ordinary… mostly

"We have nothing to offer each other, except a haven." — K. Nafziger


Holy Spirit

Jesus’ humanity

Let me preface this whole post by acknowledging that I don’t understand the mystery of Jesus’ dual human/divine nature.  I might make the mistake in this particular blog of ascribing too much to his humanity.  On the other hand, I think that there also might be a tendency by Christians to downplay Jesus’ human side of things when his deity seems to be under attack in our pluralistic society.  Nevertheless, I think that there is something to be learned from stories where Jesus seems to be a bit too human for our own comfort – stories like the cleansing of the temple, for example, or the story I’ll discuss below.  Maybe we’ll learn a little about the nature of sin; about what God regards as sin; and about what masquerades as sin, but which really only offends our sense of politeness, social propriety, or political correctness.

Anyway, this morning I was reading this coming Sunday’s lectionary passage from the gospel of Mark.  At the end of Chapter 7, I have the impression that Jesus is just really exhausted and would like to get away from it all and go on a little vacation.  He’s gone to Tyre, which is on the Mediterranean Sea, and the scripture says…

He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.

Sounds like me sometimes.  (Well, actually I probably want to take a vacation at the slightest hint of weariness.  I have the impression that Jesus got a whole lot wearier than I do.)

So Jesus is off on vacation, but he isn’t even able to rest there.  He’s found by some Gentile woman who has heard about the kinds of amazing things that he has been doing and wants him to heal her daughter.  At this point, Jesus seems to be a bit exasperated (and that’s putting it gently).  He tells her that his work is with the Jews and not the Gentiles, but he’s a bit more gruff than that (at least to my ear)…

Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.

But check out this reply:

Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.

Now this is where I don’t quite know how to understand Jesus’  humanity.  I wouldn’t suggest that Jesus needs grace, at least not in the sense that the rest of us do.  But doesn’t it seem like that’s just what he’s received in this woman’s response?  Hasn’t he just called her a dog?  And didn’t she just let that one slip by?  I know I’m interpreting this one from a 21st century middle-class North America cultural viewpoint, but still…

Anyway, maybe the woman has ministered to Jesus’ need.  Perhaps, in this time when he’s on vacation for some rest, she has reminded him of the faith that he inspires in people, and perhaps that is an inspiration to his own faith, as well.  (I do think that Jesus needed faith in his Father to achieve his work on earth.   I don’t think that is too much of a stretch or a threat to his divinity.)

Ok – let me move on to take a quick look at the next story.  Jesus is on his way home from vacation, and some people bring him a man who is deaf and who also has a speech impediment.  Jesus takes the man aside to pray for him and only utters one word, “Ephphatha”, which means, “Be opened.”  But look at what else he does – he sighs.  I’m not a scholar of Greek, but my understanding is that this is the same word found in Romans 8 where Paul describes how the Holy Spirit intercedes for us.

What is happening here?  Does Jesus sigh because of lingering tiredness?  Does he not know what words to pray, or does he express a deeper prayer from the depths of his soul?  Does the Holy Spirit also intercede with the Father on behalf of the Son?  Do we learn that at times there are prayers that reflect the heart of God that just can’t be expressed with the words that we have?

Today, I’m reminded that Jesus’ humanity was not an impediment to his ministry, but rather a vital part of it.  It was only by becoming human that Jesus was able to show us the way back to God.


A God so near

A few thoughts that are loosely tied together…

I have led a Bible study at my church in the past, and will be doing so again this fall.  I am planning to try a new approach to study – Lectio Divina.  I say ‘new’ in the sense that it is a new approach for me.  On the other hand, ‘Lectio Divina’ is really a very old way of hearing what God is saying through scripture and prayer.  Since I am a novice, I won’t presume to explain Lectio Divina here.  However, if you’d like to learn more, you might visit the United Church of Christ website or you can do a Google search.

I’ve started using Lectio Divina in my own prayer time this week.  Today, I read part of the lectionary for this Sunday:

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live to enter and occupy the land that the Lord, the God of your ancestors, is giving you. You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you. You have seen for yourselves what the Lord did with regard to the Baal of Peor—how the Lordyour God destroyed from among you everyone who followed the Baal of Peor, while those of you who held fast to the Lord your God are all alive today.

 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?

 But take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.

Deuteronomy 4.1-9

It seems that every scripture has potential for causing me consternation these days.  I don’t plan on discussing my issues with this particular passage.  I just want to acknowledge that issues exist, so that in thirty years when my daughters are doing their own reading and struggling with scripture, they won’t feel like they’re going through something new.

On the other hand, I appreciate the ability of Lectio Divina to draw me out of my academic approach to Bible study.  In this case, I was drawn to the phrase, “a god so near”.  I was reminded again how this theme runs throughout the Bible: the nearness of God in the Old Testament, for example, in this passage; the coming of God among us in Christ in the New Testament; the presence of the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ to the early Church and to us.  God is a God who works in relationship and community.  Today, my call is to be aware of my relationships.

Time to change priorities?

I’ve been thinking a lot about community recently.  Much of my thinking originates with the challenges facing my congregation, as many who read this blog will be aware.  (Those of you aren’t acquainted with our struggles will be able to learn more in the archives.)  Mennonites tend to talk a lot about community – for good reason, I think.  When we do community well, we do it really well.  We emphasize communal discernment in matters of scriptural interpretation and hearing God’s call.  We practice mutual aid in times of trouble.  Our potlucks are awesome.

But we also have a knack for doing community pretty poorly at times, too.  Think about this – the existence of both Amish and Mennonites is just one example of community gone wrong.  And one can find other examples of church, conference, and denominational splits – the rending of community.  I suppose that these splits stem from a need to define community.  If you value it, you want to protect it.  You want to guard it.  You want to keep it pure.

When it comes to scriptural discernment, I wonder if what we really do is to find a like-minded group of believers who will remind us (at the appropriate time) of applicable scripture; or rather, will remind us of the scriptures that the community has already regarded as applicable.  In this sense, the community becomes an accountability group (put nicely) or a law enforcement body (not so nice).  This isn’t necessarily bad, but it avoids the actual process of scriptural discernment.  And this raises the question of what to do when a disagreement develops within the community.  Do we have room for someone who, in good faith, believes differently than the community; or is such a person regarded as rebellious?  Have we left room within our boundaries for the movement of the Holy Spirit?  Is there space for the prophetic?

You can guess which way I’m leaning, just because I’m bothering to ask the questions in the first place.  I think that in some ways, Mennonites have made community a priority – that is, as long as boundaries aren’t stretched, we’ll be a very good community.  We rejoice when we should rejoice, mourn when we should mourn, provide support when needed.  But when you reach the boundaries, then orthodoxy becomes the priority so that the purity of the community is maintained.  However, I wonder if this ought to be the case.

What was Jesus’ priority – community or orthodoxy?  Let me give you one possible answer that I’m exploring – my hypothesis, if you will.  Maybe Jesus’ orthodoxy was community.  Is it possible that the whole of Jesus’ teaching comes down to this: an ethic of love for your community.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself. 

Now – perhaps that “ethic of love” sounds a little too open ended.  If that’s the case, run everything through the “Fruits of the Spirit” filter.  Does this action bear the fruits of the Spirit?  Then it’s permissible.  There are a few times in the New Testament where we hear the puzzling admonition to “judge for yourselves…”  Do we dare take that literally?

And think about this – are there examples where Jesus actually broke fellowship with someone?  There are many examples where people broke fellowship with Jesus: when the radical nature of his message became just too much and the Good News just didn’t seem too good anymore.  But I can’t remember any times when Jesus was the one walking away.  We are quick to remember how Jesus told us to treat those who have sinned against us – as tax collectors and gentiles.  But we fail to remember that Jesus spent all of his time with tax collectors, and that we ourselves are gentiles.

I’m aware that I’m leaving tons of questions unanswered, but I’m going to proceed anyway and pose even more questions.  In the end, this blog will be all questions.  No answers.

So, let’s suppose that we truly make community our priority.  Under what circumstances would it be acceptable to break community?  I think that an abusive community is no community at all.  If someone leaves for their own health – spiritual, emotional, or physical – they are justified in doing so.  This is clear.

Also, I think that some marriage imagery is useful: Jesus talked about permitting divorce when someone has been unfaithful.  But this is where I start to struggle.  What would that mean in a community setting?  For example, I recently spoke with someone about welcoming LGBT brothers and sisters into our congregation.  “I see it as a social justice issue,” he said.  “I couldn’t be a part of a congregation that wasn’t welcoming.”  To illustrate his concern, he asked, “Could you be a part of congregation that condoned slavery?”  Exactly.  Precisely.  I agree fully.  But what if I had been an abolitionist 150 years ago in a congregation struggling on this question?  How long do you live in disagreement?  How do you respect the noble intent of your brother or sister in their interpretation of scripture on one hand, when on the other hand you think that their understanding is unfaithful to Jesus’ ethic of love?

Let’s move on from the current challenge in my congregation, because I’m also curious about the bigger question:  If you prioritize community, are there certain issues or beliefs that are non-negotiable?  Are there times when we say, “you have to believe in a certain way, or you can’t be part of our community”?  Abortion?  Military involvement?  The role of Mary?  The Eucharist?  Even the deity of Christ?  Would Jesus turn away anyone who sincerely wanted to follow him?

All of this has a profound effect on how we think about church membership.  I’m starting to think that Jesus would frown on the whole idea.  But you might say, “Wait – if we don’t have membership, how do we define who can be a teacher or a preacher?  I don’t want someone teaching my children things that I don’t support.”  Of course, you’re right.  But maybe, when we try to make these decisions ahead of time, then we’ve created an institution (or a principality or power, to use biblical language).  At that point, we are no longer working from community.  Maybe the better way is to deal with these questions as they arise, living with grace, maintaining the unity of the Spirit, and bearing with one another in love.  And if we really need a way to define ourselves and are concerned that our community not become an “anything-goes, free-for-all”, we can say (as the Church of the Brethren does) that our creed is the New Testament.

As for myself, all of this leaves unanswered the question of what to do when you find yourself in conflict within a congregation that prioritizes orthodoxy above community.  Or worse yet, when you find yourself between opposing sides.  The only thing that I seem to know in all of this is that Jesus, on the night before his death, prayed for the unity of his followers.  If he felt strongly enough about the matter to put it into his final prayer, then we as his followers should probably do our best to figure out how to make that happen.  So far, we’re struggling.

Keeping it real

I don’t exactly recall if it was my Ordinary, but very observant, Spouse who noticed, or if I raised the topic with her last night, but we have both sensed that my blog has somewhat changed its tone recently.  I think that OS describes it as a shift from a more personal style toward one of reporting.  She was gracious enough to say that she didn’t necessarily think that one was right and one was wrong, although she did express her preference for the former, more personal blog entries.

However, now that I’m reflecting on this change, I think I agree with her – I don’t like it.  When I’m “reporting”, I sound like I’m describing facts.  And you can’t argue with facts, let alone dialogue with them.  On the other hand, when I’m telling my story with my opinions and my perspectives, then I’m also open to hearing your story with your opinions and perspectives.  I’m not telling you ahead of time what you need to think or believe if you want to talk to me.  That’s much nicer, and in that sense I think that reporting is “wrong” and storytelling is “right”.

And so, in an effort to maintain a blog that strives toward maintaining the “unity of the Spirit”, I will attempt to move in a more conversational direction.

Finding home

I can’t believe that this week is almost over – just one more day of convention (plus Sunday morning’s Taize service). The end of the week is always sad, but Christianity was never intended to be just a continuous mountaintop experience.

I’m sitting in the breakfast area at my Hampton Inn, trying to catch my breath from another non-stop day. Even though it’s not morning, they have coffee here around the clock. That, and I might have a good seat for Columbus fireworks, which are about to start…

(Now things are underway, and I’m sitting here entirely conflicted. This has got to be the best fireworks display that I’ve ever seen. But what is a Mennonite supposed to do with Independence Day? Well, that is a question for another day, and not one anytime soon.)

I think that one reason I enjoy convention so much is that somewhere in this town, there is someone (or maybe a “collective” someone) who understands me. Practically anything that I’ve ever experienced has also been experienced by at least one other person here. And even if I don’t run into that person this week, I know they’re around here somewhere. And that’s why it’s hard to leave when the week is done.

We long to be known, to be heard, to be understood and loved. But how many of us find these longings fulfilled? How many of us find home? This morning during worship, one of the speakers (I think that it was Megan Ramer, but I could be wrong) spoke about dwelling in the Spirit. Dwelling means being at home, not just stopping by to say ‘hi’ and have tea. By learning to dwell, we are at home no matter where we go.

I’ll end this entry (and get myself to bed – it’s nearly midnight and I’ll probably be awake at 4:00 a.m. again) with a link to a Rich Mullins music video. Rich knew what it meant to be a wanderer and a stranger in this world, and he knew what it meant to be at home.

I’m home anywhere, if You are where I am.

(from “Here in America” by Rich Mullins)

If animals maintained the unity of the Spirit…

I saw an interesting sight on the way to work today.  As I was leaving home and about to pull onto the main road, two birds flew over in formation.  Since there were only two, they couldn’t tecnically fly in a “V”, but had there been more, that’s what they would have been doing.  At first glance, I thought it was just a pair of geese.  Then I realized that the one in the front wasn’t a goose…  It was an egret.

My only thought was, “Wow!  How’s that for unity?”

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