Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Fear of the Lord

I got a baby shower invitation recently. I love babies and baby showers, but something in the invitation struck me strangely. In a little insert, it says that after the present opening “we will have a time when each shower attendee is welcome to express a prayer over the mother-to-be. (Family member/hostess) will open this time with a word from Scripture and then the baby and family are covered with prayers regarding the parents raising the child in the fear of the Lord…” 

Huh? Fear of the Lord? I’m a pastor and this is not a term I am overly familiar with. And it didn’t really sound like something I would pray for an infant. I’m probably an overly practical or idealistic pray-er – either it’s “Dear God, please don’t let my baby die in the night from SIDS” or “Dear God, I wish so many children in this world were not hungry.” And that word fear struck me so negatively. So, like a good theologian, I decided to dig in and see from whence my discomfort came and how this term is really used in Scripture. 

So, here goes. First, I read up on things you should not fear. This is no deep research, just a cursory glance, but here are some highlights of things not to fear:
  •  “See, the Lord your God has given the land to you; go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of your ancestors, has promised you; do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deut 1:21
  • “Do not fear him, for I have handed him over to you, along with his people and his land.” – Deut 3:2
  • “Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.” – Deut 31:6
  • “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” – Psalm 27:1
  • “The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.”  - Zephaniah 3:15
Ok, so now I know what we are not supposed to fear. So what is the fear of the Lord? According to another cursory research project, it is:
  • Keeping God’s laws, decrees, statutes, and commandments (Deut 6:2, 17:19; Proverbs 24:21)
  • What God requires of God’s people, along with loving and serving God (Deut 10:12)
  • Wisdom (Job 28:28, Proverbs 15:33)
  • The beginning of wisdom/knowledge (Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7, 1:29, 2:5, 9:10)
  • Pure, enduring forever (Psalm 19:9)
  • A demarcation of God’s people, so that we might praise, glorify, and stand in awe of God (Psalm 22:23)
  • A cause for friendship with God; God will make God’s covenant known to these friends (Psalm 25:14)
  • Something all the earth and all inhabitants of the world should do (Psalm 33:8)
  • “Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love” – Psalm 33:18
  • “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.” – Psalm 34:7
  • Something to teach children (Psalm 34:11)
  • The hatred or avoidance of evil (Proverbs 8:13, 16:6)
  • Life, in which we can rest secure, find refuge, suffer no harm (Proverbs 10:27, 14:26-27, 19:23, 29:25)
  • Better than great treasure and trouble with it (Proverbs 15:16)
  • Rewarded with riches and honor and life (Proverbs 22:4)
  • Regarding God as holy (Isaiah 8:13)
  • Zion’s treasure – stability of your times, abundance of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge (Isaiah 33:6)
  • “Did he not fear the Lord and entreat the favor of the Lord, and did not the Lord change his mind about the disaster that he had pronounced against them?” – Jeremiah 26:19
  • Lack thereof is a cause for judgment - along with adulterers, false swearing, oppressing hired workers, widows, or orphans, or thrusting aside the alien (Malachi 3:5)
  • A cause for church growth, accompanied by the comfort of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:31)
  • Motivation for trying to persuade others of the gospel (2 Corinthians 5:11)
Then, just yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop by Dr. Alyce McKenzie entitled “What Kind of Fool Are You? Preaching and Teaching the Folly (and Wisdom) of the Bible). She outlined a pneumonic device to remember “Wisdom’s Golden Nuggets” as follows:
     F – the Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom
     O – Wisdom leads to an Order of life
     G – Wisdom is a Gift from God.

She used Bob Dylan’s song, “Gotta Serve Somebody” to say:
You’re gonna have to fear somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to fear somebody

So, I’m finding that “fear of the Lord” may be an odd phrase to my postmodern ears. I don’t want to have to be afraid of anyone or anything, although I often am. The news is full of things I should fear – west nile virus, gun violence, internet hackers, politicians, etc. But, Scripture is telling me that the only entity I should fear is God. And that fear looks more like reverence, awe, and wonder, although, should I ever be in the full presence of God, I’m sure there would be some knee-knocking trembling, too.

If I fear God, I have no cause to fear anything else. It doesn’t promise an easy life, but it recognizes the true order of things. God is sovereign; God is the beginning and end of all things. When I fear the other stuff, I give it power in my life. And only God should have that kind of power because God is always speaking life and love into our existence.

So, I may not embrace the language, but I can embrace the concept. I want to walk in the wisdom of God, and this appears to be the starting line.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

We Believe in Salvation for Sinners

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been teaching this chapter of Will Willimon’s book, This We Believe, to one of our adult Sunday school classes. Last Sunday, when I put up the first slide of my nifty powerpoint presentation and read the title, one of the class members cheered. This class is a delightful blend of wit, intelligence, and deep faithfulness. So I agreed with the tongue in cheek gesture. Yes, it is a good thing we believe in salvation for sinners – we know ourselves that well.

We, as United Methodists, are accused fairly often of having an underdeveloped doctrine of sin. But, as Willimon writes and I paraphrase, we need to fully appreciate the problem of sin to appreciate God’s remedy in the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. If sin were no big deal, why did God come among us? Jesus might as well have taught a self-help program so that basically nice people could become nicer.

Of course, one of my other source documents for these lessons was John Wesley’s sermon, “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” Wesley may have been a better preacher than he was a systematic theologian, but he lays out his understanding of the work of salvation very nicely in this sermon, although he amplifies certain points elsewhere.

One of the things I had forgotten, but that struck me powerfully in my preparation was the past-present-future aspect of salvation. Salvation was accomplished once and for all in the work of Jesus Christ (past tense). Salvation is a reality that can be lived into here and now (present). And, salvation is that entering into glory with God after death (future). It troubles me how much thought and speech centers around the past and future aspects of salvation with little mention of the present. It seems contrary since our “now” is all we really have before us. It is in this “now” that we can make a difference, experience life, and life abundantly.

Then, tonight, in my Disciple Bible Study group, our text just happened to be the first half of the gospel of John. This gospel, which assumes we all start in a state of death, but have the opportunity to come to life through Jesus. Jesus comes to speak life into our death-ridden existence. But, we would rather have the safe answers, the actions kept at a distance in the past, or the promise of comfort to come.

It was a helpful coincidence as I continued to mull over this idea of salvation, so different from what some of our brothers and sisters might understand it to be. Today, in Sunday school, I invited the class members to take different versions of the “sinner’s prayer” and study them theologically – what points are being made, what do you find troubling or out of sync with our doctrine, what is the purpose, what are the benefits or pitfalls?

I brought this exercise because I remember a time when I was a child that I visited a relative who convinced me to pray this prayer. I was away from home, I was out of context, and she made the case with impassioned belief. She constructed the image of my own heart, locked from within, that needed to be opened to Jesus. This prayer was the way to invite him in. Afterwards, she took me to the jewelry store and bought me a cross necklace, which I still own.

I think that she thought that she saved my soul that day and had done her duty by me. I had received my ticket to heaven. But, Wesley also writes “Christianity is essentially a social religion; and that to turn it into a solitary religion, is indeed to destroy it” (Sermon 24: Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount). Perhaps, nominally, I was a Christian, but there was no community to nurture me, like so many who are invited to click whether or not they became a Christian by praying the prayer, now offered online.

To this day, I don’t point to this event as my “conversion.” That event was many years later, in a community of faith that nurtured me, allowed me to ask questions, and loved me, whatever my decision may have been. Christianity is a social religion, not just a checked box that I have accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior. Surely, he is that, too, but my soul would wither without the company of other sinners and saints.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Word Power

I have a BA in English. I love language, words, stories. Honestly, my call to ordained ministry came out of the desire to share the greatest story I know with others. As a mother to a 2-year-old son, I'm finally putting that one semester of "Methods of Teaching English" to use. And remembering how ridiculously complicated and nonsensical my native tongue is.

My favorite new rediscovery with James is homonyms and homophones. Homonyms are words that are spelled the same, sound the same, but mean different things, i.e. "Mommy is putting the money in the bank" and "Look at those flowers on the river bank." Homophones are words that are spelled differently, but sound the same and mean different things, i.e. "Go through the door" and "James threw the ball!" (By the way, my favorite online helper to refresh me on all this grammar stuff, which was never my favorite, is Grammar Girl.)

His language skills are exploding. It's wonderful and scary at the same time. It makes me much more mindful of the things I say and, even more importantly, how I say them. Since we're four days into Lent, I guess it might be time to share the things I'm giving up/taking on for the season:
  1. I will be more mindful about what I say so that fewer evil things come out of my mouth.
  2. I will blog each day, with the hope that the intentional time of reflection will guide me deeper.
  3. I will participate in the United Methodist Rethink Church photo-a-day thing.
I've talked before about how important I believe words to be. I don't think that it's unremarkable that Jesus is identified as the Word of God, through whom all things came into being as God spoke creation. The ancient people who passed along our sacred stories understood words to be a unit of power. Names were important because they were words intimately connected with our being (notice how often God goes around renaming folks...).

I've always liked this passage: "For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:10-11)

So, I want James to use his words well. As adorable as it is that he calls his yogurt "yay-yo" and he's fumbling his way through "hippopotamus," I want him to become a man who considers his words and doesn't fling them about lightly. And in this information age, where words populate cyberspace faster than breath, that will be a challenge. That's why this is part of my challenge to myself for Lent.

How about you? What are you giving up/taking on/feeling called to do this Lent?

Friday, February 15, 2013

Looking for my person

This is an awkward thing to share, but this Lenten discipline of introspection and reflection that I’ve taken up has led me to it, so here goes. I’m putting myself out there this week. This may sound like nothing out of the ordinary, since I’m a giant extrovert, but this is mindfully different this week. I’m looking for my person. If you’re familiar with Grey’s Anatomy, you already know what I mean. It’s the relationship between Meredith and Cristina. Here’s what this sounds like:

Cristina: I think you and Derek will make it. You will make it work.
Meredith: Are you just telling me what I wanna hear?
Cristina: I'm your person. I am on your side.

Cristina: Mer, why do you care what I think?
Meredith: Because you're my person!

Cristina: The clinic has a policy. They wouldn't let me confirm my appointment unless I designated an emergency contact person. Someone to be there in case and...to help me home after. Anyway I put your name down, that's why I told you I'm pregnant. You're my person.
Meredith: I am?
Cristina: Yeah, you are. Whatever.
Meredith: Whatever.
Cristina: He dumped me. [Meredith hugs Cristina] You realize this constitutes hugging?
Meredith: Shut up, I'm your person.

I’ve always been a person who had lots of great acquaintances, but very few close friends. From what I’ve heard, the best way to find a friend is to be a friend. And I’ve started to wonder if I stink at this because this friend has not appeared. Ok, so I don’t remember birthdays and I don’t call to talk very often, but I’ll keep up on Facebook and I’m incredibly loyal and I’ll pick you up at the airport. I’ll go to lunch and throw you a baby shower and be delighted when you call.

Part of what is prompting this is remembering my pregnancy with James. My super seminary friends had moved back to where they had come from and there was no one within a 100 mile radius who wanted to throw me a baby shower except the sweet folks of my church. Which was great, but different. So, whenever it’s time for round 2, I’d like to have a person that loves me enough to want to care for me before and after I have another baby. And we can walk with each other through all the other stuff that life will throw our way.

So I’m looking for a person I can go deep with. When I was in a spiritual growth group in seminary, the professor who led the group expressed her appreciation for my willingness to be vulnerable. That’s who I am, really. I’m willing to be vulnerable, to be honest, with others in hopes of having a true connection, a real relationship built on truth-telling and love. I want a soul sister, a best friend, a bestie, and BFFL – I'm a Meredith looking for a Cristina.

So, earlier this week, I went to coffee with a wonderful acquaintance. I’m always extra nervous when I do the 1-on-1 thing because it feels like dating. And I haven’t dated in almost 15 years. I get the same sort of inner monologue going on: “I’m making eye contact because I’m interested in what you’re saying…Oh goodness, am I staring?…We really seem to have a lot in common. Awesome!...Oh, she just mentioned something about a friend who lives closer than I do who also has a kid and they already hang out. Does she have room for another really good friend?” I’m really trying hard not to over-analyze because it just feels weird. 

To try to continue to put myself out there, today I took James, my adorable little icebreaker, and went to a play date with a group of moms I found on Meetup. It was a Valentine’s date at the park and I had made a batch of my super toddler veggie/fruit muffins to share. I felt good about not coming empty handed. They had changed the date from yesterday to today to better accommodate schedules, but the weather did not cooperate. And I wasn’t entirely sure about taking James out in it just so I can keep trying to find my person. But he woke up from nap in time and seemed game, so we bundled up and head out (and arrived 15 minutes late…).
The woman who organized it is also in my Zumba class, but it was still awkward as we stood there, trying to make small talk. We obviously haven’t gravitated toward one another before, so it was good when the other moms arrived and the kids got down to playing. I got compliments on the muffins. I gave compliments on other muffins. I made small talk with the other moms. James enjoyed the park and looking at the babies. We made Valentine’s cards; James liked the stickers. Then, after braving the cold and wind for about an hour, we made our good-byes. As we neared the car, James ran away, and I got to have my inner monologue wonder what the other moms thought as I chased him, corrected him, and put him in the car crying. Yikes…

Tomorrow we’ll try again. There’s another Meetup group that looks promising – a little more hip, a little more honest – and we’ll have a play date at a different park. It’s a little during James’s lunch time, so we’ll already have an out if it gets awkward. Here’s hoping…

Because I need a person. I’m not whining because I have a amazing husband. And in a lot of ways, he’s my person. But I have a lot of love and room for a really great friend in my life. I do have some really great friends…that live in other states. And seeing them 2-3 times a year doesn’t satisfy my need to have a person that shares my everyday life. Someone who can handle that I’m a mom/wife/pastor/woman who makes mistakes, has doubts, makes awesome muffins, tries hard, cries sometimes, laughs often, and is just a person, too.

Where have you found your best friend? How are you a good friend to others?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Creative Valentine's Day for the Craft-Challenged

Well, this is becoming a series. As I said recently, I am not crafty. I appreciate those who are and, by the blessing of Pinterest, I can follow directions and do some of these things myself! Here is the simple Valentine's Day cards we made for James's grandparents and great-grandparents that I think is super-cute (and super-easy!)

Step 1: Find some Valentine's Day-appropriate construction paper. I guess thinner paper would do, but construction paper is nice and sturdy. We did ours with red paper, because that is what I found in our supply cabinet. Fold the paper in half.

Step 2: Hold your kid's hand on the paper so that the index finger and thumb are on the folded edge. Explain to them that they are going to make someone's day so much better as you do your best to trace their hand with a pencil. Don't hold on too tight - this is supposed to be fun. I imagine, if your child is older, they could do this him/her-self.

Don't worry about tracing the hand for each card. If you have a little one (like my 2 1/2 year old), send them on their way to play or, better yet, go play with them and do the rest later, when they're asleep.

Step 3: Cut out the hand you traced with the paper still folded, being careful not to severe the link connecting the index fingers and thumbs. This is where the heart will appear!

If you need to make more than 1 card (which I bet you do, since I went to the trouble of making one for myself), just trace this one. It's a lot easier than making your little one sit for many tracings. Again, if your child is older, they may actually enjoy doing the tracing themselves repeatedly.

Step 4: Write or draw something on the "front" of the card so that when the recipient sees it, they will orient it the correct way.

Step 5: Write something extra cute on the inside, where the heart appears.

I had sparkly foam heart stickers, but I really couldn't justify taking away from the beautiful heart that the hands make, so I didn't use them. I also wrote the year so that we could all be amazed at how small James's hands were back when. And there you have it - cute cards from your child to all their loved ones.

Hope your Valentine's Day was special! How did you share or show love?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Remember you are dust...

Years ago, when I worked as an admin at a church, one of the other admins talked about “baby preachers” that came through the system. At that time, the senior pastor of her church was the chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry, so she kept all their files in her office. From her, it was a term of endearment.

Now I am one of those baby preachers. I’m often aware of all the things I don’t know, despite a Master of Divinity hanging on my wall. And I’m often struck powerfully, painfully, truly by the grace that I sometimes talk so much about that it becomes subject rather than reality.

I’ve been appointed to my church for 3½ years now. I’ve gotten to know so many of the people deeply. Their faces are dear to me and I know their stories. In teaching an older adult Sunday school class recently, I was able to step out onto political limbs for the sake of the gospel because I was entirely confident that I love them, and they know it, and they love me back. It’s an amazing place from which to do ministry.

So tonight, on Ash Wednesday, which has never been my favorite day of the liturgical year, I choked up…again. I didn’t remember it from last year, but as I looked into all of these dear faces, young and old, dipping my thumb into the bowl of ashes to trace there the symbol of death which has become a promise of life for us, I found my voice breaking. I see an upturned face, an expectant waiting. I approach. I press my thumb into the black grit. I trace a broad down stroke, with the words, “Remember you are dust…” And as I seal the sign across their brow, “…and to dust you shall return.”

Ah me! Across the wrinkles, I wrote it. Across the smooth skin of children, where time has left no sign yet, I wrote it. Across the foreheads of mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons, daughters, wives, husbands, grandparents, grandchildren, I wrote it. I wrote the fatal/immortal sign and felt the anticipated pain of losing them to this mortal sight.

To me, the reminder of our mortality is unwelcome. I don’t like being dust! I’m so much more, as I preached one Ash Wednesday a few years back. Death and the fear of death hang around all of us, why must our faith remind us of it, too? Just look at the pop culture, where men and women spend small fortunes to remain forever young. We all fear the march of time that robs us of vigor and spirits our loved ones away.

And yet, I know the hope in this day is that death does not have final say. Even as we enter Lent, even as we remember that we are but dust that our Eternal Creator crafted in the palm of an almighty hand, we know we are precious creatures who find their eternal home in God.

As William Wordsworth puts it in his Ode: Intimations of  Immortality,
            “The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
                        Hath had elsewhere its setting,
                        And cometh from afar:
                        Not in entire forgetfulness,
                        And not in utter nakedness,
            But trailing clouds of glory do we come
                        From God, who is our home:
                        Heaven lies about us in our infancy!”

This is my "who am I?" for the #rethinkchurch
photo-a-day project for Lent.
Follow me to see more: @UMeldergirl

So while I may not like Ash Wednesday, I do my best to wrestle with it and find its blessing, as Jacob taught. And I pray that I never become so hardened or practical or accustomed to grace that these moments fail to move me toward tears.
But when I got home, just before my 2½ year old’s bedtime, grace continued to abound. He saw me, pointed to my forehead, and laughed. Mommy had a dirty forehead. Oh yes, child, and how much dirtier am I within. But there is good news for me and for you and for all us dirty folks.

What are your thoughts on Ash Wednesday? I’d love to hear your take.