The Narrow Gate

Welcome to the continuation of my blog, post-seminary. Ministry and evangelism have brought me back home to Chattanooga. I welcome your company on my journey.

The original blog, Down In Mississippi, shared stories from 2008 and 2009 of the hope and determination of people in the face of disaster wrought by the hurricanes Rita and Katrina in 2005, of work done primarily by volunteers from churches across America and with financial support of many aid agencies and private donations and the Church. My Mississippi posts really ended with the post of August 16, 2009. Much work, especially for the neediest, remained undone after the denominational church pulled out. Such is the nature of institutions. The world still needs your hands for a hand up. I commend to you my seven stories, Down in Mississippi I -VII, at the bottom of this page and the blog posts. They describe an experience of grace.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Day 1621 - Make a Joyful Noise! (It’s Spring!)

A version of a sermon shared with First Presbyterian Church in Spring City, TN, June 18, 2017.

Last week we learned how God’s New Creation by Jesus offers a response of grace to assuage my friend’s lament, “I feel like God is constantly testing me.” Today, let’s explore a postscript on that blessing of grace from the Psalms.
If there is one book of the bible most people know, it is probably the Psalms. If you just open the bible at the middle, you are likely to find a Psalm.  For all we have heard about Psalms, few of us read them so carefully to realize how emotionally packed they are.
Psalms are a conversation with God about life. You can find a good book on. the Psalms called Praying the Psalms by W. Bruggemann.) 
The Psalms are particularly a Jewish conversation with God that is a relentless expression of Jewish piety. It is a piety often tinged with anger or protest that modern Christians like us who usually have a very different idea of piety find quite disturbing.
We seldom are outwardly comfortable arguing with, or shouting at God. Yet, if we want the most benefit from reading the Psalms we must know a little bit about their context in the Jewish mindset and the creation of humanity.
The ancient Jewish mindset is rooted in (1) the creation story, (2) the story of Abraham, and (3) the story of Jacob whose name was changed to Israel, he who struggles with God. God created all of humanity and declared it all “very good,” yet God chose to single out the Israelites as his favored people and make a covenant with them a promise, “I will be your God” and a command, “You shall be holy.”
The Psalms are a conversation about the thousands of years of Jewish history with God, characterized by anger, celebration, resentment, compassion, submission, rebellion and selective memory. Some Psalms are angry demands from God for explanation or vindication that make us uncomfortable. They don’t conform meticulously to the Protestant idea about piety as deference to God, but if we can get past the discomfort, we find messages for us in the Psalms. If anything, the Psalms are written in pattern that mimics actual life itself (Bruggemann) and if read and used carefully help us cope with life. 
Think about it. Life is really a path of three experiences wherein we pass from a comfortable orientation, into a state of disruption or disorientation of our comfort zone, and then into a new orientation (and hopefully comfort). Often the pattern repeats multiple times in life, and sometimes we feel locked in the disorientation never getting to that last stage of comfort or reorientation.
When life was good, Jewish writers wrote psalms of praise, celebration and thanksgiving to God. When life was bad with disasters as threats to life, loss of a king, loss of freedom, illness and loomed, they wrote psalms of trust or pleas for help from God, or of lament or anger that God allows the disaster, and demand for justification.
We may get more benefit if we read the psalms as record of humanity calling on our Creator as we struggle to make sense of the changes in our life than as a record of history between God and Jews. John Calvin described the Psalms as “An anatomy of all parts of the soul.” (p 65 Brueggemann)
When we read a Psalm two things are important, what we discover within the Psalm and what we bring to the Psalm by our own mind and experience. Those two perspectives, what is written and what we feel, work together to create the message we gain from the psalm.
When you read a psalm that way, often you realize the psalm creates a new feeling or image within you not experienced before. The angry psalms dare you to ask of God and yourself hard questions about life, or to express emotions of great joy about life. All these experiences deal with those stages of comfort, of upset or disorientation, and where equilibrium and comfort is reacquired. The Psalms have a message for every stage of life.

Have you ever felt despair expressed in Psalm 22:14-15:
“I am poured out like water, all my bones are out of joint,
my heart is like wax, it is melted in my chest,
my strength is dried up like a piece of dry pottery and my tongue sticks to my jaws,
you lay me in the dust of death.”

Or, grief described in Psalm 6:6:
Every night I flood my bed with tears.
I drench my couch with my weeping.”

Or; the comfort and relief in Psalm 23:4
            Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil;
            for you are with me;
            your rod and your staff— they comfort me.

Or have you ever struggled with the darker, almost radical Islamic vision that as Christians we must struggle to defeat found in Psalm 139:21-22:
            Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
            And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
            I hate them with perfect hatred;
            I count them my enemies.

I offer this perspective on the Psalms on life because there is within the Psalms a very beautiful postscript to last week’s sermon that God’s New Creation by Jesus relieves my friend’s lament, “I feel like God is constantly testing me.” This is how it goes:
At the beginning of this sermon, I said the crux of the covenant that God made with Israel was a promise and command found in Leviticus 19:1-2. This verse is the introduction to the Law Moses is about to give them: (“implied: I will be your God”) and “You shall be holy because IAM holy.”
As my friend knows, that command preceding the Law, “You shall be holy because IAM holy,” is an ultimate gauntlet or test tossed at humanity’s feet. And as we all know, the Law proves one thing…it is impossible for us to conform to it. That is the reality of our human nature. Sin convicts us and brings the judgment of death. If you will, it is the “test.”
That is a very dark comment from someone like me who regularly talks about grace. But we do have reason to celebrate: God’s steadfast love (hesed) never fails. Regardless of our nature we remain God’s children blessed by Jesus by coming to earth and perfecting the Law, erasing the penalty of death with the gift of grace in his New Creation.
We discovered last week that God’s grace frees us from the judgment of the Law through faith, and we ought to recognize that we, not God, “tests us,” because we can’t shake our sense of uncertainty or unworthiness of forgiveness. Thus, I suggest to my friend and us all that “We aren’t in Kansas anymore” is an appropriate characterization of that New Creation.
But, are we free to do anything now since we have forgiveness?
That is the Apostle Paul’s questions in Romans 6:1 and 15  ”Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?... Should we sin because we are not under law but under grace?” His answer is, “By no means!” because, of course, those seeking grace always measure us by our actions.
We are free of judgement through faith, but we will struggle to be free of sin until that final day of the Lord’s return when the Kingdom of God displaces completely the world of sin. Paul, ever the good Jew, laments in Rom. 7:21-25, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Then he rejoices, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Did you hear that, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
These words by Paul encourage use to recall to the three occasions of life: comfort, disruption and reorientation or a stage of new comfort that the Psalms concern.
Paul knows that first stage of comfort is knowledge of our creation by God, the giver of life. Paul knows that sin causes that second stage of disruption and grief that he so he so poignantly describes as “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And he knows this new third stage of grace, the promise of the Future, when he exclaims, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Today, rather than stewing over whether God is testing us, and wallowing in guilt over sin punishing ourselves when the Lord has forgiven us, let us read and take Psalm 100 to heart:

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.
             Worship the Lord with gladness;
             come into his presence with singing.
Know that the Lord is God.
             It is he that made us, and we are his;
             we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
             and his courts with praise.
             Give thanks to him, bless his name.
For the Lord is good;
             his steadfast love endures forever,
             and his faithfulness to all generations.
Can someone give me an AMEN?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Day 1649 - Let's Talk about Guns

A member of the House of Representatives from Louisiana and others were shot by a man with an assault rifle a couple days ago. You can read about it here. I'm not going to deal with the political issues involved in it, the facts have not changed underlying the great political divide in this country. What I want to talk about briefly is that weapon remembering the long road to recovery of the representative from Louisiana. 

By now, I'm sure all the NRA-types who might come across this blog post are readying a response, or blowing their stack. Please don't, it will not change my mind, and will only waste your time and raise your blood pressure.  This is not an anti-second amendment screed, a desire to see nutty laws as passed in Kennesaw, Georgia requiring residents to own guns, or an effort to parse the second amendment language to refer only to the presence of an armed militia. If you want to fight those arguments please do it elsewhere.

I am not particularly in favor of banning all guns, (though they have little use outside hunting and warfare) but I am in favor of "gun sanity."  For full disclosure, I own a 22 rifle or two and when I was much younger used them often to plunk at cans and bottles in the creek that flowed near my home.  After my Dad died for a while we kept his long-barrel 22 revolver at my mother's house. I think my brother (who has a permit) has it now.  

On rare occasions I'd go squirrel hunting.  Of course even then I worried a little because even someone well trained in firearm safety (as I was) can harm someone accidentally. A 22 round or even a ricochet can travel a mile or so.  It is very difficult to keep guns out of the hands of children.  I cannot remember the last time I actually fired one of those rifles or that revolver.

I'm not arguing against the case about would-be cowboys in state legislatures passing laws allowing hidden carry and unlicensed guns, though I could invoke the sanity argument. I have a beef with the logic (sic) that says it is fine to sell to the public and for the public to own assault rifles. 

It is true that of the social dysfunctions facing us in this time in the US, there are ones with a higher deadly toll than irrational use of assault rifles. For example, more people die from opiod overdose than assault rifles. But I doubt many of the owners and sellers of assault rifles care enough about that problem to help with it. With all these caveats, here is my argument.

The Argument

Sanity is a mental quality concerning guns that we all ought to be in favor of exercising.  Sanity extends to acknowledging the reality that laws allowing others than law enforcement to bring an open, hidden carry, or unlicensed handgun in a restaurant, or God forbid, in a church service or college classroom, endanger my safety and that of everyone around the gun carrier.  Laws that allow weapons of war, even those modified to be semi-automatic, in the hands of the public go beyond the pale of sanity and reason.

It is nothing short of nostalgia, or emotion, to think you can engage in the behavior of a Wyatt Earp or an Elliot Ness without expecting the concomitant mayhem gun battles cause. Furthermore, the probability of finding oneself in a situation to use the gun is remotely small. (Yes you can point to the extremely rare case as happened yesterday where a citizen managed to apprehend two escaped felons without being killed himself.) 

If you want to admire an assault rifle, put it on the wall with the barrel plugged or in a locked gun case with ammunition stored separately where no one, especially children, can get to it but you. 

To own, or to create the circumstance to allow the use of an assault rifle in the public space  does challenge sanity. Assault rifles are not hunting rifles.,  They are not your typical handguns, and usually not even very good for anything but killing and maiming people. So why allow in the public sphere a weapon whose sole function is designed for one purpose: with one bullet to kill or severely main another person so severely that they are disabled?

Assault rifles and their projectiles are designed to cause maximal damage to the person that is hit. The bullets are high velocity, often designed to tumble in flight so they make horribly brutal wounds, and even if not tumbling, they shatter and cause massive impact damage internally. They pulverize bone and explode internal organs. In fact, this is their sole purpose opposed to "normal" handguns, to create as much damage as possible in the opponent to kill or so disable that further resistance is impossible. If you don't believe me, you can read about it here.

(Now, don't get all upset and accuse me of "liberal bias" because I cited two articles in the New York Times.  I could have found other citations making the same points in an NRA publication, hunting magazine, or military manual.)

This is the bottom line. What purpose does it serve to own or sell an assault rifle to the public (I've seen pink versions for the ladies)? If you have such a deep seated fear of our country being taken over by external forces to argue "freedom fighter," I guess you can try that argument. But, you are assuming you can do a better job than the military, and ignoring the greatest threat to being taken over is the malaise of the voters or nuclear (or chemical/biological) warfare. You can't win against either of the latter two with any kind of handgun or rifle. One can defend the right to bear arms in more credible ways that the "slippery slope argument that if one is banned soon all are banned. (I always assume the desire to make money is never a primary motivation to sell them.) 

If you want to plunk at a target or hunt a game animal, do it safely with another weapon. If you want to sell, buy or use assault rifles, you are party to the injuries to Rep. Scalise. 

The bottom line: Assault rifles are intended for one purpose - warfare. Unless we want to promote warfare in our streets, we ought to oppose their presence in and sale to the public. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Day 1648 - We aren’t In Kansas anymore

A sermon shared with the congregation of First Presbyterian Church, Spring City, TN, June 11, 2017, also a follow up on the last post.

Genesis 1:1-2:3, 3:22-24

Psalm 8

A friend of mine wondered in a bible study last week, “I feel like God is still testing us.” That question is wrapped up in two deeper questions, what is sin, and what does it mean to say that Christianity inaugurated a “New Creation.”?
The Apostle Paul expressed the torment of knowing what is the right thing to do, but ever led to chose to do what is wrong.  It is a question we all struggle to understand and is perhaps what my friend really means.
The answer to that question is wrapped up in the nature of our creation, the physical creation that Genesis paints and the New Creation that the Good News heralds. Remarkably, the revised common lectionary texts for this Sunday (June 11) are the creation stories in  Genesis 1:1-2:3 and  Psalm 8.  (The lectionary also includes 2 Corinthians 13:5-14 probably because this is Trinity Sunday.   Preaching the meaning of Trinity is a questionable academic exercise because regardless of the effort scholars exert to explain the Trinity logically or rationally, they put people to sleep because they are trying to explain something logic and reason cannot explain. Why can’t we just accept it on belief that God is (IAM); Jesus happened; Pentecost (Holy Spirit) came upon us and get on with the important stuff - living the gospel?)
Apropos my friend’s worry, there are several creation stories in the OT I call the “old creation”, and the “New Creation” heralded by Jesus in the NT. They all deal with the nature of sin, death and life.
The three verses in chapter 3 of Genesis dovetail nicely to the earlier creation story to Psalm 8 to characterize but not explain creation and death(sin). With the message of Pentecost of last week we find a new perspective on my friend’s worry about God testing us.
The second creation story is Genesis 2:4 – 24 that is probably most familiar, but the first captures the enigma of God of great power who exists infinitely outside of this created reality, and God as a loving parent holding and looking upon his creation saying, “It is all good.”
Neither account explains the perversity of human nature to challenge God. (You may say you don’t, but every time you run into a human limitation, whether it is conquering your cancer or throwing a better curve ball, and work as hard as you can to surmount it, you are validating that reality.)
The real questions are, “Why do we we sin?” “Why do we seek to reach beyond our physical and moral limits defined and given to us by the Lord?” “ Why does the Law exist as an unattainable thing that seems to convict us with the consequence of death?”
The Fall story in Genesis 3:1-19 that I didn’t read, captures only part of the answer. When creation is finished in Genesis It leaves us with these mysterious verses about knowledge of good and evil and eternal life found at 3:22-24. Why is knowledge of good and evil, qualities that are part of our human fabric, so dangerous for us? What is wrong for us to ask, “What is good and evil?” and seek the fruit of life?”

Our questions, and Genesis 3:22-24 anticipate one more creation story, Psalm 8. Within it we find no 7 days, no Satan or serpent just a monologue by an unknown writer who marvels at the magnificence of the created universe, and our presence and power within it. It is a monologue that desperately seeks a dialogue with God. BUT, right in the middle the psalmist slips a double question crying out for an answer, “4What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Why) have you made them a little lower than God, yet crowned them with glory and honor?  Why? - there is that question of knowledge again…Why?

In the world of Palestine and Rome, we might voice these two questions as, ‘Why have you created this magnificent universe and given us the power to rule its fate, not given us the wisdom to choose good to defeat evil?” Or “Why have you forsaken us?” For the entire time of created reality until Pentecost, those two theological questions haunted humanity. If we let them, they haunt us now as my friend shows.
I call the time between the appearance of Jesus in the world and the gift of the Holy Spirit the “Jesus Event” because it evoked a radical permanent change in our relationship with our creator. Pentecost sealed the message of a New Creation, the gospel changed everything between God and humanity. But what changed?
The Apostle Paul said the Jesus Event was a Divine, cosmic earthquake. God turned from testing us to creating a new world of grace for us. The actual fabric of existence changed. Jesus pushed aside this old world with a new fabric of existence that is expanding, enlarging and squeezing the old world away, though it fights tooth and nail to hang on. Early in his ministry Paul believed Christ’s return was imminent. He said  time is so short that the Corinthians should live as if everything of the old world did not matter because the old world is passing away. Don’t marry, don’t have children, just pray and perfect one’s holiness. This “in-between time” demands that we “live in the right way in undivided attention to the Lord who commanded” us to love others as I(God) love you.
As Paul continued his ministry he, like many preachers since, came to terms with the fact that his expectation of the time of completion of this new world by Jesus was in error. But one fact remains. Regardless of when this new creation is fully perfected the Jesus Event changed our reality with God forever. Paul got one thing particularly right, the promise of God is forever dependable. The end of the age shall come in due time (recall Jesus said it is not for us to know when) but it will come, and we are taken under the wing of Amazing Grace.
What we do in that “in-between time” still remains of high importance. That cosmic earthquake changing the nature of humanity’s relationship to God and gave us the power to choose what is good over evil, trusting in god’s grace when we fail.
Let’s go back to Psalm 8. For all of time between the beginning of creation and the Jesus Event. In that time our relationship with the Lord was rooted in a covenant by God to be our God, and an expectation that we will be Holy exhibited by our obedience to his Law under the shadow of judgment, that is we shall recognize and choose good over evil.
Yet at the very beginning God understood that we want to become like gods, not only knowing good and evil; but to eat from the tree of life and to live forever as God does.
We can know good from evil, we have the Law, yet we are consigned to sin and suffer the judgment of sin because we are less than God. Only God knows why. In a Divine enigma, that very Law is a test we cannot pass, it sentences us to death. That is the age of testing that belongs to the old world where the inequality of humanity to God, the struggle to be our own gods, is the source of rebellion and sin.
Then in an irony only possible by our Divine creator, God turned the tables through Jesus to complete the creation story told in Genesis and Psalm 8. God changed the very fabric of existence by the incarnation of God as a human defeated completely human sin and death. The man Jesus knew good from evil and only did good.
In doing this, God through Jesus extended the hand of divine equality to us, not so we can revel and celebrate in it but accept it with humility. The all-powerful Creator opened his arms forgiving sin and sharing Divine immortality. This is the ultimate act of humility. As Paul wrote in Philippians, “Rather than draw on His power, He humbled himself, even to death on a cross.” The double irony is that a righteous person can gain this Divine gift only with the same humility God in Jesus had.  Revisiting Psalm 8, this is the other undeserved gift.
I know I have chosen a subject that is hard to follow. Let’s to try to reduce it to the key points. In an act of power greater than all the power of the universe, God created everything.  He looked at reality and said it was good.  For God’s reason, we are created a little less than God. That is the source of sin, our struggle with God. We will always ask, “WHY?” Why did God want us not to be able to choose good from evil convict us for it? Why can’t we follow his commands obediently? Why do we struggle with God wanting the tree of life?  We resort to every act of worldly satisfaction of selfish human desire we can find, drugs, power, sex, money, vanity and so on, hoping to cover over that gap between God and humanity. We shop ‘till we drop, or drink to a drunken or drug-induced stupor but it doesn’t work…pause… God knows it doesn’t work, but though fully justified to judge us for that sin of rebellion, instead he abolished judgment and testing and gave us faith and grace in the Jesus Event. God appeared as human, lived among us only doing good and always resisting evil, defeated sin and therefore death. Leaving us with the divine gift of the Holy Spirit that offers us the chance to know good from evil and be forgiven when we choose wrongly. We aren’t in Kansas anymore.
We have been given this gift of home and eternal life and forgiveness dependent only having the absolute humility to receive it with the absolute humility of Jesus.
That is true irony, to find equality with God through the humility Jesus had resist the power to live and die on the cross. Paul’s advice is priceless, “live in the right way in undivided devotion to the Lord while you wait.”…  “Live in the right way in undivided attention to the Lord.” To me that sounds very much like the command John tells us Jesus gave us in 13:34-35, again in my poor words, “Love the good life that Jesus lived. Love others the way God loves you because everyone will know God loves you; and that there is a home.”
With that blessing, God has made us the porch light shining the way home to others.

Can I get an amen for that?