God always leads us forward.

It is easy for us, when times are difficult and the way forward seems unclear, to harken back to a simpler time, a “better time,” the “good old days.” Were some things better in earlier times? Perhaps. Do we miss things that have gone the way of the dodo bird? Certainly. There were advantages to smaller communities where neighbors knew each other and kids could run the streets till dark without worrying their parents. At least that was true in some neighborhoods.

Human nature, psychologists tell us, is hard wired to remember the good and forget the bad. Jesus even borrows the illustration of a woman who has just given birth to a healthy child – the joy of holding this new infant causes the pain of the delivery to fade almost immediately. (John 16:21) So maybe somethings were better. And maybe we have forgotten how bad some things were. And maybe some things were worse for others than they were for us. Maybe.

Today, just like all the yesterdays and all of the tomorrows, is a mix of good and bad. Or as the prophet Billy Joel says, “The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

There is no harm in remembering the ‘good old days,’ so long as we are honest about ‘the bad old days’ too. If all you are looking for is the comfort of nostalgia and a walk down memory lane, then #TBT (Throw-Back Thursday) all you want with photos and stories of yourself and your loved ones in years gone by. But don’t try to relive the past. Some things, like the movies Footloose and Vacation, are best left to our memories rather than remaking them. And lately we’ve been wanting to introduce our kids to some of the movies that we enjoyed at their age, only to recognize that either: a) they really aren’t that good, or b) they really have some pretty bad underlying messages of male privilege, white privilege, misogyny, classism or other biases that we want to move beyond (sorry Bill and Ted, Wayne and Garth, and the cast of Monte Python).

There is something attractive about things from an earlier, simpler time. My son and I spent half a Saturday at a vintage video game convention, and he is longing to start a collection of his own. He has several modern game systems, but still wants this older technology which is relatively slower, clunkier, less realistic. People collect antiques and restore classic cars from a similar motivation. I don’t know if it is universal, but it certainly seems common in the Modern / Postmodern West.

This harkening back to a romanticized past is nothing new. In Exodus 16 we encounter the Hebrew people, only a short time and distance out of their generational slavery in Egypt. Already they are longing for the simpler world they have just escaped. Already they seem to have forgotten all the hardships they endured. All they know is that the present hardship, lack of food, was less of an issue in the past.

The reality: food was still scarce, but they knew from whence it came – from their slave masters. You see, their old life did not require any faith. Work or die. If you work, you will probably get to eat. They had no control over the situation, and were dependent on the capriciousness of their overlords. What they preferred is the black and white world of oppression and violence they have just escaped, because they were less dependent on their own responsibility, and free of a relationship of mutuality and trust.

It is understandable that we should look back with fondness to times in our lives where some of the present troubles were absent. Back when we were younger and not responsible for jobs and incomes and housing and food and medical bills. Back when friends were made easily and the worst arguments only lasted half a school day.

And people are selective about the times to which they want to return. No one says, “Let’s go back to the World War 1 or the great depression.” “Remember the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that killed perhaps 100 million people? Yeah, that was a great time wasn’t it?”

People long for times that were good for them, or they imagine would have been. How about the 1950s, for instance? So many people recall those days as the heyday of the American dream. The US had survived the Great Depression, won another World War and defeated fascism (or so we thought) with the help of our allies. Religious participation was at an all-time high. Prosperity and upward mobility were available to increasing numbers of people.

What if you were a woman who had enjoyed the increased responsibility and freedom of the workplace during the 1940s? Too bad, you’d need to head back to the role of homemaker. What if you were a person of color who had enjoyed the increasing integration encountered in the US armed forces? Too bad, you’ll need to find your place again in your local community.

And what about the fear that gripped the nation over the Red Scare – the rising anxiety over a potential attack from Russia or one of her allies, perhaps from as close as Cuba? How many of you remember practicing hiding under your desks in case someone dropped a bomb, as if that would help. If you were close enough to need shelter from falling debris, then you were likely going to die from radiation poisoning, either immediately or slowly and painfully. Yeah, let’s bring that back why don’t we?

There is something within us, I think, that wants an enemy to fear, and to blame. We rally together and stir up our individual and collective gumption against a threat, real or imagined. If there isn’t a real one, then we will manufacture one, and the spookier and less tangible the better.

We get riled up about “those people” who think and believe differently than we do, and suppose that their private behavior will somehow destroy our way of life, rather than the actual children and old people who are suffering and dying alone around us every day. We decide we need to defend our way of life from people of a different religion, when our way of life seems to include allowing children to be infected by generational poverty.

It has been said, “You can never go home again.” I don’t know if that’s true or not. It seems likely, since the world around us, the people who inhabit it, and even we ourselves are constantly changing. Whoever we were in that place, the person and place no longer exist as they did then in that recalled (or imagined) moment in time.

God will never take us back to the place we were. God is always calling us forward toward something new. In every redemptive episode in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament, God leads people forward. Even when the Israelites return to Jerusalem from Babylon the place and people are different, new. At the end of all things we envision the Lord of all saying, “Behold, I make all things new.” A new heaven. A new earth. (Rev 21) God will not recreate some idealized slice from the past, but will renew the face of the ground, and us with it. (Psalm 104).

What does all of this mean for me? For you? For this church? Your church?

It means that we can remember and celebrate and give thanks for our past all we want. We can and should learn the names and stories and the lessons they tell us. But we cannot go back to a time that was. All we can do is go forward. And that may be a bit scary, because our recollection is that in the times past our needs were met and the pews were full and the community knew our name and was glad that we were here. Maybe none of that is true anymore.

What is true? God will provide for us on the journey in which God leads us. God calls us to live today and tomorrow depending on holy and divine provision. God calls us to live with hope and to proclaim hope and to offer hope to those around us.

Where are we going? How will we get there? What will happen when we do? I have no idea. Neither did the Hebrews when they left Egypt. What Moses did promise them is that if they would look to God, would listen and follow, then God would lead and guide and provide. God would make a way where it seemed hopeless. God would enable them to overcome insurmountable odds. God would preserve their name and their heritage for generations to come, if they would be faithful and trust and go.

The prosperity of the US came at the expense of enslaved and underpaid labor and the wanton overconsumption of natural resources and pollution of land, air and water. Even today much of our food and consumer goods are produced by underpaid labor that is often anything but free. What would a life be like where everyone in the chain of production made a living wage? I really don’t know, but is there any other ethical choice but to move toward that future?

How long does it take to unlearn generations of ingrained belief and behavior? For some it can happen in one generation, with the right environment and inner resources. For most, we make incremental steps, one generation at a time, like fish crawling onto land and learning to breathe air. Numerous spiritual and psychological theories suggest that most of us can only make incremental advancement toward wholeness in our effort to overcome familial and cultural pathologies. Domesticated cats, dogs and pigs are great examples – it takes several generations to temper their wild spirit, but only one generation for them to become feral again. Spiritual, moral, and cultural advancement require constant vigilance against our darker inner inclinations.

When we come together as a community (congregation, organization, neighborhood, company, city / state / nation) we want things to be good – most people do. We want peace and prosperity for as many as possible, starting with me and mine and extending outward. If I have to choose between my loved ones and strangers surviving a tragedy, I’ll choose mine every time. But what if that is a false choice taught to us by our old slave masters? What if there is a third option, or multiple creative middle roads where everyone can win, or at least most?

Again, God tells us of a dreamed-for future where there is no sorrow, suffering, crying or pain. (Rev 21:4) Why can’t we begin working toward that today? Our old masters told us that the world’s resources were limited and that there would always be winners and losers. We were told that the only way you could get what you needed was to take it by force, to win in a battle, to play the game. They told us that you only got what you earned – good or bad. If you worked hard you would get good things. If you get bad things, there must be something wrong with you.

God tells us all of this is a lie. God tells us that we are to look out for one another, to consider others as better than ourselves. Yes, we are to work – for the betterment of all, not just ourselves. God tells us that if we will hear the divine voice calling to us in the stillness, in the secret place of our heart, and in the voices of the suffering around us, then we will know what to do and will have all the resources necessary to accomplish far more than we can presently imagine. God will give us dreams and visions and the will and way to see them come to fruition.

God always leads us forward.

Download a pdf here:
Sunday 080215 – God always leads us forward.

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Worship Resources for Sunday 080215

Call to worship          Psalm 78 (select vs)

Leader: Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.

People: Mortals ate of the bread of angels; he sent them food in abundance.

Leader: He caused the east wind to blow in the heavens, and by his power he led out the south wind;

People: he rained flesh upon them like dust, winged birds like the sand of the seas; he let them fall within their camp, all around their dwellings.

Unison: And they ate and were well filled, for he gave them what they craved.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION: 36a

Text: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Title: God always leads us forward

Also: John 6:24-35

In Christ God has brought us out of our old way of life and into new life in Christ. At times we may want to go back to the old ways, even though we were in bondage and slavery. God leads us forward.

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Loving God, you call us to lift our eyes and look around us at the wonderful world you have made. You invite us to a place of wonder at the beauty and majesty of your creation, where we can feel both humble and honored all at once.

You also show us the suffering of our sisters and brothers, if we will open our eyes and ears and allow the scales to fall away. We do not want to see it, because some of the suffering we have caused, and some we could prevent or heal if we would make changes in our own lives, but we fear what that will cost us.

Grant us the faith to follow you into your dreamed for future and to trust in your provision when you ask us to give sacrificially. Help us to believe that enough will be available for us if we will ensure that enough is available for others. Help us not to store up treasures on earth but to use them for your glory and the blessing of your children.

Lead us into your future with hope. Amen

Some may be more lost than others

The Parable of the Good Shepherd Separating the Sheep from the GoatsThe bible often uses imagery of a Shepherd and flocks of sheep or goats to illustrate the relationship between God and humanity and among humankind. One particular passage suggests at least three things under this paradigm:

  1. That God will seek after God’s lost sheep;
  2. That at least some of God’s flock are responsible for fouling the nourishment of others; and finally
  3. That God will judge in favor of those who are disadvantaged at the hands of others.

I wonder how this might apply to today’s local, national and geopolitical and religious conversations?

Originally this seemed to refer exclusively to the people of Israel. In Matthew’s gospel (MT 25:31-46) we hear Jesus reinterpret the story. Now it seems to apply not only to Israel but to all of humanity – “All the nations will be gathered before Him” (v25:32). Thus, as with much of scripture, we have multiple layers or lanes of interpretation which are simultaneously offering us truths.

One of the obvious questions to be asked is this: who is whom? Good sheep? Bad sheep? Goats? Lost sheep? Where do we locate ourselves and our group?

The tendency I often hear is to think that “our group” are the good sheep or lost sheep for whom Jesus searches. By implication, the folks who disagree with us on one or another matter of interpretation are thus the bad sheep. This is a very dangerous path to take.

At the very least, let us ask ourselves:

  • Who around us is lost and in need of rescue?
  • Where around us is the nourishment (water and pasture) for others being fouled by our actions?

Some time ago I proposed that we are all goats, at least according to the definition of Matthew 25:42-43. If ever you or I have seen someone in need and withheld aid, then we are goats. End of story. Unless…. God’s grace intervenes because we are at the same time lost sheep. Then, perhaps we have some hope.

The folks who are worst off are those who think they are safe, who think they are the privileged sheep when in fact they are responsible for the suffering of others. They may be more lost than others. (cf EZ 34:1-10 & MT 23)

What do you think?

Here’s the text:
Ezekiel 34: 11 For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out….. 17 As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
(Click here for the full text)

those who went before are with us still

Films offer us compelling narrative and visual images that can stand in for other more complicated ideas in our lives. The scenes figured in Revelation 7 and Hebrews 12 remind me of two stories in particular, one of which I’ve seen again this week and the other I’d forgotten till someone mentioned it recently. The second film is Places in the Heart. The last scene of which depicts the dead and departed gathered together with the living while the congregation shares the Lord’s Supper. Reconciliation is embodied as the sinners and sinned against break bread and share a common cup.

More familiar to me is the Harry Potter series. In several of the books and films Harry is met by those who have died and yet continue to love and encourage him – first his parents, then a gathering of family and friends and again, and finally his mentor. In each instance Harry receives first hope, then strength, courage and finally wisdom – the very things we would want from a “great cloud of witnesses”.

These are not allegories for the texts or other biblical truths – that would risk abuse of both the scriptures and the cultural narratives. They do illustrate this longing we have to believe that we are indeed surrounded by those who have gone before, and that their presence is a help to us.

This is the hope that Hebrews 12 affirms. In our struggles, of faith and otherwise, we are not alone. We are not the first, and we won’t be the last. Others have endured trials perhaps more arduous or lengthy and triumphed. Whether our adversary is physical or mental illness, political or social injustice, theological confusion, or temptation to sin, Christ is our shepherd and all these saints prepare the way of The Lord before us that we might walk in it. To “prepare the way of the Lord” (Lk 3:4) means to make a clear path for God in the world and in people’s lives (first our own). It also means that, like a group of people walking or cross country skiing through deep snow, the first person clears a path so those who follow will have an easier time of it.

footsteps in snow
Shore of Lake Michigan. Chicago, IL © Ken G. Crawford, 2014

In chapter 7 of his Revelation John sees these witnesses who have remained faithful to Christ in the face of great struggle standing around the throne of God in worship. They lead us in worship of God just as in discipleship to Jesus. They go before us to prepare the way, to show us how to worship. When we enter into intentional, focused worship of God we recognize that they are already there. We are “returning to the show already in progress.”

WorshipBeforeThroneOfGod
c.1020 CE, artist unknown [i]

I appreciate Bob Cornwall’s reflections – in particular that they remind us of the global nature of this cloud of witnesses – they come from “every nation and tribe and people and language” in other words every demographic group imaginable. This is reminiscent of Matthew 28:16-20 “go into all the world and make disciples from every nation” and Luke 10 where Jesus appoints 70 additional disciple missionaries to go (70 thought to represent the nations of the ancient world because of the 70 family names descended from Noah in Genesis 10).

As I look at these texts, several things come to mind.

  1. We are not the first ones to walk this faith journey. Often it feels as though the challenges before us are insurmountable and no one has ever faced them before. Clearly that is not the case. Despite technical and political developments, life is really not so different. We live, we love, we get hurt, we forgive, we create.
  2. We will also die. One day the arguments we are having will be in the past of another dimension and we will be with God, worshipping in fullness that which we only know in part today.
  3. Others will be where we now are. As we remember those who have gone before us, one day someone will light a candle, speak our names, and remember us, shedding a tear at the same time that they smile for having known and loved us.
  4. Those who have gone before us may have some lessons to teach us, not the least of which could be to relax just a bit. The things we think, say and do matter, to be certain. They impact the lives of others and the world. But they are not permanent. They too will pass away. Others will need to live with the consequences of our choices, but those consequences are not permanent. Perhaps, as a result, we might learn to hold on to our opinions and needs more loosely, and hold on to God and one another more faithfully.

As I light candles in memory of those I’ve loved and lost, I will be considering how my life might be more filled by God’s grace and mercy. How might I find courage and hope in the witnesses who surround me and cheer me on, even as they surround God’s throne in worship and praise? What might I try, risk, strive, during this next year because I know I’m not alone, because they’ve gone before, because others are coming behind? I’m stirred yet again by Mary Oliver’s words:

“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

Written as a reflection on for All Saints Sunday, 11/2/14, at St. Paul UCC in Dallas. Based on Revelation 7 and Hebrews 12.

[i] http://iconsandimagery.blogspot.com/2009/09/worship-before-throne-of-god.html

Daily Prayer Through Psalms and Proverbs

 

Daily Prayer through
Psalms and Proverbs
Date Psalms Proverbs
1 1, 31, 61, 91, 121 1
2 2, 32, 62, 92, 122 2
3 3, 33, 63, 93, 123 3
4 4, 34, 64, 94, 124 4
5 5, 35, 65, 95, 125 5
6 6, 36, 66, 96, 126 6
7 7, 37, 67, 97, 127 7
8 8, 38, 68, 98, 128 8
9 9, 39, 69, 99, 129 9
10 10, 40, 70, 100, 130 10
11 11, 41, 71, 101, 131 11
12 12, 42, 72, 102, 132 12
13 13, 43, 73, 103, 133 13
14 14, 44, 74, 104, 134 14
15 15, 45, 75, 105, 135 15
16 16, 46, 76, 106, 136 16
17 17, 47, 77, 107, 137 17
18 18, 48, 78, 108, 138 18
19 19, 49, 79, 109, 139 19
20 20, 50, 80, 110, 140 20
21 21, 51, 81, 111, 141 21
22 22, 52, 82, 112, 142 22
23 23, 53, 83, 123, 143 23
24 24, 54, 84, 114, 144 24
25 25, 55, 85, 115, 145 25
26 26, 56, 85, 116, 146 26
27 27, 57, 87, 117, 147 27
28 28, 58, 88, 118, 148 28
29 29, 59, 89, 119, 149 29
30 30, 60, 90, 120, 150 30
31 Readers choice 31

 

Jeremiah 29 (NKGCV)

(The following is my own modified translation from Jeremiah 29, following closely the NRSV. NKGCV => New Ken G Crawford Version)

This text, I believe, is both central to our understanding of God’s call upon the church, and terribly misunderstood by congregations and especially when applied to individual lives. I invite you to read the text, and then I’ll explain why I think this is true.

4 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.

11 For surely I know the dreams I dream for you, says the Lord,
dreams for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.

12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Again, v 11 “For surely I know the dreams I dream for you, says the Lord,dreams for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Those familiar with this passage typically know it with the word “plans” where I have translated “dreams.” The Hebrew is “Machashabah”  (thought, device, plan, purpose,invention) from “Chashab” which can mean “to plan” but also means imagine, consider, think upon, recon, and esteem. “Plan” is an unfortunate and limiting translation because of it’s concrete and specific connotations in our modern culture. We think of building plans, schematics, of a plan for a trip or event, that has every detail clarified and managed. By implication, then, this would suggest that God’s intentions toward us are similarly concrete, specific and managed town to the last detail. Two problems with this, biblically speaking: 1) The text is about “The People of God”, not about an individual or individuals; and 2) the scripture simply does not support the notion that God has every detail thought out in advance. If that were true, then our task would be to discern and follow every micro step in our journey. At any point in time there would be one and only one right and perfect place and way to be in the world, everything else would put us outside of God’s perfect will and plan for us.

Certainly there are times when the Spirit does seem to have a concrete and specific intention in mind for us, individually and collectively. Those moments appear in scripture as well – and they are the exponential exception, not the rule. Take the story of David, for example. We have dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of days accounted for in his life. This leaves the vast majority of days unaccounted for. This does not mean God was absent (“Where can I flee from your presence?” Ps 139:7) but rather that God’s presence is more like the wind that blows, as Jesus suggests (John 3:8). Some will counter with “All our steps are ordered by the Lord” (Prov 20:24). I would submit that we hear Proverbs in light of Psalms “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a Light to my path” (Ps 119:105) and understand that God’s Word and Spirit are leading and guiding us in the way of righteousness, but not micromanaging our choices along that way. Each day may present us with multiple good and right options for living our lives. Righteousness comes in fidelity to God’s spirit i the choosing, and in our commitment to the choices we have made, recognizing that each “Yes” also brings multiple “No”s. My yes to my wife means my no to that kind of intimacy with all other people. My yes to my children means my no to pursuing my own interests (and even what call I think God may have placed on my life) at their expense.

What of these dream then? How and when do they come? The context gives us those answers. God says, “Bloom where you are planted. Bless those around you, even if you see them as your enemies. For your blessing hangs directly on your willingness and actions to bless others.” So, while I am waiting for God’s dream to be revealed and fulfilled in my own life, I am to be faithful to the call of this larger context from Jeremiah 29. I am to to as Micah 6:8 direccts “Do justice together with God. Love mercy together with God. Walk humbly together with God. This is the whole of what God requires of you.” (NKGCV)