The Brier Patch

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When I read the books of the prophets in the Old Testament I can’t help but feel at least a little sorry for them. They really had some terrible assignments. Sometimes pastors complain about the assignments they get, but I think few could ever compare to the tasks God gave the prophets. They had to denounce things and proclaim judgment against nations. I have never been a very good denouncer, so I think it was a hard task.

But, the truth is that sometimes God asks all of us to do some hard things. Sometimes when God asks us to do something hard there is great reward to it. We love hearing those stories of people who took risks for God and went on to accomplish great things. But, there are other stories too. There are also stories of missionaries who spent nearly their entire lives in a country with little to show for it, according to our standards of success. All they had was the assurance that they were doing the right thing. That comes from within. If you aren’t successful by the standards of our culture you won’t get much encouragement from others. It has to come from inside. It has to come from God. It is the power to get up everyday and do the right thing because you know it is the right thing. Maybe there are some of you reading this right now who are frustrated about this. You know you are doing the right thing, but there doesn’t seem to be any reward for it. I want to encourage you. Keep doing the right thing.

I find it interesting what God told the prophet Ezekiel right after giving him the mother of all bad assignments. He said, “Don’t be afraid though briers and thorns are all around you and scorpions as well.” (Ezekiel 2:6) Now the brier patch is an interesting spiritual image. If you have ever tried to work your way through a brier patch you know how painful and difficult it can be. They prick, tear at the skin, catch at the hair and trip your feet.

The Brier Patch.[i] What a great metaphor for following God in a difficult task. Brier patches are difficult places. I generally try to stay out of them. But, I remember as a kid I would have to work my way though briers to pick blackberries. I don’t know if I have ever mentioned this before, but I love blackberries. The only thing better than blackberries is blackberry cobbler. And my mother could make those. That was my reward for enduring the briers. If I returned with a bucketful of blackberries she would make me a cobbler. It made the pain worth it. Sometimes following God is difficult. Doing the right thing is difficult. But the reward is to know you did the right thing and to know that you honored God with your actions.

But, the brier patch God speaks of is around Ezekiel. Do you remember that old story about Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox? At long last Brer Fox trapped Brer Rabbit and was going to have him for dinner. Ever the trickster, Brer Rabbit tells Brer Fox that he doesn’t want to be eaten, but at least he didn’t throw him in the brier patch. There is nothing worse than being thrown in the brier patch. “Whatever you do,” he said, “Don’t throw me in the brier patch.” The reverse psychology worked and Brer Fox, out of meanness, threw Brer Rabbit into the brier patch. Born and bred in the brier patch, Brer Rabbit laughed as he escaped yet again from his archenemy, Brer Fox.

The Brier patch isn’t just a difficult place. It is also a place of protection. Ezekiel is encircled by the brier patch. Like Brer rabbit it is his protection. It protects him from what is outside of it. The briers are both difficulty and protection. To accept the divine protection of the thorns gets rid of any illusions about the harshness of the world or it’s ability to wound us even when we are doing God’s will. Even when we do God’s work we often emerge with scratches and scars.

Just look at Jesus.

[i] I am thankful to Margaret Odell for her insights into the Brier Patch as a spiritual image, Ezekiel, pp.49-51.

What I Wouldn’t Give For A Power Hungry Church

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This past Sunday was Pentecost. The worship service was meaningful to me as we were directed to that day when the Holy Spirit was given as a gift. A part of the Scripture from Sunday has stuck in my mind.

At his ascension Jesus told his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit. He told them, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you:” (Acts 1:8a)

That is the part that keeps playing over and over in my mind. “You will receive Power.” Of course, immediately the disciples thought he must be talking about political power. They could use some of that. They were tired of being at the mercy of the Romans. They were tired of their religious beliefs and practices monitored by Roman Law. They could use a little political muscle to get the Romans off of their backs.

We so often seem to think that is what the church needs to get things done. Yet, history serves as a warning to us. Every time the church has gotten political power it has never turned out so well for us. It’s like the old joke about horse manure and ice cream. If you mix horse manure and ice cream it doesn’t hurt the horse manure, but it sure ruins the ice cream. That is why I don’t get as excited about politics as some of my Christian friends do. I know they are well meaning, but I don’t think God plans to use the Republicans or Democrats to bring about the Kingdom. Seeking political power for the church is like playing with matches when God is offering us lightening. All we seem to accomplish is to piddle around and burn ourselves.

Power. I would love to see real power in the church. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I am a little saddened by the lack of power I see in the church in general. I don’t’ mean the power to make people act the way we want them to. I don’t mean the power to get our way in the culture. I don’t mean the power to make businesses and organizations stay closed on Sunday so everyone will go to church. I am talking about real power.

I am talking about the power to worship so passionately that our lives are renewed every time we come together to worship God. I am talking about the power to love so genuinely that lives all around us are changed by it. I am talking about the power to put God above every other concern in our lives and live out His kingdom here in this place. I am talking about the power to pray “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” And mean it.

Instead of grasping at power in a way that chases people away, I long to see us have the power of the Holy Spirit that is so honest and loving and authentic that it draws people to God.

Today, when we think of the Holy Spirit we often think of the presence of God that comforts us and gives us peace when we are going through difficult times. We often think of the Holy Spirit as one who nudges us and guides us in the direction God wants us to go. We often think of the Holy Spirit as the one who helps us understand what the Scripture says and how to apply it to our lives. And the Holy Spirit does all of those things.

But, we often forget the Holy Spirit is more than that. The Holy Spirit is also the wind that blows through our lives with enough force to bend the palm trees over and rip shingles off of the roof and tear out of our hands the things we need to let go. The Holy Spirit is the fire that rages out of control and purifies the junk in our lives. The Holy Spirit is the power that gives us the courage to take risks and love beyond our comfort zone and step out in faith when we aren’t so sure about our footing. There is that side of the Holy Spirit as well.

What I wouldn’t give for a power hungry church. Not the short-lived, measly power of political leverage, but the power of the Holy Spirit. The power to really change things.

How ‘Bout Them Methodists!

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Unknown    I am the Pastor of a church that has been meeting for worship on Sunday mornings for about 5 years now. We still consider ourselves a new church. We are dually aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. You will see why that is important later.

One of the issues (there are many, trust me) for a new church plant is a physical meeting place. We are now in our fifth one. We were in a place that had been home for a few years. We had grown comfortable there.

Then the problems began. Without going into a lot of detail, we started having a serious problem with the roof leaking. Leaking may not be the right word. When it rained ceiling tiles came down. I have heard some people say they are afraid that if they went to church the roof may fall on their heads. If they visited our church, it just might happen. On top of all of that, we received word that our monthly payment to lease the place was going to go up significantly. There are a lot of economics involved in the decisions that I still don’t understand. But, for our part we knew it was time to leave.

The problem was; where could we go? We had grown over the last few years, which eliminated most of the spaces that were available to us before. We had just started doing a second worship service. We wanted to be able to continue it. We prayed and looked.

In the odd sort of way that God seems to work, someone who attends our church said something to someone who attended another church who said something to someone else. Before I knew it I was talking with Beth, the pastor of the local Methodist Church. As things have worked out, last Sunday we started sharing space on their campus. Imagine that! Two churches from different denominations sharing the same space to worship the same God and working together to make a difference in the same community. It is enough to make you shout!

Not only were we invited to share space with them, we have been warmly welcomed. On our first Sunday, there were signs everywhere with balloons welcoming us on the campus. Our hosts have already been a blessing to us. I hope we can be as big a blessing to them.

I am writing this because I want to brag a little. Not just on the two churches, although I am very proud of the attitude and spirit that is among both congregations. Mostly, I want to brag about a God who really is bigger than denominations and differences. I believe God is the one responsible for bringing all of this about.

We are learning that we have so much more in common than we often think. Our differences really are pretty minor. We use a little more water than they do. One of my favorite movies is “A River Runs Through It.” (The book is even better.) There is a line from that movie that says, “Methodists are just Baptists who can read.” Maybe that’s it. We are separated by so little and called together by so large a mission.

My faith in Christian community and people going out of their way to help others has been renewed. We are gaining new friends and getting to know some people we are going to share heaven with someday. I am excited.

How ‘Bout Them Methodists!

It’s Not Just The Church!

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imagesOkay. I have avoided any pushback for a long time. I didn’t want to be thought of as one of those guys who just doesn’t get it. I think I get it. The church in USAmerica is declining. I have read gut-wrenching articles outlining everything that is wrong with the church. I have read blogs about “why we are leaving church” and “why we don’t go to church.” I have been a pastor for just over 30 years now. (Ouch! I did start very young!) Trust me. I know the church isn’t perfect. I have had an angry church member make the motion to cut my salary during a business conference, because he didn’t like the job I was doing. I have received anonymous hate mail over sermons I have preached. (They were about love and being inclusive. I guess grace isn’t as popular as we have been taught.) My very small list of the meanest, most unethical people I have ever met is compiled of people who have served on church boards. So forgive my lack of sympathy for you being offended because you went to a church once and they served you a cold latte!

I want to tell you why I still believe in the church. Even though it is home to some vile people, it is often haplessly behind and is often self-serving, there is another side of church world. It was because of the people and mission of a church that I became a Christian. I was accepted, embraced, loved and made to feel important by people who had no reason to love me other than because they were followers of Christ. I have seen people in the church with little money give generously to help provide for others in need. I have seen people selflessly give and serve others through ministries of the church and community. When I have hurt, it has been church folks who embraced me and loved me and were the comforting hands of God to me. This is the experience of millions of others as well.

Church isn’t perfect. I know. Neither am I. Neither are you.

I have noticed that a lot of the complaints leveled against the church are the same complaints leveled at just about everything else in society. The church is not alone in facing some of these problems. Church leaders wring their hands over what the church is doing wrong because people aren’t as committed to church as they used to be. Newsflash! Business leaders are wringing their hands wondering why their employees aren’t as committed to work as they used to be. And they pay them to come! Have you seen the divorce rate? Could it be that we live in a culture that just isn’t as committed to anything as it used to be?

Church leaders are as anxious as cats not to challenge or require much from people attending church because they might just leave if you do. At the same time business leaders are struggling with employees who have a lack of conflict resolution skills. That hampers the businesses from keeping employees long term and having an enjoyable work environment. Could it be that we live in a culture where people just leave when something happens that they don’t like. Not as many people are willing to stick around and work things out when things don’t go their way.

We live in a culture where many are entertained to death and think they are entitled to having everything go the way they want it whether they put any effort into it or not. By the way, this is across the board, not just any one generation.

So why do we expect people to flock to a community that would dare try to hold each other accountable? That would focus on us changing and becoming the human beings God created us to be? That would require service and selflessness? That teaches that joy comes through service? And even asked for you to give some of your money! Many people leave when they realize this. The people we convinced to show up for the entertainment, celebrity pastors and the latest coffee that all the cool kids are drinking are often unaware of the cost.

I know the church has issues. I have worked for decades to try to help the local church be what God has called us to be. Sometimes I get discouraged. But, when people ask me, “why are there so many hypocrites in the church?” I answer, “Have you ever seriously tried to follow Jesus? It’s hard. That’s why I’m a hypocrite.”

I really believe that there are some good churches out there. If you really want to find one, I believe you can. Most people I know who want to, do.

The church has its problems. But it is not just the church.

Grace By Virgil

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UnknownWhen I was a teenager I loved to play sports. Of course, in the 1970’s in rural Alabama that meant Football, basketball and baseball. There were no soccer fields or any other exotic sports where I lived back in the day. So I embraced the three sports we had. I played football and baseball for my school. I never played on the school basketball team. Honestly, it was because I knew I wasn’t good enough to play as a starter, if I made the team. There are a lot more positions in football and baseball and I could always manage to find one I could play well enough to start. But, my ego, pride, fear or all of the above kept me from trying out for basketball.

So I played a lot of pick-up basketball. One winter, I don’t remember if it was a Saturday or during Christmas break, some of us were playing basketball. We were playing on a dirt court and it was cold outside. Someone said, “I wish we had a key to the gym. We could play on a real court and it wouldn’t be so cold.” Our teenage minds began to turn.

Fast -forward to later that morning and we were at the High School looking for an unlocked door or window. We could not find one, so we made one. We went inside and into the gym. Our gym had plenty of ambient light. We played basketball and had a great time. I don’t remember how long we had played when we heard the double doors that led from the school hallway into the gym open. We stopped dribbling and looked toward the doors. In walked Virgil. Virgil was the school custodian. He was an older man. We saw him often during the school year. It was not a large school. The problem was not that we knew Virgil. The problem was that Virgil knew us, by name. We were busted.

Virgil came over and talked to us. He explained that breaking and entering could get us all into a lot of trouble. In those days it wasn’t the law that you were most worried about. It was your parents finding out.

We pleaded our case. We whimpered. We offered excuses. We repented. We would have sacrificed a lamb if it would have helped. Virgil didn’t smile. He said it was his responsibility to call the police. If he didn’t he could lose his job. We realized that we were in trouble.

Then, Virgil, still not smiling, pointed to the door and said, “I am going out into the hallway to do a few things. Then I am coming back in here. Why don’t you boys leave before I come in and find you?”

Virgil left. And so did we. The police never came. The next time I saw Virgil at school, I said hello, as I always had. Virgil smiled and said, “Hello” back to me, as usual. It was our secret. As far as I know Virgil never told anyone.

I am a pastor now and I have read a lot of books about grace. I have heard a lot of sermons about what it means to find forgiveness you did not deserve. None of them have taught me as much as Virgil. He had us dead to right. We were wrong. He might have lost his job if anyone had found out. But he showed us grace. I don’t know why he did it. But, I’m glad he did. Thanks Virgil.

P.S. Virgil, this story won’t get you into trouble anymore. Where you are now, the head guy is partial to forgiveness.

A Cool Thing About Doctrine

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According to Diana Butler Bass, (Christianity after Religion) the word doctrine actually means a “healing teaching.” It derives from the French word for “doctor.” That is one of the coolest things I have read in a while. How ironic that something that is supposed to bring healing has through the centuries been something that has brought about division within the church. Another story for the file “Adventures in Missing the Point.”

I understand the need for correct doctrine. There have been plenty of ridiculous ideas passed off as God’s will. Without a faith that is grounded in the truth we invariably end up with a faith that is more about our comfort, our desires and our will being done than it is about God. Or even worse, we end up creating a god who hates the same people we do. Our history bears this out time and time again.

Earlier today I read (yet another) gut-wrenching article written by a young woman who no longer considers herself a Christian. She was abused by a church that had a false understanding of God. I so wish that I could tell her that I reject the same things she rejects. The stuff she had to deal with were not the things of God. They were the result of bad doctrine combined with arrogance and self-righteousness.

We need scholars. We need serious study of the Scriptures. We need honest, enlightening prayer. We need humility. When we enter a broken world with the Gospel we need to make sure it really it the Good News that we are telling. We need to get it right.

But, I am also weary of the way some Christians fight over doctrine. I am not saying we shouldn’t have doctrinal discussions and debates. I am all for those. But, I am over the fighting. I am over the insinuations and the “zingers” and the unforgiveness. There was a time in my life, when I was much younger, when I was up for a good theological fight. I was armed with a seminary education and I could read enough Greek and Hebrew to be dangerous. I know the feeling of pride and superiority that can come with winning the argument. I know the anger and resentment of not winning. I like to think I have become wiser and more compassionate, at least on my good days.

St. Augustine wrote, “in essential beliefs we have unity. In non-essential beliefs we have freedom. In all our beliefs we show charity.”

That pretty well sums it up for me. Most of the divisions that I have witnessed have been over the non-essential beliefs anyway. They have escalated due to a lack of charity or love.

Isaiah dreamed of a day when we would turn our swords into farming implements. We would have peace instead of war. Maybe one day we will turn our arguments into “healing teachings.” Then we will have doctrine that is a foundation for the church instead of a wrecking ball. I long for that day.

Mark Driscoll, Judging and Expectations

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imagesThe big news this week (in church world at least) is Mark Driscoll stepping down for 6 weeks while elders in his church review charges against him. I have read several blogs and comments. Some with the basic attitude of, “Good riddance!” Others, who defend him. In the defense comments there is one that is repeatedly stated. I will paraphrase it this way: “A lot of people came to Christ through his preaching and his church and that is what matters most.” One person even asked the question, “Isn’t leading people to Christ all that matters?” I think she meant it rhetorically.

For the rest of this article I would like to deviate from the Driscoll discussion. None of my following comments are meant to reflect on him or his ministry in any way. I want to address the comments defending him. More accurately, I want to address the attitude behind them.

There is, unfortunately, in this country the attitude that anything bigger is better. So the bigger the church, the better it is. We judge churches as being “successful” or not based on how many people attend the services. In some circles “success” is determined by how many people are baptized. As a result “successful” pastors are the ones who lead large churches. Since we worship success in this country, these pastors are treated like celebrities. Being successful becomes the goal. We develop an “end justifies the means” mentality. People buy into this mentality and then sincerely say things like, “a lot of people came to Christ through his preaching and his church and that is what matters most.”

I disagree. Rather strongly. That is not what matters most for me or any other follower of Christ. What matters most is that we as individuals become more like Jesus. That is what matters most. It doesn’t matter the size of the church a person leads or attends. What matters is that we are being redeemed into the image of Christ. I do believe that our becoming and acting more like Jesus will result in more people wanting to become followers of Jesus. But that comes as a result, not a goal.

Most pastors I know are sincere men and women who are committed to grow spiritually and wish to become more like Jesus in all they do. They don’t always lead large churches. They seldom get celebrity status. But, the people who know them are often changed and always challenged when they see what Christ is doing in them. That is the goal. That is what we need more of.

The end justifying the means has brought us the “Justin Bieber” mentality among some pastors. They think they can act however they want as long as they are getting numerical results. They are the minority, but they get most of the attention. When filling seats in buildings becomes the goal, then arrogance, meanness, questionable morality, greed and a host of other things become acceptable. Because, after all, they are bringing in the people.

Becoming more like Christ is hard. Actually it is impossible in this life. It is frustrating and we fail at it miserably. That is why filling seats in a building becomes a temptation. It is easier. God help us when we settle for so little.

Ideology or Theology?

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WorldReligions_300x300I recently read that Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary admitted a Muslim student to study there. This historic precedent came at the request of the seminary President, Dr. Paige Patterson. The move has been applauded by many and condemned by others. I believe there is a story here that is much larger than “Muslim student attends Baptist School.”

In the 70’s Dr. Patterson was a major leader and architect in a movement to gain control of SBC institutions. Many leaders were ousted because their views were too moderate to suit the new leadership in the convention. It was called “The Battle over the Bible.” We were told it was about theology. The new leadership held views that are rightly labeled Christian Fundamentalism. It is the same kind of fundamentalism with which I grew up.

It is policy and practice at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to deny admission to any student who does not hold traditional, orthodox beliefs about the Christian faith. This devout Muslim student obviously does not hold such beliefs. But, here is the interesting thing. Muslim Fundamentalists and Christian Fundamentalists have a lot in common when it comes to Ideology. When I lived in Atlanta I was fortunate enough to have some friends who were devout Muslims. They were opposed to drinking, smoking and all of the same things I was taught were sinful when I was growing up. There is a world of difference between the theology of  fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Christians. However, their ideologies are very similar. For instance, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary admitted a Muslim student, but still won’t allow a woman to teach there. I am sure the Muslim student agrees with that policy. Others have pointed out that it seems ideology has triumphed over theology.

I was thinking about this same concept during the last USA Presidential election. Most Christian Fundamentalists in this country voted for Mitt Romney. Early on, the issue was raised that he was a Mormon. Later on, many in Baptist circles on the right described this as prejudice, exactly the same that was practiced against John Kennedy for being a Catholic. (It was a prejudice practiced by a lot of Baptists I might add.)

I grew up in the Southern Baptist tribe. I was taught in both Training Union (I am old!) and Discipleship Training classes on Sunday evenings how to witness to people of other faiths. We were taught to share our faith with people who were Mormon. It is the long held Southern Baptist belief that some of the theological tenants of The Church of Latter Day Saints disqualify it from being considered a sect of the Christian religion. I don’t want to have that debate here. I simple want to point out that Christian Fundamentalists had huge disagreements with Mormon theology. But, when a candidate that had the same political ideology came along, his theology was suddenly unimportant. Or, in many cases, the long history of considering Mormons non-Christians was reversed. Even if you consider Mormons to be Christians, the theological chasm between Mormons and the rest of Christianity is quite large. In my cynical mind it was theology taking a backseat to politics, which is what often happens when we mix our faith too closely with political parties.

Admitting a Muslim student whose social beliefs align with those of Fundamentalist Christians triumphs over his theology, which is vastly different. Voting for a Presidential candidate who agrees with Christian Fundamentalists on social issues triumphs over his theology, which is at best divergent. The lesson I’m learning here is that Ideology may be becoming more important than theology in the current landscape of American Christian Fundamentalism. What do you think?

I Was a Free Luncher

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For many years the Federal Government has been providing free and reduced lunches in public schools for students from low-income families. Today many schools provide breakfast as well. There are political arguments both for and against the government providing these meals. Technically it is known as the National School Lunch Program.  It is more commonly known as the free lunch program. The problem with that name is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Someone has to pay for it. At first you may think that the only one who pays for it is the taxpayer, but you would be wrong.

I know a bit about the free lunch program because I was on it when I was a student. I don’t know how many kids in my school benefited from the free lunch program, but it always seemed to be just a few of us in my class. The other kids who were in it looked and acted so poor. Was I one of them? Did other kids see me that way?

In elementary school the teacher would call your name at the beginning of the day and you would answer by saying, “brought my lunch,” “buying lunch,” or “free lunch.” It was always hard to say “free lunch” out loud. I usually raised my hand and grunted. Soon the teacher knew who all of us free lunchers were and she would save us the embarrassment of having to say anything out loud.

In high school it was even more embarrassing. You did not want anyone else to know you were on the free lunch program, especially any cute girl you liked. In our high school you paid for your lunch in the cafeteria as the line made its way into the serving area. There was a teacher sitting there at a little desk. She collected the money from the students who paid as they passed by her. She had a list of us free lunchers and we told her our names and she checked our names off of the list. Fortunately she learned my name quickly and just smiled at me as I went by and didn’t say anything or immediately mark my name off of the list. I had a little trick I devised. You could pay an additional ten cents and get an extra carton of milk. Everyday I brought two nickels or a nickel and five pennies. I never used a dime because having more than one coin made it look and sound as if you were dropping more money in the box. Unless you were looking closely it provided the illusion that I was paying for my lunch.

I drank two cartons of milk at lunch everyday in high school. I also had milk at home with my breakfast. I drank a lot of milk. My bones are as thick as bridge girders.

I am grateful for the free lunch program. Over the years I am sure it saved my family a lot of money. I am glad I live in a country where we try to take care of those in need by providing some assistance so that hopefully they can break the cycle of poverty. I believe it is the right thing to do.

But, the lunches are not free. The person who receives them pays too. I paid in shame and a feeling of being a little less than the “brought my lunch” and “buying lunch” crowd. More than once I ducked out of line because I was standing next to a girl I liked and did not want her to know I got a free lunch.

It is easy to say that if it bothered me so much I should have just not taken them. But, I was a kid and I did what people in authority told me to do, even in high school. You will find a lot of poor people are that way.

Fortunately, I had friends and teachers who accepted me and loved me and taught me to believe that I was just as smart and my life was just as valuable as anyone else in our school. Turns out they were right. I didn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps. I didn’t “build it” by myself. My life is a culmination of assistance when I was down, friendships that support me and grace that sustains me. I am grateful for all aspects, from programs to people who have helped me have a shot at life. Not everyone is so fortunate. I don’t mind my taxes helping provide lunches in schools. I have been on both sides of this now. I am happy to be on this side of it.

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” the old saying goes. Take if from a former free luncher, that’s the truth.

Maybe We Talk Too Much

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Over the Christmas holidays I was thinking about how Luke doesn’t start his Christmas story with the birth of Jesus, but with the birth of John. He starts with the story of Zechariah, John’s father. The story goes like this. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were older and had never been able to have children. Zechariah was a Priest. He was at the Temple performing his duties when an angel appeared to him. It was Gabriel, the same angel who had appeared to Mary. He told Zechariah that he and Elizabeth were going to have a son. Their son would be the one who would be the forerunner to the Messiah. He would spend his life pointing people to God.

The problem with that promise was that Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying to God for a child for years. It didn’t seem God heard their prayer. They had finally gotten over the disappointment. He wasn’t sure this could be for real. So he asked Gabriel, “How will we know this is so?” Gabriel gave him a sign. He told Zechariah that he would not be able to talk until the child was born.

From that moment on, Zechariah could not speak. He stumbled out of the Temple unable to talk and everyone knew something was going on, but not sure what. He went home and sure enough, a short time later Elizabeth became pregnant. Maybe, she liked him better this way, the strong silent type. Zechariah remained silent until John was born. On the eighth day, when it was time to name him, Zechariah spoke his first words. He said, “His name is John.” It seems that during the time of silence Zechariah was able to figure things out.

Most scholars say that the angel punished Zechariah with silence for not believing his word. That is the way I have preached it as well. But, these days I am more in agreement with Barbara Brown Taylor who wrote that his silence was not a punishment, but a gift.

I think she is right. I think maybe silence is what we need more of these days. We have heard so many words. Words defending God. Words trying to explain God. Words telling us to keep trying, keep praying. Words that, after a while, seem as old and tired as we sometimes feel.

I think Zechariah is a good example for the church these days. I understand that the church can’t be completely silent. But, I think we could talk less.  Instead of so many words of correction and condemnation, maybe we should just go find the people we disagree with and be silent together and do something useful. Instead of rushing to the defense of American civil religion we should treat the marginalized more like Jesus did. Maybe we don’t have to have an answer for everything. It seems that we are so busy giving answers. Then, if people don’t listen to our answers we shout them louder. Maybe if we spent more time being silent and listening we might actually find some answers. “You can’t learn anything when your mouth is open.”

We try to explain God when maybe we should just invite people to be with us and experience the mystery that is God.

Words come at us so fast. Words that try to convince of something, words that manipulate us. Words that condemn us (spoken in love, of course). We don’t trust words so much any more. So maybe we need less words.  More silence. More action.

The night Jesus was born there was a chorus of angles that sang. I am sure the shepherds were noisy when they marched their way up to the barn. No doubt the animals in the next stall caused a ruckus at times. But, sooner or later the baby had to fall asleep. Mary must have fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion. I picture Joseph lying there on the straw in the silence. And it was then I believe that he began to understand what was really going on. You don’t come to those realizations in a noisy room. We need silence. We can’t see God for who he is in the midst of a noisy life.

This is my prayer for the new year. I pray that our lives be filled with laughter. The sounds of warm conversation. The clamor of good food being cooked in the kitchen. The noises of family and friends. But, I also pray that somewhere, sometime, there will be some times of silence. I pray that in the silence we can get our bearings like Zechariah and Joseph. I pray that in the silence we truly discover the mystery of God’s love for us that none of our words can adequately explain.