First United Methodist Church of Mansfield, Texas will feature my writings for their Daily First 15, a devotional resource for all people. I really enjoyed writing the entries and took up the task prayerfully.

    First Mansfield begins a six week series of sermons this weekend called "Family Meeting." They will reflect upon their mission, refocus on their values, and align their energies as they move forward into the future. That is a very wise thing to do. I am very thankful Pastor David Alexander gave me the opportunity to write and encourage his congregation as they seek God's next step for their community.

    God works through broken vessels; he also calls churches to greater faithfulness, health, and fruitfulness. My hope is that these next several weeks at Mansfield will be a pivotal moment in their church's rich history, and their people will make commitments that will continue to make a difference for generations to come.

    The devotional entries will follow themes being presented through sermons and in small group settings, but they are accessible to a broader audience. If you would like to follow along please visit the church's website and click the subscribe button in the upper right. The devotional publishes six days a week--Monday through Saturday. My entries will begin on Monday, September 12 and will wrap up on Saturday, October 22.

    Hope you will read along. I hope the entries will help. If so, let me know and feel free to share.

    Yours,

    BAS

    Tuesday
    Sep062016

    Follow Up on the Execution of Jeff Wood

    On August 17, 2016 I posted this message concerning the pending execution of Jeff Wood.

    On August 19, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted Wood a stay of execution.

    Here is an excerpt from this CNN report:

    On his 43rd birthday, Wood received news that the execution was halted.

    The two-page order sent two arguments from the defense to the trial court for resolution.

    One of the claims argued "false and misleading testimony" was presented by the prosecuting side's psychiatrist and it was in violation of due process. The other claimed the judgment also violates due process because it was based on false scientific evidence through "false psychiatric testimony concerning (Wood's) future dangerousness."

    And here is a reaction from Baptist News Global.

    I will continue to pray for Jeff Wood and the Texas justice system. May we do what is right, and be found a merciful people.