Word of God

Three little words seem so simple…”Word of God.” But the truth is, those three words have created division and dissension in so many ways.

What is the “Word of God”? And does it make a difference if I write “word” or “Word”?

Some believe that the Bible is literally “the words of God”, dictated and written down…true for all cultures, times, and situations.

Others believe that the Bible contains “the word of God”…records of humanity’s interaction with the Divine, but also impacted by a specific culture, time, and situation. That is a belief that resonates with me.

But there’s another way to see those three words. The Gospel of John begins by saying that the Word (capital W) has existed from the beginning…and that at a specific time in history became flesh and lived among us.

There’s a hymn that starts out this way:

Word of God, come down on earth,
living rain from heaven descending;
touch our hearts and bring to birth
faith and hope and love unending.
Word almighty, we revere you;
Word made flesh, we long to hear you.

If Jesus was indeed the “Word of God”–the Divine incarnated so that we could experience that incredible love and acceptance–then the Bible is a record of that incarnation…and a challenge to us.

So how did people experience that Word? As the hymn says, he touched hearts, bringing to birth faith, hope, and unending love…at least for those who heard him.

He preached and taught…healed…sat at table with both the “in” folks and the outcasts…

What was most important to him? According to the three synoptic gospels, this: to love God with all one’s being and to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

So…for me, the (W)word of God can be found in the Bible…in the life of Jesus…and in living the faith, hope, and unending love that we allow to be born in us.

Memory’s a funny thing…

I grew up as a PK (preacher’s kid). My dad was a fulltime minister in our faith tradition…so that meant church, church, church…and more church! Every time the church doors were open!

He did a lot of traveling as well, because from the time I was 8 until well after I was married, he was one of our denominational leaders, responsible for different geographic areas. That was before it was so easy to fly back and forth, so if he wanted to see his family during the summer (and if we wanted to be with him), that meant we traveled together. We basically would leave shortly after school was out and get back into town not too long before school started in the fall.

We spent much of that time traveling to and attending family camps–week-long camping experiences that incorporated classes, worship, recreation… Obviously, by the time the summer ended, my brothers and I were pretty well tired of the stories and crafts–we knew them by heart!

There are several memories of those summers. We often camped (tent!) on the way, because motels were expensive for as much as we traveled. We would help set the tent up and get everything ready for the night. We had a small cookstove that my mother cooked supper on for us. As a child I thought it was a marvelous adventure! When it was bedtime, all three of us kids would be tucked in our sleeping bags on our air mattresses, and Mother would read from one of the books she had brought along for bedtime stories for the summer. Packing up in the morning and getting everything ready for the road was usually not too much of a problem…except when it either had rained or was raining. Then trying to get the tent folded up and into the cartop carrier became much more of a challenge!

Looking back as an adult, I marvel at the good humor and patience my mother displayed during those summers. I think I would have dreaded them…figuring out clothing needs, cooking needs, bedding…trying to keep 3 kids from getting bored…being a good ministerial wife…

I have many memories of those camps…but two of them particularly stand out…for very different reasons.

One of them was when I was a young teenager, beginning to notice boys. At this particular family camp, they offered a lifeguard course before the rest of recreation. I decided to take it, partially because it meant extra swimming time. (I never did do very well in the actual lifeguard requirements.) In the class there was was a boy who had a crush on me…and it was very definitely a one-sided crush! I couldn’t stand him! He was obnoxious…and I’m not sure how often (if ever) he brushed his teeth…there was food between all of them. He kept trying to be my partner when we needed one, and I would intentionally avoid catching his eye and try to partner with someone else. That was one camp I was really glad to see end!

The other memory goes back a number of years before that. I think I must have been about 9 or 10. At all of these camps, the mornings started with prayer meetings. I cannot remember where this particular camp was, although I can visualize what the chapel building looked like. The worship had been underway for a while, and I had sort of been paying attention…and being bored, as a child often could be. But I suddenly became aware that something significant was happening. Someone was sharing with our family a message that they felt impelled to share by the Holy Spirit. To this day I have absolutely no memory of what was being said…but I definitely remember being brought to awareness of God’s care and concern for us as a family. It was the first time I remember being aware of the power of the Divine to touch my life (although it was not the last).

I am grateful for all those experiences at those family camps now, although I wasn’t always at the time…and I enjoy being reminded of some of those memories. They have made me who I am and given me a firm foundation to have built on.

Do we make a difference?

If you’re like me, sometimes you wonder if anything we do ever makes a difference in anyone else’s life. This–I think–is especially true when we think about our church connections. Do we really touch people’s lives? In my best moments, I think we do…but still, sometimes I wonder.

This morning I checked my Facebook page just before heading out to a church activity–a meeting where we would be ordaining someone to a special ministerial office and where we would be talking about specific ways to be disciples. I wasn’t expecting anything particularly profound–just thought I’d see what my friends were up to.

Well…

I headed out to that meeting with tears in my eyes! A friend (and former coworker of mine) is in charge of one of the daily worship activities for our church worldwide–the Daily Prayer for Peace. It’s held 365 days a year, regardless of the weather, and regardless of how many people attend. Sometimes there aren’t very many. But the worship outline is also posted online for others who may wish to join in prayer at a time appropriate for where they live. Kristopher shared this story this morning:

In November of last year I arrived at my Temple office to discover a letter upon my desk. It had been mailed to me from a man who was living in a prison cell – a man who, because of his committed crimes, was counting down the days and nights on death row. In his letter he informed me that he had heard about the Daily Prayer for Peace ministry offered by the Community of Christ, and asked me if I prayed for ‘people like him’; people who had made mistakes and who had caused others pain. The letter went on to describe the hopes and fears, the regrets and the realizations this man had experienced during his life behind bars.

Not sure how and if I should respond – feeling inadequate and at a loss for words, I decided to send this man a hand-written , return letter, offering acknowledgements that seemed generic and disingenuous, coming from my spiritually green mind. – But, to my surprise, two weeks later, an otherwise usual Tuesday morning found me opening yet another letter from the same penitentiary. This time the letter included words of thanks and insights into the interests and hobbies that had kept this man going over the many years in his jail-cell abode. As it turned out, music was at the forefront of this man’s passions and through the decades, he had read quite a lot about instrumental music – particularly guitar.

Although he admittedly was no master, he told me that in his designated recreational time, he had become familiar with a few basic chords; G, D, and a minor – so, to my surprise, I did something that caught me off guard. Perhaps it was the Spirit prompting, perhaps I felt guilty – but, for Christmas, I decided to purchase and send this man a copy of the musician’s edition of Community of Christ Sings. I sent the books wrapped in holiday paper and included a brief message explaining this new church hymnal, and pointing out that the chords were included for most of the hymns – I encouraged him to use these books as resources to continue his guitar studies.

Over a month went by and I had heard nothing from the prison or the man, but then, in February, I received another letter and, to my surprise, this letter was composed in a tone so full of joy and hope. It was difficult deciphering the markings of a hand that was apparently full of excitement. Correspondence continued over the next several weeks – ambitions were shared, questions were asked, and an unlikely relationship was formed.

Two weeks ago I received another letter, this one containing a single question and an admission. The letter read simply: ‘Mr. Taylor, do bad people ever get to join the good people again on the right journey? My favorite is number 550 but I’ve messed up too much to be a pilgrim. Please pray.’

I served the Prayer for Peace service today as the musician and afterward was asked twice why I did not play the hymn that was posted on the Prayer for Peace webpage.  This past week I was informed that my inadvertent pen-pal had finally awoken to his last day and was executed for his past crimes. I learned this information as I checked my email just this morning and, in the midst of fighting back a slew of completely unexpected tears, I made a decision – I chose to play hymn number 550, We are Pilgrims On A Journey – for those gathered in the Temple, for myself, and for my friend. I am not a very smart man and I certainly have my days where I just can’t keep my mouth shut and my thoughts to myself – but I do know this much: Loving is difficult – accepting those we cannot fully understand seems impossible – but if we seek God, we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to that love, and acceptance, and peace – in our being aware and responding, we are able to experience Christ; glimpse that divine purpose, if even for a moment. I am glad I chose not to keep my mouth shut, and I am grateful to God for connecting me to this man – for blessing me with ‘people like him’ – I am thankful that, for five months, I was able to fellowship with another Pilgrim on this Journey.

One of the songs we sang as we began our worship experience this morning was hymn number 550. I’ve sung it before and like the words–but this morning, I had a different perspective with that song. I had a face to put with it–not a face I could describe, because I don’t know the name of Kristopher’s pen-pal…but a face that represented my brothers and sisters who are pilgrims with me…who may have made wrong choices, but who are still God’s children and who ask us to walk together, being Christ to each other.

We are pilgrims on a journey,
here together on the road;
we are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load.

Will you let me be your servant,
let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I might have the grace to
let you be my servant too.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
in the nighttime of your fear;
I will hold my hand out to you,
speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping,
when you laugh I’ll laugh with you;
I will share your joy and sorrow
till we’ve seen this journey through.

Words: Richard Gillard, alt.
copyright 1977 Universal Music-Brentwood Benson Publishing

How do we live righteously?

Those of you who know me–or who have explored my blog–know that I love to read. Reading provides me with varying (and new) perspectives…fills in gaps…makes me think. I enjoy sharing books that have challenged me with my “Book(s) of the Month” posts, and some of those books are what has precipitated this post.

Three books got me to thinking this month. Two of them are fiction, the other a history (or, as it is described, a “biography”) of another book. What they all have in common is that they all deal with religion in some form. One of them, Beyond the Sacred Page by Jack Cavanaugh, is a novel about the challenges faced under Henry VIII as Tyndale’s followers were seeking to translate the Bible into English and share it with anyone who could read. That was considered heresy, and those found with copies of the forbidden book were likely to be burned at the stake. The “biography” by Alan Jacobs from the same time period deals with the history of The Book of Common Prayer–a book intended to unite the church with one form of worship after the fractures caused by Henry’s break with Rome. It never really accomplished that purpose, since it was caught up in church/state political battles. The third book, Havoc, in Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett, is a parable set about 100 years after the other two–a time when there were hatreds and fears between Royalists and Parliamentarians and Catholics and Protestants in England.

All three of them deal with individuals and societies who were seeking to live God’s will as they understood it…yet the two novels also have frightening parallels to our world today. They–and we–desire to live righteously, and to have others live according to their understanding…but in their societies there was no room for differing perspectives, no room for error, no room for sin…for being human.

So what does this have to do with the question I posed in the title? For me, everything.

What does it mean to live righteously? and how do we go about it? For some, it seems to be mean that everyone must live according to my understanding of what the Bible says, of what God asks (demands?) of us…with no room for differing understandings. Unfortunately I have heard some preach from this perspective–in effect saying that if I don’t worship or understand God the same way they do, then I’m wrong…in error…and, in effect, damned.

My response to this question is diametrically opposed to that rigidity–whether it is from a Christian perspective or any other. Perhaps part of that comes from the variety of religious traditions in my own family–Christianity, Judaism, Wiccan. But I think–I hope!–that my willingness to allow others the same freedom to experience God as I want for myself comes from my reading of the Bible. I have read the Scriptures several times in several translations…and what challenges me the most is an exchange between Jesus and a questioner who wants Jesus to tell him how to live righteously. Rather than giving him a list of “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not” commandments, Jesus gave a simple response:

  1. Love God with all your being
  2. Love you neighbor as you love yourself

Everything else–everything else–according to Jesus hangs on these two commandments.

That passage of Scripture has shaped me. Have I always lived according to it? No, unfortunately not. But it has become my “go to” scripture when I wonder if what I am doing is a good representation of the One I follow. It has allowed me to give others room to experience God…allowed God to work with others as God chooses to.

So perhaps the answer for me is simply this: I live righteously by doing what I believe God calls me to do…sharing in ways that still gives other their freedom to choose…and by being willing to admit that I don’t have all the answers……..and that perhaps by being open to how others experience God, I just might learn more about living righteously myself!

The importance of rituals

Years ago I remember someone being very angry and saying to one of the church leaders in my faith tradition, “This isn’t the church of my childhood!” The leader’s response was “Thank God!”

I’ve thought about that a lot through the years–especially since I have spent my whole life in that faith community. As I look back through the years, it is very clear that the church I belong to today is not the church of my childhood–and I join that long-ago church leader in saying “Thank God!”

I have come to believe that faith communities and traditions cannot remain static or they die. Change may come slowly in some and quickly in others–but if/when we take the time to look back, we can see changes that allow our faith communities to both adapt and grow.

One of the changes I have seen in my faith community in my lifetime is an awareness of the human need for symbolism and ritual. When I was a child we (as a church) were very proud that we “weren’t like them” (you can add your own name for them in there). We ignored the liturgical year…the lectionary…the rituals that went along with much of that tradition. In some parts of my faith community, that is still true…but not in the congregation I now attend.

It’s an interesting congregation. We minister to some who would not be accepted in many congregations…perhaps because of their odor…their prison records…their homelessness…mental health issues…the extreme dysfunction within their families… Yes, we have some “normal” families (whatever normal really is) who are our core group, the ones we depend on. But there are many more who have deep needs. Some of them we can meet; sometimes we can put them in contact with professionals who can help. Sometimes the needs are so deep-seated that there is not much we can do except listen and be there for them.

We are what would probably be considered a “contemporary” congregation. We often have a band provide our music. There is no dress code–and people come in anything from very casual to typical Sunday church dress. We have an agreement with a local grocery who provides us with cakes/breads/pies/rolls/sandwiches that would otherwise be thrown out because they have passed their expiration date–but that are still good…and we use them for breakfast for some who otherwise would not have anything to eat. Others join in that time of fellowship and sharing, even though they may not necessarily need the food to eat. We are casual…

And yet, even in the midst of that, we have come to recognize the importance of ritual. Yes, we do that through the sacraments of baptism and confirmation…baby blessing…marriage…Lord’s Supper…traditional ministries, all.

But we have also come to appreciate the connections we can make with older, more liturgical rituals. For the past several years, we have shared in an Ash Wednesday service. Sometimes there’s a fairly large group that comes to share; sometimes it’s smaller. But there are many–including some who would be considered non-traditional–who find this service one of the most meaningful we have during the course of the year. It’s the beginning of our journey to Easter. It’s a time to pause, to take stock of who we are and where we are–and to remind ourselves of the need to be companions with each other.

Every year we anoint foreheads with ashes from our previous year’s Palm Sunday. We make a small “travel pouch”–a packet of spices (anise, mustard, fennel, and cloves) that remind us of some of the ministries Christ shared. We anoint hands with olive oil as a symbol of the Holy Spirit’s journey with us as we go out to share God’s love.

This year we included another element. Because of bad weather, we had many who were unable to share in the Lord’s Supper in our usual service, so we had decided to include it during this Ash Wednesday service. We are also in a new building, so there are several new logistical challenges between the new building and the additional service element. But it was one of the best services we have had!

As we released to God through the burning of a small piece of paper and then received the ashes on our forehead, this provided an opportunity to let go of those things that have separated us from God and from each other…a wonderful preparation for the added ritual and sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Then, as we acknowledged God’s love, healing, and nurture through that table, we found ourselves prepared to go into the world, reminded of our commitment and responsibility through the creation of the pouch and the anointing of our hands. The combination of the rituals this year, especially the added one, brought significant ministry to many.

I am grateful that my faith community is willing to take chances…to allow for opportunities of growth, even recognizing that sometimes that growth comes from taking a new look back at some things that at one point we didn’t want to have anything to do with. Rituals can provide us important milestones in our faith journeys…and this one did again this year.

To speak out

There is a poem that has been attributed to Martin Niemoller, a pastor during the 1930s. At first he was supportive of Hitler’s rise to power–but when Hitler insisted that the state was supreme over the church, Niemoller became the leader of a group of German clergymen opposed to Hitler. Following the war, he became a leading voice of penance and reconciliation for the German people. The poem is a poetic paraphrase based on several speeches he gave…and I think it is well for us to think of it today:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out– Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.

It has been far too easy for many of us who claim to be Christians to not speak out on what we see as injustices…because they have not directly impacted us personally. But there is also a poem by John Milton that–I think–says something similar:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

When I was a teenager, I remember watching the Civil Rights marches on television. I could not believe the cruelty of “good Christians” who honestly believed that it was against God’s will to Negroes to want the same human rights as they had…the rights to good education, housing, transportation…freedom from fear of lynching…freedom to fall in love with anyone they chose–and to marry that individual. I marveled at the courage of many of those young people my own age as they confronted snarling dogs, fire hoses aimed at them, people spitting at them and beating them–and yet turning the other cheek…not returning violence with violence.

Today I am dismayed at what I see and hear from many more who consider themselves good Christians–and yet who are willing to deny their LGBTQ brothers and sisters the same human rights they want for themselves. I hear many of the same arguments I heard years ago, only now applied to another group of people who are “not us.” I know there are many who honestly struggle with what they have believed God says and the desires of the LGBTQ community to find a spiritual home where they can also worship God and be fully accepted–not just tolerated. I can understand that struggle.

What I have difficulty with is the harshness of those who say that gays should be killed…or sterilized…or imprisoned just for being who they are or for having fallen in love with someone of the same sex. I have known too many people who have struggled with their own sexuality and with how they have been taught to see themselves by the church…and seen them leave the institution they have loved–and the institution denied their giftedness.

I cannot imagine what many have gone through. I have heard the voices that say sexuality is a choice–and yet I don’t remember ever making a conscious choice to fall in love with someone of the opposite gender. It’s simply part of who I am. Can I not accept that as being true for someone else?

I have heard others say that homosexuality may not be a choice…but choosing to act on it is, and so to be accepted, LGBTQ individuals must live in celibacy. How can we be so cruel? Some may make that choice for themselves–and that is their choice. But we are created with a need to be connected with each other, with a need to nurture and to be nurtured. How dare we demand that some must choose to live that way because we do not understand?

I have also heard “love the sinner but hate the sin.” That sounds good–but how can we separate the two? I know there are some aspects of life in which that can be done–it is fairly easy to separate the sin of murder from the one who does the deed. But when we are talking about something that is such an intrinsic part of who we are–our sexuality–how can we separate that into two distinct parts? I can’t.

I empathize with those who are struggling with understanding. I’ve been there. But I’ve also come to know that the God I worship is a God who is okay with our struggle–but who also calls us to stand with the marginalized…with those who are too often seen as “other than”.

There are too many laws being passed–not just in this country, but worldwide–that put members of the LGBTQ community outside the walls we have built to protect ourselves, and it is time to say “Enough!” We are all brothers and sisters, and while we will never all think alike, we must be willing to talk with each other…to struggle together…and to find ways of worshiping in full acceptance with each other…and to let God’s holy spirit work within us to bring healing and reconciliation.

Discernment…looking into the future…

I’m at a point in my life where the title of this post has some pretty significant meaning. I retire from the job I’ve had since 1999 at the end of this year, and I’m not sure what the future is bringing. One thing I do know, and that is that I’m not ready to sit in a rocking chair

grandma rocking chair (1)Granted, I am going to do some rocking…there are perks to being retired when a new grandbaby is on the way! But that’s not going to be my whole life…twiddling my thumbs!

So right now I’m trying to figure it out. What do I want to be when I grow up?

Sometimes I wish I could simply look into the future and see what’s coming…not have to worry about making any decisions on my own, but simply let life happen. Unfortunately–or maybe fortunately–that’s not how it works!

So that brings me back to the first part of the title of this post–discernment.

Discernment isn’t just waiting for God to reveal the future. Yes, it is one way we connect with God (the Divine…however you describe the Ultimate Being), but it requires something from us as well.

It takes work. It takes listening…and that’s hard.

I have several opportunities / possibilities that are coming my direction, but discernment requires me to be patient…to let God work within me…to sometimes think beyond my own desires and expectations, even if that seems uncomfortable.

It’s not simply sitting back passively and waiting for life to happen, although sometimes I think that might be easier. At least then I could have reason to complain if things don’t turn out the way I think they should!

But I’m realizing that God wants me to grow up…not to remain a child my entire life, taking orders and direction from someone else without any input from me. That’s being a puppet, and that’s not what I (or any of us) was created to be.

So while I can look ahead and see possibilities, my job right now is to spend some time listening…waiting…thinking…discerning–letting God move in my life, with a commitment to seek the presence, wisdom, and compassion of the Holy Spirit in all aspects of that life.

patience