Friday, August 24, 2012

It's About Time, All the Time

Ephesians 5: 15-20
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In the blink of an eye life can change.  A life can end or forever be altered in ways that just one second earlier never would have been imaginable or even conceivable. 

We think we have so much time.  We fool ourselves.  We procrastinate…you know what I mean.  Tomorrow I’ll give Kathryn a call to see how she’s doing.  Next week I’ll think about having  that talk with my child…we all put off things that seem either insignificant or insurmountable or that we just procrastinate because we think we have time. Name your procrastination! Unfortunately, we don’t have as much time as we think because we never know what is around
the bend in the road when we wake up in the morning.

I suppose on one hand that’s a good thing because if we were to focus only on the finite and fragility of life we would drive ourselves crazy.  We don’t want to live in the world of ‘what if’s’ that would be awful!   If that were the case then we would lose the incredible opportunities for joy, love, pleasure and thankfulness that are in the present, and that’s for what life was created. 

To be able to balance the now and the not yet, today and tomorrow, this minute and the next, wouldn’t that be wonderful?  To understand and live life, and its related counterpart death and to keep them in balance takes a mature awareness and strength.  Oh that we were all Zen Masters living the practice of mindfulness.  Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen Master, practices the art of mindfulness believing that mindfulness is the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment; touching life intensely, profoundly in each and every moment knowing fully that all we truly have is the present. 

Good words to live by?  Yes, of course, absolutely!  Easy to do?  No, of course not, but possibly though!  That’s why Hanh calls it the practice of mindfulness; it’s not something that comes naturally to us but it can be practiced if we put our minds to it each day.  Live in the present, that’s all we have. We would be so much better off if that could happen and practicing the art of mindfulness would be a welcomed discipline enhancing each moment and every interaction that we have with one another. 

Ephesians Context
I wonder if the author of Ephesians was ahead of his time because he also talks about living in the present.  Far removed from the hubbub of Jerusalem where stories about Jesus’ death and resurrection were circulating wildly, live the people in the cosmopolitan port city of Ephesus.  Christ-followers in a culturally pagan and gentile society, the people have been told that Jesus is coming back…soon, real soon…within their lifetime.   

Admonitions are abundant!  Be careful.  Do not be foolish.  Do not get drunk.  But so are the sanctions: be filled with the Holy Spirit, sing Psalms, make melody, give thanks.  What the author focuses on is time and the passage of it.

“Make the most of time”, he says, because the days are evil.  Evil in the sense that people, who did not accept Christ and believe in the life changing events of his life, they thought were evil.  I’m so glad that religious tolerance, thinking, and diversity has changed over 2,000 years and that we no longer believe that non-Christians are evil.  But with the expectation that Jesus was to return came the heightened need for ‘getting it all right’.  Watch, wait and be ready because he may just come back today.

He urges people to live as wise people not as unwise people do who do not make the most of their time.  Make the most of time!  That is, look and see, listen to and understand, accept and help those people around you.  Those people or maybe even you may not be around tomorrow.  Life is about time, all the time.

Ground Hog Day
In my mind there has never been a better illustration of living as an unwise person and then, finally in the end, a wise person within the framework of time than the movie, Ground Hog Day.  Bill Murray plays Phil Conners a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania TV weather reporter.  Dispatched to Punxsutawney, PA to cover Ground Hog Day he is none too pleased…been there done that!  He’s bored and tired and frankly, thinks this ground hog stuff is a bunch of hooey.  In addition, he’s not a very aware man to people around him or their feelings and sometimes, often he’s downright rude.

He covers the story, with less than an ounce of enthusiasm.  When Phil tries to return to Pittsburgh on February 2, the day after Ground Hog day, he wakes up to a blizzard that paralyzes Punxsutawney.  He is stuck. He can’t get out and no one can get in.  The roads are impassable.  The movie goes on. 

Each day you see the alarm clock awakening the dawn, which is not so unusual, however it is the same day.  Over and over again Phil wakes up to February 2.  He goes through the same routine, the same steps, the same actions each day.  The weather report and the news report are an exact replica of the day before, which, of course, was the same day.
Gradually however, because he gets another chance each day, he begins to learn how NOT to repeat his mistakes.  He begins to see beauty in the people around him and the blessing for which each encounter has the potential.  He progresses from a very unwise, unaware human being to a wise, alert and much happier one.  He gets it.  When that happens, the page on the calendar finally flips over to February 3. 

Phil was lucky because he had many chances to get his life on the right track, to learn how to do the decent thing.  We don’t quite have that same type of obvious opportunity as Phil so we must live acutely aware of God’s grace in each new dawn and at every juncture that we encounter living as wise people making the most of our time.

Living in the Moment
Living in the moment.  Being completely alert to the possibility of what life has to offer at this particular moment in time is exactly what the Epistle of Ephesians talks about and what a Christ filled life is about.  We don’t know when Christ will return so to put off serving him is not an option.  We don’t know what the next minute will lay out before us so we must be ready, emotionally and spiritually for whatever the future holds for us.

Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish sage from the century before Jesus asks the question, “If not now, when?”  Or, in context, "If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?"  

If not now, when will you reconcile a relationship that is badly in need of repair?  If not now, when will you work through your anger or hurt?  If not now, when will you show your love for someone special?  If not now, when will you help others to achieve their greatest potential?  Now is the only time that we’ve got.  It is a wonderful and beautiful gift from God. 

To live in the moment is to live a life completely fulfilled.  I believe that is what we all yearn for in life.  Fulfillment and joy.  Come on friends, let’s go…it’s about time, right now.


Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Good Words to Live By

Ephesians 4:25-5:2
Nothing’s New
“There is nothing new under the sun.”  (Ecc. 1:9)  So says Quoheleth, the teacher, of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible.  He was talking about the meaning of life and wisdom and time, a certain time for every matter under heaven.  (Ecc. 3:3)  He also says, “Vanity!  Vanity!  Everything is meaningless.”  Seems he’s a little down on things, granted.  Yet he really does impart practical wisdom for everyday living if you can deal with his defeatist shtick that he can’t seem to shake.

Yet the older I get the more I realize that there really is nothing new under the sun.  Ideas reinvent themselves into new and improved ideas.  Inspiration and plans develop and then subside only to resurface and metamorphose into someone else’s brainchild.  Even my hip-hugger, bell-bottomed jeans have made a comeback only I don’t remember them being so incredibly uncomfortable.  Nothing new!  Human behavior adapts and changes throughout time to reflect the cultural and technological advancements of an age.  However the quest for meaning and understanding does not.

There is nothing new under the sun; no behavior, no invention, no thought that does not endeavor to find significance with its particular situation.  The universal church, too, still strives to find meaning for itself.  What’s its purpose, how are we to act, what is God calling us to be for today, in today’s norms and accepted practices. Those questions are just as prevalent today as they were back in the first century.  There is nothing new that the church has not seen already nor been through.

The Church at Ephesus
The fledgling church at Ephesus really had their troubles.  Paul missionized this great port city on the Aegean Sea which is now a part of present day Turkey.  In his verbose style and manner Paul sets up a community of Christians within the many pagan cultural influences of the Greco-Roman world and within existing Judaism.  Not a small task if you ask me, the Roman Empire seemed rather forebodding.  But then again, ‘tentmaking’ as we call it today or church founding never is and easy task.  You are up against great odds with very little to start with; you go out on a wing and a prayer as they say.

After Paul saw that his task was finished he left the community and all ‘you know what broke loose’.  Lying, anger, stealing, evil talk, bitterness and wrath, wrangling no less and slander…probably over very large issues, and it would most likely be safe to say over minutia that is not worth losing sleep over.  You know how small things can fester and become larger than life, mega, super-sized problems, especially at night while you are lying in bed wide awake.  So this very same letter to Ephesians that can talk about mature Christian unity…on the turn of a page addresses some nasty underlying issues that have arisen in this church at Ephesus. 

The Church Today
Seems like things never change, eh?  The universal church is not without it problems today as it was 100 years ago or even 1,000 years ago.  Schism happens!  If lying, anger, stealing, evil talk, bitterness and wrath, wrangling and slander are present in the church I wonder sometimes why anyone would want to join the church who displays, at times, the darker side of human nature?  But those of us who embrace ‘the church’ know of the benefits that the church can and does give.

The church is no different in that respect than any other institution where people try to coexist and find meaning in what they do.  But those of us who embrace ‘the church’ know of the benefits that the church can and does give. What makes the church different is that with God’s grace and help we have effective guidelines and can overcome our differences.  God in Jesus Christ is spiritually and physically present and you don’t find that at a sports club or social service agency.  Differences, disagreements, and arguments can be worked through with forgiveness because with forgiveness comes cleansing, reflection, transformation, and hope and we all need hope in our lives. 

We can put away the old self, the old ways, the old being and put on the new.   Out of our mouths can come not evil, but ‘only what is useful…so that our words may give grace to all who hear’.  Don’t we want to be God’s face of grace to each other and to all people?  Even though it’s a pretty tall order wouldn’t we want to be imitators of God showing kindness not anger, love not hate, grace not wrath?  Wouldn’t we want to speak truth as close to how God can speak truth so that others are valued, loved, needed and wanted?

Wilton Congregational
I found this old letter stuffed in the walls of the shed as they are renovating it.  I can’t quite see a date on it but it definitely was addressed to you, from none other than Paul himself.  It’s amazing!   It begins….

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are in Wilton and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. My dear Wiltonians:

I write to you today about some things that I have heard about you since I left your community.  Now don’t get squirmy in your seats or all of a sudden remember that you’ve left a pot boiling on the stove at home and prepare to leave.  What I have to say is good because I remember with fondness the time that we spent together immersing ourselves into building up the body of Christ at Wilton.

God, through our Lord Christ Jesus, picked me up and gently placed me down in this foreign land and together we built, spiritual brick by spiritual brick, this beloved community.  I didn’t get a lot of stage direction from our Lord Jesus Christ, just a little.  I only knew intuitively that in that so many years a community will have seen birth, death, marriages, divorces, tears and laughter, anger and ‘words’, divisiveness, cohesiveness, love and forgiveness.  It is an inevitable part of life.  Yet I, Paul moved forward in faith knowing that you no longer could live in darkness through life’s calamities and joys.

You have not been without your problems, this is true.  There's nothing new, as my ancient friend Quoheleth said, remember?  But you have worked through them because of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. (Eph 1:15)  It is strength and love which binds people together as a church family and I believe you embody that.

I am struck by how deeply relational you are.  You love to be together expressing genuine concern.  This is good.  You sit side by side in committee work for which I give God thanks.  You hammer nails next to one another for which others give God thanks.  You walk together, play tennis together and golf together because you are genuine friends yes, but you must always remember from where and in whom your friendship exists.  This is exactly what being the body of Christ involves. 

But I, Paul must warn you not to get too comfortable in your ways or think that you are the only church in town.  You are not.  You are one of many houses of worship and for that very reason you must work diligently to be relevant in people’s lives always without losing your integrity as a Christian house of worship.  That is a difficult balance.  The good people of Wilton have many choices, work hard to be at the top of their list for it is Christ’s love that you extend to others when you walk the aisles in the marketplace, dine at the open air cafes, or sit in the bleachers at a Warriors game or a Wahoo’s swim meet.

In a letter to my friends in Ephesus I encouraged them to ‘be imitators of God, as beloved children, and to live in love’ (5:1)  I encourage you to live in love also and to imitate God as best as you can.  Show love not anger, be generous not stingy, put away egos and do not walk away when you don’t get your way but pray at all times that the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ will be present among you.

My plans now take me to spread God’s grace and peace to the communities of Westport and Greenwich and even up as far as Litchfield county but I will send others to be with you in my stead.  Be at peace my friends and live in love and may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.  Amen.

Monday, August 6, 2012

What Do You Seek?

John 6: 24-35
In this day of religious branding for all sorts of things and reasons in the church, to use the word ‘seeker’ takes on Evangelical cadence.  A lot of more fundamental churches have used this moniker; those who are ‘seeker friendly, purpose driven’ churches like Willow Creek in Chicago and Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in Southern California.  It speaks to a whole lot of people since these types of churches are some of the faster growing churches in America.  What they know is, people seek and so they give answers and are pretty clear cut about it.

But it’s not that easy and we can’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Because honestly, and in all actuality, we are all seekers.  We seek spiritual fulfillment.  We seek deep meaning for our lives.  We seek the exotic in the mundane corridors that we’ve all walked and we all seek to be loved.  Just like our forebears who came to the shores of these United States who sought out religious freedom, we are seekers too who stand in a long line of tradition. 

The people in Jesus day followed him from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other.  They sought him from Tiberius to Capernaum.  They sought him up the mountain and down to the seashore.  They followed him around until they cornered him and then showered him with their questions, doubts and fears.  Probably their questions were not all that different than ours.  We just have the advancements, complexities and advantages that 2,000 years will bring.

So let’s pull this piece of scripture apart and see what meaning it might have for our lives.  The large crowd had dispersed, you remember from last week Jesus had just fed a crowd of about 5,000 people.  The next day they went in search of Jesus.  They had kept their eye on Jesus and watched him.  They watched the activity down at the dock, who was getting into the boats and who was not on a boat.  They were persistent in their seeking and finally found Jesus on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.

Then the questioning begins.  ‘When did you get here?’ the people wanted to know.  Seems like Jesus was a bit put off though rather than impressed with their sleuth work.  He chides them, ‘You sought me out because I gave you something to eat not because you were able to glimpse God through me.’  Jesus, if you haven’t guessed it by now, always thinks much deeper than the crowds.

And he continues, ‘Don’t work for food that will eventually rot and die, work for something that will last’.  He is still trying to help them understand that God is the only one who can bring them peace but then they get hung up on the word work that Jesus used.  ‘What do we have to do?  What God works do we have to perform? Give us a clue as to who you are’.  

‘Believe in me,’ Jesus replied.  ‘That’s your work!’  “Just believe in ME!”
This had to be one forgetful crowd of people because they then ask Jesus to give them a sign like Moses, like feeding 5,000 with only 5 barley loaves and 2 fish wasn’t enough of a ‘sign’.  They were still searching, still seeking.  Jesus had to point out that Moses wasn’t the miracle-worker, God was the one who had supplied the sustenance for their living.  So too, Jesus is the bread of life, through him God will be indelibly imprinted upon your hearts.  God is the ultimate miracle worker, peace bringer, hunger satisfier.     

Franseiska, a young German woman of 24 years, also a volunteer at Grandchamp like myself, was telling me about the previous year she had spent at Taize in France.  Taize, a community very similar to Grandchamp, is a place that ministers primarily to young adults.  The brothers live and work in the tradition of prayer, song, and silence, much like Grandchamp but have focused their ministry on young adults. 

And because it is for young adults the older adults, those who are over 29, take a back seat or rather are given different attention.  As Franseiska explained, ‘for elders’ as they are called, ‘questions about life are different, what they seek from the experience is different.’
We all have questions and these questions differ as we age.  When we are young we seek to find our place in the world because the world is large and time is endless.  When we are elders we know our place, what we’ve accomplished and what will be left undone (and it’s ok) and we seek to find meaning for the time we have left.  To seek is good.  To seek spiritual refreshment in Christ is excellent.

Perhaps this is what Jesus meant simply when he said, “I am the bread of life”.  We know we need sustenance each day, that we can only live so long without food and drink, we need the living Christ within our hearts foremost each day because it is he who will lead us into the presence of God who will hear our questions and who will give thanks in our seeking.  And in this broken world we need a place of shalom in which we can reside.

At Taize many questions are answered simply by giving oneself over and residing in the presence of God.  'Just believe', Jesus said, 'that's your work, just believe'.

Rainier Maria Rilke said in “Letters to a Young Poet”, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and…books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live….into the answer.”

Rilke, Taize, Jesus, they are all right!  Peace and joy, comes from God and from living the questions in the very present.  God gives meaning to life just because.  In God’s presence we have meaning simply because we live and breath.  So if you have to live the questions, live in God’s presence because you must, live in peace because you will.