Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Trinity

I wish a picture could convey the play of light and shadow on each blossom as they dance in the breeze.

Doggy Bloggy

Check out my little office mate:
When I got a dog, this is what I pictured as the ideal outcome -
that he would curl up and sleep peacefully while I worked.
Some dreams do come true.
(I wonder what he's dreaming about right now?)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Surprised by Joy (Thanks CS Lewis)

Spring has finally come, don't you think?
Outside my office window, a HUGE red poppy opened up today. It's spectacular.

Doing a little sermon prep, I ran across this poem, which I hope will touch your heart with a little springtime/resurrection joy:

The Revival
Unfold! Unfold! Take in His light,

Who makes thy cares more short than night.

The joys which with His day-star rise

He deals to all but drowsy eyes;

And, what the men of this world miss

Some drops and dews of future bliss.

Hark! How His winds have chang’d their note!

And with warm whispers call thee out;

The frosts are past, the storms are gone,

And backward life at last comes on.

The lofty groves in express joys

Reply unto the turtle’s voice;

And here in dust and dirt, O here

The lilies of His love appear!

by Welsh poet and physician Henry Vaughan (1621–1695)

(That poem was first posted on - which I look at almost everyweek to see what someone else is thinking about the lectionary passages. This essay was posted in 2006.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fixing Lucky

I took the dogs to the vet today. Chief for his yearly shots, Lucky for that once in a lifetime "fixing" that Bob Barker and I agree all dogs need and deserve.
Before surgery, I said to the vet, "Now, Doctor, I brought Chief in last year because his dew claws needed removing, and when I came to pick him up, the price was double what I was expecting because you'd quoted me the rate for removing ONE dew claw. So I just want to make sure that you and I are agreed that today, you're removing BOTH Lucky's testicles." And he assured me it was a two for one price.
Lucky did fine. Time alone will tell if this "fixes" him.

Dancing Sermon

Sermon on Micah
May 25, 2008
Rhythm of Faith

Not too long ago, I gave Tim a really good Christmas present. The kind of Christmas present every man wants: I signed us up for ballroom dancing lessons. He was a terrific sport about it, but he did say that it sort of reminded him of the time as a budding young percussionist, he really, really wanted a Gene Krupa vs. Buddy Rich album called “Great Drum Battles” So he gave it to his mother for Mother’s Day.
The dancing lessons were very wonderful. We learned alot, though how to dance was not one of those things. But I still remember, from the first lesson, when hope was still alive and kicking in my heart, one of the things the instructor told us: You have two feet. Moving is possible only if you put your weight on one foot and then the other. Each step: One foot down, the other foot moves. Then you shift your weight and the first foot moves. Right. Left. Right. Left. That’s the basis for all dance.
What I want you to think with me about today is the idea that maybe our spiritual life, our relationship with God, our Dance with the Lord of the Dance, if you will go that far with me, is a matter of shifting the weight of our attention.
In looking at Micah, I think that he was a good dancer. Because, throughout his short little book, Micah moves between pronouncements of doom and promises of deliverance. These are kind of like footsteps. They aren’t of equal length. This isn’t a march. But the alternating emphasis moves the reader forward, toward understanding something both interesting and precious about ourselves and our divine partner, God.
There are two basic steps to the dance Micah teaches:
The first step is the step of judgment - of emphasizing the “bad news” about human beings and the rotten way we act. Now, this is the part that no one wants to hear, about how our lives are a mess because we’ve disrespected God and treated other people like dirt. No one wants to hear that. And preachers, most preachers, don’t want to preach that. So we say it very carefully, or not at all, or . . . and this is the easiest way to handle this step – we talk about how OTHER people have done the bad things and we talk about OTHER bad things than what we think you have done. In thinking about it this week, I’ve decided that’s not preaching. That’s gossiping. And it’s fun, but it’s not something you ought to hear from the pulpit. So let me say this. Micah didn’t mince words. And he wasn’t talking about somebody else. And, as much as I want to please you, I think that we who are sitting in this congregation this morning need to hear this bad news, too.
Micah’s prophecy was spoken in a very particular situation - a particular historical context - during the time after the Northern Kingdom of Israel had fallen completely under Assyrian control and before the Southern Kingdom - Judah, fell. At the time the first part of Micah’s book is written, the huge and seemingly unstoppable Assyrian war machine is marching inexorably toward Jerusalem. By the time the end of this book was written, a new power, Babylonia, actually stepped in to finish the job. All of which is to say that Micah spoke to a people in the midst of great danger.
And this national crisis alerted Micah to the fact that the people had strayed far from the path God intended for them: There were sins against God: spiritual unfaithfulness and idolatry. There were sins against each other: covetousness, injustice, exploitation of the poor. And what Micah is so good at pointing out is that these things are linked. This isn’t a case of some very religiously scrupulous folks acting badly toward their neighbors. Nor was it that some very nice people with business and personal ethics had just let their attendance at their place of worship slide. No. Micah makes sure his listeners and readers know that our relationship with God and our relationship with other human beings is linked. The life of faith is a life of integrity. There’s not little compartment for religion or spirituality and a little compartment for good manners. It’s all of one piece.
That’s still true. The life of faith is now, no less than it was 2500 years ago, of one piece. God, through Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit has called us to a life of faith and love with the Divine and AND that life includes relationships of respect and love for other human beings.
You can’t be a Bible believing Christian when it comes to the power of prayer and an agnostic when it comes to money. You can’t be a spiritual giant when praying for your friends, but an atheist when it comes to dealing with strangers. You can’t take part of the Bible literally, when it suits you, but interpret other parts with an eye to context and overall meaning, when THAT suits you. You can’t do it.
Or . . . truth of the matter is, you can. We all do. We pick and choose in what areas of our life we’re going to take the Bible and Jesus seriously, and where we’re gonna just sort of . . . pass.
And our spiritual lives suffer for it.
And our communities and our nations suffer, too. Micah pointed out to his nation that their mistreatment of the poor and the powerless had ended up weakening the whole system. Seeking after prosperity rather than the will of God had brought them to the brink of disaster. Micah put a lot of weight on the pronouncement of doom and judgment. Imagine what he would say to us today. About the greed that has led to the mortgage crisis. About the coming of $140/barrel oil to our car crazy country. About our demonstrated preference for cheap clothes and cheap food over the welfare of the workers who process it or the earth that produces it. About the richest nation in the world tolerating a health care system that makes doesn’t take care of millions of poor people, and that bankrupts those who have no insurance. About eating off plates and drinking out of cups ONCE that then become trash FOREVER. About idly sitting by while our government spends billions of dollars on a war and worrying about whether we’ll kick poor old people out of the county home.
Because we don’t live lives of faith full of integrity that make us grow strong and make our communities and our nation and our world strong and safe, there is always the need for that one foot - the foot of judgment and doom - to bear the weight sometimes. Because we need to admit and amend and atone for our spiritual sins and our failure of compassion.
When the doom foot is bearing the weight, it is because God is challenging our most treasured assumptions and pointing out that we, ourselves, are stumbling.
So that’s what Micah’s doing: He’s pointing out that the people are not walking with integrity in the way of the Lord, and he’s offering them a chance to wise up and wake up and get themselves back on the right track.

And then he gets off that foot and follows it up with promises of deliverance, hope and redemption. Every step of doom that Micah stomps down on his hearers’ toes, is followed by a shift to the promise of God’s steadfast and redeeming love. See - after the first two chapters are almost all “Woe to you. You’ve disrespected God. You’ve exploited the poor. “From a harlot’s handbag you have come and to a harlot’s handbag you shall go.” And you know where you go in a handbag, don’t you?
Then - the last two verses of chapter 2 turn it all around. “ “
It’s a quick step. Because chapter 3 is all doom again. But chapters 4 and 5 contain some of the most comforting words and images of God’s peace that can be found in the Bible:
Nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
But they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees
and no one shall make them afraid.
The promise of God’s grace and peace is extended, not to a perfect people at a perfect time. It is extended to the people who have just had a wake-up call.
Chapter Six goes back to judgment and accusation - indeed, God takes his people to court, files a grievance against them for forgetting him after all he has done.
And the verdict is - guilty! Guilty of excessive wealth, violence, lying, cheating - the works. (Micah 6:14-15)The sentence: You shall eat and not be satisfied. You shall put away, but not save. You shall work, but not enjoy the fruits of your labor. If that doesn’t describe a whole lot of living, I don’t know what does. (Repeat if necessary)
Then - again, the other shoe drops - and God again assures us that at the very heart of his character and personality is not anger and vengence, but compassion and steadfast love. v. 18 - who is a God like ours, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the those who remain true? God does not retain his anger forever because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; and will (get this dancing language!) tread our iniquites under foot. God will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.
Back and forth, doom and deliverance, sin and salvation, first one and then the other. Don’t we ever just get to rest in the grace? Well. Not in this life. I don’t think so. We don’t ever become the people God created us to be. The older I get, the less I believe in progress. But the more I believe in God’s grace filled dance.
What this means for us is that the judgment that we so hate to hear is not the final word - but a necessary prelude to a new understanding and appreciation for God’s grace.
For Christians, that new understanding of God’s grace and forgiveness became complete in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What Micah has a vision of in a poetic way - the word of God emanating from Jerusalem, a Shepherd who gathers his people like lost sheep, and leads them to salvation, a King who rules with equity. . . Micah’s prophecy grows out of his knowledge of God’s loving heart. And 300-500 years after Micah’s book was complete, the time came for that loving heart to beat in a human chest. God to become incarnate in Jesus Christ, who embodied both God’s judgment and the fullness of God’s love for us, his people.
One step and then another. The pronouncement of doom and the promise of deliverance. It was a dance that carried him from the cradle to the cross, and beyond death, back to life again.
And at every step along the way, he beckons us to join him in this divine dance.
One more dancing story: Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I had a boyfriend who did dance. He asked me to go dancing and I said yes, and when we got to the place, the couples out there on the floor were doing real steps, and doing the over and under, throw the girl our and reel her back in thing. They were dancing. And I said, “You know, I don’t know how to dance like this.” And he said, “That’s OK.” And we went out on the floor, and . . . I did NOT know how to dance like that. And after about 30 seconds, my partner stopped and held me at arm’s length and said, very loudly, so as to be heard above the music, “Let’s get something straight: When two people dance, only one can lead. And that person is going to be me.” And, lo and behold, once we got that straight, I found that I could dance.
And that’s something to keep in mind when you put yourselves into God’s arms and join the dance. If you let God lead, wonderful things can happen.
I love the Shaker hymn, which isn’t in the hymnbook - but you know the one I mean: Dance then, where ever you may be. I am the Lord of the Dance, said he, and I’ll lead you now, where ever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Don't Kill the Messenger

I'm preaching on Micah this week.  Micah is a "minor" prophet.  That means he wrote a short book and we don't know much about him.  But it is a good short book.  And I'm trying to write a good short sermon.  
The problem:  Micah contains long stretches of judgment and condemnation of the people he addresses.  He points out, in vivid and realistic detail, just how selfish and idolatrous and nasty they have become.  And nobody wants to hear that.  
So why say it?  Because if the people didn't come to terms with the mess they had put themselves in, they could never hear how God was going to deliver them from that mess.  So the bad news has to be heard before the Good News means anything.
And this is the problem with having a preacher like me.  No.  This is the problem with 
BEING a preacher like me:  I don't like conveying the bad news part of this bad news/Good News message.  And (at least I think this is true) no one wants to hear that part either.  Unless it is about somebody else.  In which case, it isn't bad news, it is good gossip.  But gossiping from the pulpit seems kind of tacky.  So . . .  what to do, what to do, what to do . . . 

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Value of Scholarship

Part of a pastor's job is to study.  I mean books and journal articles, and Biblical commentaries and theology and . . . stuff.  I like that part of my job very much.  As I prepare for my duties as a commissioner at General Assembly, studying has consumed slightly more of my time than usual. 
I hope (and believe) that the payoff for the congregation will come down the line.   In the meantime, I haven't been getting out of the office all that much.
But a couple of weeks ago, while visiting the hospital, I had an encounter that reminded me that "scholarship" is not a universally appreciated vocation.  It happened when I noticed that the BloodMobile was parked at the entrance to Carle.  Now, I'd given blood in January (annual meeting day) in Philo.  Literally.  I gave blood.  But now it was May, and time that I could give again, so I climbed aboard and bared my vein.  
The woman who was taking the blood made the usual chit-chat with me.  I know that they are trained to do that so that the donor stays nice and relaxed.  And I appreciate it.  Giving blood is very easy, but I don't like to think about it while I'm doing it.  
So our conversation starts with the Central Illinois earthquake and quickly moves to other earthquake zones.  I volunteer that my son lives in Los Angeles, where temblors are relatively frequent.  She asks, "What does he do in LA?"  
I answer, "He's getting his Ph.D at UCLA."
She says, "Oh wow!  What's his field?"
I say, "English Literature."
She frowns, just a bit.  "What's he going to do when he gets out?"
"He's going to be a college professor."
She nods and thinks for a moment.  Clearly, this answer has challenged her extensive repertoire of optimistic responses.  "Well" she finally says sympathetically as she pats my hand.  "There's really nothing wrong with that." 
Which cracked me up.  'Cause I could tell she thought there wasn't really all that much  right with it either.   

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sermon for "Graduation" Sunday - May 18

The text 2 Corinthians 13:5-14 from The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson
You can link right to it if you want!

Quick! What’s your favorite part of graduation? The commencement speaker! Of course! All over the country, people are dressing up in funny gowns, gathering in auditoriums and theaters and sports arenas, to hear their name called so they can walk across that stage. But first! They have to listen to someone give them words of wisdom and his or her perspective on life. The commencement speaker.
It is a tradition for schools to get some well known politician or public figure: Oprah is speaking at Stanford. I have a feeling that will be good. George Bush is speaking lots of places – from Greensburg, KS high school to the Air Force Academy and Furman College.
There’s some disappointment among some hoity toity Hahvahd grads this year – JK Rollings – the author of Harry Potter is going to be their speaker. One graduate said, “I feel cheated. When I look back at my commencement, I want to be reminded of something I was a part of. I don't want to think of Harry Potter."
Well, I have news for her: I’ve graduated a bunch of times, and I can barely even remember who the commencement speaker was, much less if they “reminded me of something I was a part of”. And shouldn’t someone who is graduating from Hahvahd say, “something of which I was a part”???
The most controversial speaker is at a law school in Illinois. Northwestern Law School has asked Jerry Springer to be give their commencement address. That could be interesting. Or really, really bad.
Well. I bring all this up, because on the Sunday in which we recognize significant milestones in the lives of some of our young people, I opened up the Bible and found that one of the lectionary passages sounded – for all the world, like a commencement address, given by Paul. It contains wise advice, cautions against the folly of inexperience, and offers encouragement to go out into the world and live a life worthy to be praised.
So let’s look at what Paul has to say as we celebrate these students’ transitions to exciting new stages of life:
Paul begins by harkening back to school – specifically to that feature of school life that many of us learned to dread: No. Not school lunch! Tests.
Many people think that when they leave school, they are leaving behind the palm sweating, stomach knotting ordeal of taking tests. What everyone soon learns, however, is that the test you take in school are the easy ones. Those of us who have been graduated for a long time absolutely LONG for a good, multiple choice, fill in the bubble standardized test. Because the test that come outside of school are the really tough ones. . . .
Paul says that the most important test is one that you can give yourself: “Test yourself”, he writes, in fact, “Give yourself regular checkups.” This is a test that you will take over and over again in life. And this test has only one question: – Is Christ in you?

In your relationships with your friends, teammates, family – is the love of Christ in you?
In your relationships with irritating people – jerks and enemies – is the patience of Christ in you?
In your relationships with people who are weaker than you – is the compassion of Christ in you?
In your relationships with people who are strong and think might means right – is the courage of Christ in you?

This isn’t an essay test – words don’t mean all that much. This is more like the President’s Physical Fitness Test: It is active. It is based on your heart’s capacity and your actual physical effort. Test yourselves often. Is Christ in you?

“If you fail the test” sometimes, as we all do, “then do something about it.” What can we do if we realize we’ve gotten an F in Faith?
Talk it over with God. Talk it over with someone you trust from Church. Make amends to the person you have hurt. And then plan how what you are going to do differently next time.
Remember that we are pulling for you. And God is pulling for you. We want you to succeed. And to us, success isn’t straight A’s or trophies or scholarships or rank in class. Success is when your strength develops and God’s truth triumphs in your life. Paul says, we hope it all comes together for you. I like that phrase – we hope it all comes together for you. At each stage of life, we are gathering little bits of knowledge, little bits of experience, little bits of perspective, little bits of practice. And what we hope is that as we go along, we can put it together, assemble the pieces, into something beautiful and good.
Paul elaborates on what getting it together would look like:
First, he says, – Be cheerful. Some stages of life are easier to cultivate cheerfulness than others. But you have the joy of God in your heart and look at all the people who love you. Remember the ones who have cheerfully greeted you and taken an interest in you. Let the thought of Jim or Marlene put a smile on your face. Remember Roger. Remember Mary Simon’s little Christmas presents after the pageant. Remember that we love you. Be cheerful.
Keep things in good repair – it’s easier to maintain things than to have to have a massive “cleanup” effort when you’ve let them go to hell. Army is known for this – uniforms clean, spit polish, policing your area every day. The thing is, that’s true spiritually too. Keep your lines of communication open with God. Keep your most important relationships in good repair.
Keep your spirits up – Each of us has a spiritual gift. Keeping your spirits up means continuing to use and develop your spiritual gift. Amanda, you have the spiritual gift of listening. – Keep it up!
Hannah, you have a gift for music – Keep it up! Connor, you have such a spirit of friendliness – Keep it up! Matthew, you have what I’d call a spirit of industry. That just means you are not afraid of hard work. Keep it up!
And Donny – you have such a wonderful gift of gentleness. Keep it up!
Whatever spiritual gift you have: Strength of body or mind
Deep thinking – Gentleness - Generosity
Making wise decisions - Keep it up!
Whatever gifts God has given you – Keep it up!
Then Paul says, Think in harmony and be agreeable. Now harmony is not possible if you are singing a solo. It takes several people singing together to make harmony. Same thing with agreement. If you agree with yourself, that’s not saying much. Agreements are between people, a feature of groups of people. So this part is about being a part of something bigger than yourself, namely, US.
You are not going up into the next stage of life all alone. Hannah and Connor, You are not going into Unity Jr. Hi as a single, isolated individuals. You are not going into Unity High School as the Lone Ranger, Matthew. Donny, you are not headed to Basic Training as an Army of One – no matter what the recruiter told you. And, Amanda, when your parents drop you off, and you wave goodbye and watch them drive away. You are still not alone. You are part of . . . a great cloud of witnesses, the body of Christ, you are a vine rooted in Christ, you are a part of the family of God here at Philo Presbyterian. Our love and prayers go with you. You will be part of what we do while you are at school and away. And what you do affects us. Don’t forget who you are. Remember, you are one of us through Jesus Christ our Lord. “Do that, and the God of Love and Peace will go with you for sure.”
Now the thing about commencement speeches is that they are imminently forgettable. Tim and I were talking about commencement speakers and he told me that he remembered only one thing from any speech he heard at any of his several graduations. His eighth grade graduation speaker said, “You probably won’t remember anything I say today.” And that’s all Tim does remember. Well – if you forget, at least you have Bibles, you can look this up.
But most of all, just remember this, that we love you. And
So we give you a hug of congratulations. Send you on your way with love. And
“The amazing grace of the Master, Jesus Christ, the extravagant love of God, the intimate friendship of the Holy Spirit, will be and go with you always.” Amen.

The Song I Heard that I Think You'll Like

I think I'm going to sing "Your Place in My Heart" for the children's sermon this morning. You can hear the songwriter sing it better here:

Saturday Shopping

Yesterday, I pulled into the strip mall from a different direction and as I was headed to the grocery story, I passed a storefront that had a sign taped above the door: "Total Consignment".
On the look out for a dresser that we can refinish for the Women in Transition project that the church has taken on, I thought I'd stop and see if maybe there was one on consignment that might work.
So I parked the car and walked up to the place. I could see through the window a set of wire shelves. And when I opened the door, I entered a sort of disorganized space that seemed to be full of used resteraunt furniture. There was a booth and two or three tables with chairs. The funny thing was, people were sitting around the tables, playing some sort of game. They were using cards, but not a regular deck. My guess is that they were dungeons and dragons cards, but I'm not really sure. Anyway, none of the people in this room looked up from their game. I could see another room behind this one, so I walked in there. And, sure enough, it too was full of people sitting around tables, playing this game. Nobody spoke to me. No one asked if they could help me. I turned around and walked out. And I thought, "Well, that's not the place for me. I sorta wonder what was going on in there. Hmmm." And I went on about my business.
And I wonder if that's what happens at church sometimes. People wander in, looking for something they could use. They think, "Maybe this place has what I need." So they come in, and look around, and everybody is playing some sort of game the visitor doesn't quite understand. Nobody acknowledges them. Nobody asks why they came. They can see that they don't belong, and they don't see what they were looking for anyway. So they leave and think, "Hmmm. I kinda wonder what was going on there. Oh well. I've got better things to think about."

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Can I Get a Witness?

This sermon was enhanced by the use of a vintage recording of the Perry Mason theme song. You'll have to use your imagination.

Sixth Sunday of Easter
John 14:15-21
I Peter 3: 13-20
Acts 17: 22-31

(Perry Mason theme up)
What’s that music bring to mind? That’s right! Perry Mason!
Perry Mason. Movies and TV shows like Perry Mason: 12 Angry Men. To Kill a Mockingbird. Witness for the Prosecution. Anatomy of a Murder. Kramer vs. Kramer. Law and Order. Ironsides. LA Law. The O.J. Trial. The People’s Court. Judge Judy.
Courtroom dramas are a staple part of American arts and entertainment. There is something innately engaging about the justice system and how it works. I’m not sure what makes it so fascinating, but it must have something to do with the fact that every case is a contest, two sides, opposing interests, the tension of figuring out who will come out on top.
And though we love to watch trials and lawyers and courtrooms on TV and in the movies, most of us do our best to avoid being part of the drama. We say, “Who am I to judge?” We don’t want to be a plaintiff. We REALLY hope to avoid being a defendant. We don’t even like to get the letter calling us to come to the courthouse and serve as jurors.
But there is one courtroom role that, as Christians, we cannot avoid – we cannot avoid being a witness. Sure, we may not have to go to the courthouse and take the stand. We may not have to put our hand in the air (witnesses don’t actually swear on the Bible any more, so the picture on the bulletin is sort of anachronistic, but never mind that!) and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. But, just by virtue of being a follower of Jesus Christ, we will be called upon to witness to our faith.
The acoustics in this sanctuary are phenomenal. And I think the sound I just heard was a whole lot of folks pointing the remote at me and hitting the mute button. I’m aware that very few people are interested in “witnessing” in the way we usually use that term. Am I right?
When we think of witnessing, we think of those people who ring our doorbells to try to give us a Watchtower or a Book of Morman. Or times when we’ve seen someone passing out tracts with the Four Spiritual Laws.
So – when I say that all Christians, including those in this room, are going to have to “witness” to our faith, that’s not what I mean. So “unmute” me and hear what the scriptures we read this morning have to say about witnessing. I want to do the Calvinist thing, and look to what scriptures says about witnessing. One of the reasons I’m Presbyterian is because I believe that when I look at things through the lense of the Bible, God shows me things I couldn’t figure out about life. Like why and how to be a good witness.
The “why?” of good witnessing is plain when we look at the whole scope of the Bible. There are over 100 references to witnesses of various kinds in the Old Testament:
The death penalty could only be given if there were two witnesses.
One of the 10 Commandments is the COMMANDMENT to be a truthful witness.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find:
The Gospel of John says that there was a witness to God’s Word becoming flesh.
Acts talks about the early church witnessing. So does Paul. So does Revelation.
We’d all agree that when everybody agrees on everything, there is no need for a witness. But when things are in dispute, when a shared understanding of what has happened has not been reached, when one party says X occurred, and someone else says, No, it was Y. Then a witness - someone who has seen the action first hand - can play an important role in clarifying the situation. The question of a life with God is a case that many people have not decided yet. They are still weighing the evidence.
That’s why every Christian is called to be a witness – because the world does not yet agree that God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. That’s the situation. But not everyone has rendered a verdict. So witnesses are still being called to take the stand. Your testimony may be vital in important cases!
I Peter puts it this way, “always be ready to give a good account of the hope that you have within you.” One thing about Peter and the church he was writing to: They were being tried themselves in ways that we probably cannot fathom. The Christian faith was actually illegal and people who practiced that faith were detained, questioned, tortured, and killed.
The church suffered then, as it suffers still in many parts of the world. We have very little experience of that. Yet, even in the midst of persecution, it is worth noting that Peter counsels his church to witness to the HOPE that they have within them. They are hopeful, even while suffering. And he tells them to do it with gentleness and respect. Make your witness with gentleness and respect.
Want a fuller picture of what that kind of witness might look like? Look at how Paul witnesses to the Athenians at the Areopagus.
Before Paul ever opened his mouth, he took the time to get to know the Athenian culture. For day, he walked around the marketplace, observed the religious places, talked to the Athenians about the significance of their beliefs. He was laying the groundwork for making a connection to them.
I think we teach our children well when we take a Sunday School trip to synagogue, studied what Islamic people believe, even had a unit on Hinduism and Buddhism. How much do we know about our Muslim neighbors? How much do we know about our neighbors who practice no formal religion at all? The more we know, the better position we put ourselves in to be able to deliver a true word about God is a way the person hearing us understands.
Paul’s example shows us that Christianity can be proclaimed in a pluralistic, diverse, heterogeneous world. In stark contrast to that openness to others, look at another religion that has been in the news all week – the Fundamentalist sect in Texas, where everyone was separated from the world, outsiders were demonized, and fear of the world was inculcated in every child.
In contrast, Paul studied the alien culture in which he found himself. He saw the commonalities – and presumed that Athenians wanted to know God and live good lives, just as he did. So he opened his witness by saying, “I can tell that you are very spiritual people. And he described how they shared in the human quest he calls “groping for God”.”
I challenge you to look around at the people you know, and the real people you read about, or meet out “in the world” – wherever that is for you – and look at your own life, too – and understand some of the puzzling things people say or do as “Groping for God”. Blindly, perhaps, without a clear idea what to grasp, but groping for God. See if you don’t agree that it’s a surprisingly gentle and generous way to understand what people are about.
Paul took, as an article of faith, that a loving, universal God would be working among strangers as well as friends. So Paul witnessed without condemnation or fear, to the way God, who is groped after by all humans, had become human in order to reach out to our groping hands and lead us to God’s own self.
He didn’t even mention Jesus by name. But Jesus’ Spirit is in every word that he speaks. It is as if the Advocate – the Lawyer – the Counselor that Jesus promised is right there, whispering into Paul’s ear. -
Can we do what Paul did? Enter the world of people groping after God, point out that they, too, are children of the God who we know and love? And help them to understand that, in Jesus Christ, God has shown us perfectly what He is like and what our lives can be like as well? With a little help from “the Advocate” – of course we can.
And then, can we just back off and let God take it from there? I’m thinking that the author of Acts was surprisingly candid and helpful when he tells us the response of the crowd at the Areopagus to Paul’s witness. Acts says that, of the people who heard Paul’s witness that day at the Areopagus, some sneered, some said, “Interesting. Maybe later I’ll hear you again.” And a few believed.
Even with this incredibly well prepared, well delivered, gentle and respectful, there wasn’t an overwhelming instantaneous response. Paul’s witness was good. The results . . . so so. But the result is not up to us. We are not responsible for saving people’s souls with our witness. God will take care of that. All we are responsible for is truthfully telling what a relationship to God has meant for us. God will take it from there, if we will simply be prepared to account for the hope that is in us, gently and with respect.
(Perry Mason theme up)
That is what makes being a witness. . . fun . . . like watching an old episode of Perry Mason. Because, when you watched Perry Mason, you knew that, in the end, no matter what it took, Perry was going to make things come out right. On a more profound level, it’s the same way with God.
We can trust that God will take care of the other person, just as He takes care of us. We are not called to judge or jury. Our call is to be a witness.