Friday, May 3, 2013

Go With the Flow

A friend called me on a recent Saturday morning and said, “This is the perfect day to go kayaking!  Want to do it?”  I immediately said yes.  He told me that we’d meet up at 12:30 p.m. and head to the kayak launch, not even ten minutes from my home.  That was the point of high tide that day (better still with the lunar force of a full moon).  The sunshine filled the sky in all of springtime glory, and there was a cooling coastal breeze.  There can be perfection in this world—even if for only a fleeting moment.
            In my time in coastal Virginia, I haven’t had the time—no, let me correct that:  I haven’t set aside the time—to row through these waters.  I often have taken the Elizabeth River ferry between Portsmouth and Norfolk.  But there was a pilot steering the boat, and an engine powering passengers between the two points.  In the kayak, I was close to the water, and I rowed and steered using the strength of my own body.
            My friend—an avid “kayaker,” reminded me about the proper use of the oar.  Use each paddle to scoop the water. He said.  Hold it at shoulder length.  Get into the rhythm.  Don’t work too hard.  Just go with the flow, and you can do the adjusting and the turning. 
            And so we floated up Cypress Creek on a zigzag course around the marsh grasses.  Along the way, I enjoyed conversation as my friend, one with an engineering mind, reflected on the grace of God in the natural order.  There were times when we enjoyed silence, interrupted by osprey as they soared silently above us.  The dogwoods were in full display, and the sun made the blossoms even more brilliant.
            My friend suggested that we turn around before we came to a highway overpass, and to begin floating back to the landing.  For the first time, I felt what it is like to ride the tide.  My oar was a steering device; only rarely did I use it to propel the kayak.
            Then, my friend made a wise comment.  “Isn’t it great when you can just go with the flow?”  As a fellow Christian, he and I knew that we experienced on the water what the spiritual journey can be like.  There are times when living requires a lot of energy, and that energy often is spent when fighting the currents.  That energy may be needed for moving against the current, or even to challenge the turbulent waters. 
In a memorable story told by Mark (4:35-41) the disciples were battling the stormy waves while Jesus was asleep in the boat.  They wake him and cry out, “Do you not care that we are perishing?”  Jesus does not answer them.  Rather, he stands and, with quiet firmness, tells the wind and the waves, “Peace!  Be still.”
My friend and I had a peaceful day on the water.  We decided to go with the flow.  Even in rougher times, going with the flow can sustain us when we find peace in none other than Jesus the Christ.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Wise Beyond Words

Where’s wisdom when we need it? There are plenty of smart people, and even more experts who can tell us (whether we ask for it or not) how to make a smart choice.  There’s also the great business slogan that does have some merit in itself, “Work harder, not smarter.” 
            We actually need to work wisely.  We need to pursue wisdom in the choices we make.
            You can earn a Ph.D. (or a Doctor of Ministry degree, as I did).  But no school offers a W.D.—a wisdom doctorate.  Some of us can earn it, I think, through the School of Hard Knocks.
            In my daily prayer exercise, Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, the Hebrew Scripture reading is from the Wisdom of Solomon.  That writing is part of the Apocrypha—works of doubtful authorship.  These also are writings that didn’t make the submission deadline for rabbis compiling what we know as the Old Testament.  Yet they are regarded as writings of great value and inspiration.
            Just yesterday, the reading defined “wisdom.”  Solomon is recorded as saying that he began to breathe in wisdom and to soak it in. The Hebrew word is feminine in nature, and the Greek word, Sophia, is feminine also.  Wisdom is a reflection of who God is, and is a gift to all who seek her.  Solomon prays earnestly for the gift which helps to see into the way things really are.  Then, in Wisdom 7:22b-23, wisdom is described:  “There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle.”
            How can we become wise?  Wisdom grows in us when we reflect prayerfully on the Scriptures and also upon life.  When we can allow wisdom to penetrate our hard hearts and closed minds, then we can understand more and more what seems so often to be beyond understanding.  Wisdom comes from spiritual maturity.  Wisdom comes from living in a community of faith—which is the Church at its best.
            In this passage, one quality of wisdom is that it is intelligent.  But that does not mean the accumulation of information or membership in Mensa.  Intelligence certainly involves the gathering of information in many different ways.  Wisdom involves knowledge and insight.  A wise person is able to sort through information and reflect on its meaning and to reflect.  The best reflection happens in silence.
            That’s why the best and rarest qualities of wisdom, the practice of wisdom, can make one wise beyond words.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Glitter or Glow?

One word that you won’t find in the Bible is glitter.  Moses didn’t glitter as he came down the mountain with God’s commands.  Mary didn’t glitter after the angel Gabriel announced to her that she was to be the bearer of the Messiah.  Paul, on the way to Damascus, to persecute disciples, didn’t glitter after being blinded by the light of Christ.
They all glowed as they reflected the all-piercing light of God present before and within them.  Someone once said to me, “I’ve given up on being happy in this life.  I’ve decided that I’m going to be cheerful instead.”  That person chose glitter over glow.  Glitter in life brings attention to self.  Glow helps one catch a glimpse of the presence of God.
Movie stars and media celebrities love glitter.  They want us to notice them and to focus on them, even if only for a moment.  Those who glow really don’t want you to notice them at all.  They want you to share in the light of Christ that shines in them and moves through them.  They want to share the joy and peace that is Christ.
A friend and highly respected jeweler once showed me the difference between glitter and glow in a diamond ring.   He showed me two rings.  One looked splashy and flashy; the other looked calm and deep.  He said, “Some people go for the diamond that calls attention to them,” he said.  “Others want the diamond that glows and draws people in.” 
There are, of course, those who go one step further and purchase a ring with a stone that looks like a diamond.  They want the glitter, but not the cost.  The technical term is a “simulated diamond.”  One man got the right message but used the wrong word.  “That’s a stimulated diamond!”  The glitter must have gone to his head.
Each of us is a precious stone being cut and shaped by God.  We have much value.  In life, we are not called to glitter for God.  We are meant to glow for God.  We are not meant to settle merely for cheer, but for joy.  That is the promise—and call—of the Christian life.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Resting Well

One of God’s greatest gifts is the gift of rest.  That gift also is the least received by human beings.  Ask most folks in 2013 to explain what “Sabbath” or “sabbatical” is, and I doubt that they could supply an easy explanation.
They’re probably too tired to think.
Recently, on one of the news networks, a reporter spoke about a survey on sleep patterns in American life.  Generally, the human body requires seven to eight hours of sleep each night to restore energy and promote wellness.  The survey found that the typical American, especially under age thirty-five, sleeps for six hours or less.  Social media and 24/7 television programming can make it hard for a person to use the “off” switch.
It’s hard to get the rest we need.
So, too, the “Sabbath day” is no longer observed.  When I was a kid, stores weren’t open on Sundays.  To find a place to eat, you had to go to a nearby suburb where many faithful Jews lived and worked.  (Dagnabbit, those places weren’t open on Saturdays.)  And it didn’t matter which day of the week, not a drop of alcohol could be found.  The town was drier than Death Valley.  Even here in the South, it’s rare to find a place of business that’s closed on Sunday.  Lots of families have to get children to athletic practice or competitions.  Me?  Sundays were a day to play at the beach (summer), build snow forts (winter), or torment siblings (any time).
Now all of us are law-breakers.  The Fifth Commandment is ignored.  So the Collect for Saturdays in the Book of Common Prayer has even greater prophetic power:  “Almighty God, who, after the creation of the world sanctified a day of rest for all your creatures:  Grant that we, putting away all earthly anxieties, Grant that we may be duly prepared for the service of your sanctuary, and that our rest here upon earth may be a preparation for the eternal rest promised to your people in heaven.”  God has given us a gift of rest.
That’s true in the whole of life.  God gave the people a month of rest every seven years, and a year of rest every forty-none years.  I finally took that direction for my ministry and have been on sabbatical.  Prayer, reflection, study and writing on prayer have been present in this sabbatical gift.  Renewal and rest in God’s Spirit have been abundant.  I am rested.  God’s gracious command for Sabbath rest makes perfect sense to me.
Rest well.  God said so.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

God and Guns

What does God think about guns?
            As a Christian, I am trying to sort through the passions that people have in this country about the “right to bear arms.”  I said that, as a Christian I am thinking about and praying through the matter—not as an American.  I am a disciple of Christ who happens to be an American.  I have no problem with guns per se.  Weapons are neutral goods.  The Bible says a lot about them, and they are used quite often for good and for ill.  Spears, arrows, even a little stone in a sling have been used by God’s people for good ends and for selfish desires, for blessing and for power.
How do I grapple with this issue?  I have the Bible in one hand, and the American Constitution in the other.  I am also mindful of people who treat them equally.  As a faithful person, I have to look at the Constitution through biblical lenses, just as our ancestors did who wrote the Constitution.
What does the Second Amendment say?  “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  We can become legal experts here and slice through each word or phrase to try to define meaning to suit our own opinion.  It strikes me, for example, that “a well-regulated militia” is quite different than an individual, but a group.  Being “well-regulated” means that there is an authority responsible for the discipline and oversight of that group.  There are commanders and divisions.  If the authors of the Constitution had meant that individuals have the right to bear arms, they would have used that language.
In 21st century America, the arguments for or against gun control do not reveal what really is at stake from a Christian perspective.  Guns in our culture reveal more than anything else the need for power and control over one’s life—a “right” that is quite different than what our ancestors understood.  With rights come responsibility and accountability to the larger community.  Spiritually speaking, we are in a dilemma.  We do not possess guns.  Guns possess their owners.  Guns have become gods.
Until we can have a spiritual discussion about what guns mean, then any other discussion or agenda will make no sense.  And Christ will not be in the discussion. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Imagine That II

How interesting it is that the news media cannot come to grips with the Manti Te’o story.  Reporters and anchors on CNN and major networks all seem to be scratching their heads asking, “How can this have happened?  Why did this young man fall for a hoax?”
            My response:  think about what media professionals do for a living.  Newscasts resent stories in which professional “spin doctors” (especially in political situations) or international incidents (with interpreters) may have some truth and a lot of, shall we say, slant.  So-called “reality television” creates a set of characters who are creating a reality, not living in it.  Movies and television episodes tell stories that take ingredients of daily life and add large doses of fantasy.
            So how is this different from what Manti Te’o has to answer for now?
            Then, at today’s inauguration, the story has come forth that the singer Beyonce simply moved her lips to her pre-recorded voice singing the national anthem.  The orchestra made motions to appear as if the instruments were being played.  The spin—which has some truth—is that voices and musical instruments do not do well in colder weather.  On a side note, that makes me wonder about all of those college marching bands I’ve seen on television over the years at different bowl games….  
            The moral challenge versus the pragmatism of the producers’ decisions about the orchestra and Beyonce is another discussion for another day.  The interesting issue to me is whether we trusted too much in the reality of what we saw.  Did we use our imaginations without our permission?  That’s the line of reality and imagination.
            And there’s an important spiritual lesson here, for a core understanding of evil is that we are led to believe something that is not real.  Demonic forces lead those unaware souls into falsehoods.  Satan is the “father of lies.”
            We must be careful and prudent in the use of the mental capabilities that God has given us through the Holy Spirit.  We must pray for the power to discern what indeed is real, what is virtual, and what is false.  The line can be hard to see.  In Christ, we can find truth and know the Truth.  “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ (John 8:31-32)  The challenge of the virtual and the imagined and the perceived, as can be seen, is nothing new.  The Good News is that we do not have an imaginary or virtual Jesus.
            In Christ there is no lip sync or virtual reality.  And we don’t have to imagine that.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Imagine That!

In the headlines and lead stories, we hear yet another tale of life in the cyber age.  Manti Te’o, a linebacker on Notre Dame University’s championship football team, faces humiliating scrutiny for his fake love affair that came to a tearful end—except that it actually was all a hoax.   
            Manti Te’o’s love affair happened on-line.  He never met the young woman in person.  Te’o was not living a fantasy.  The emotions were real, the love genuine, and the communication passionate.  The electronic woman ended the virtual romance at the time when the football team made its way to the great confrontation with the Crimson Tide of Alabama.  His tearful story became the highlight of heroic sportsmanship.  He lived with his brokenness and put all of his energy into teamwork.
            Now this young man faces the humiliation of the hoax.  His story tells us a lot about the power of human imagination, and the sinful human will that now has an electronic reach.  Te’o definitely is not the first person to deal with the sinful side of “virtual reality” and demonic forces that are happy to use these means for global impact.
            The story reminds me of a movie that made an impact on me as an early sign of the dark side of technology.  Back in 2002, the movie Simone (or S1mOne) foretold the dangers of electronic imagination.  A movie producer (played by Al Pacino) is nearing financial ruin after his top star and temperamental diva (played by Winona Ryder) walks off the set. But the project has to be finished and released.  The producer has learned something about digital technology—and creates a hologram actress, Simone.  The movie is released to global acclaim—and the producer has a problem.  Simone is not real.  She is a product of technology.  No problem—she does interviews from her digital location.  She becomes a global rock star and does virtual concerts before thousands of fans.  And the whole project gets out of control.
            The movie comes to a good end, of course.  Yet it was a prophecy and a warning about how our imaginations can be manipulated.  It’s just another means of blessing—and of sin.  Manti Te’o just happens to be the latest to yield to a virtual relationship.
            This young man has given us a warning about our digital age.  Imagine that!