When Peace is not Shalom

A few weeks ago, I was out walking my dog in Chartwell, my Johns Creek subdivision, when I came across the words, “I hate N-word” etched into the sidewalk.  It wasn’t painted on.  It was scratched on.  I hope that I don’t have to convince you how horrible this is.  Can you feel the hurt this sidewalk could cause to the few African-Americans living here?  And I truly hope the appearance of this graffiti is not related to my new African-American neighbors who just moved in!

We have lived in Johns Creek, Georgia longer than there has been a Johns Creek, Georgia. We even lived here before Johns Creek was named the wealthiest city in the state of Georgia where the average income is in the six digits.  We have great public schools (if – don’t tell anyone – you can’t afford to send your child to the private ones), almost no crime, and we want for nothing. Our garages are nicer and larger than the average homes in third world countries.  I was once proud of this.  It matters little to me now.  It is not what is important.  It is never going to make anyone truly happy.

My husband and I were barely in our thirties when we bought our house – all six thousand square feet of finished floor space – in the “highly desirable” Chartwell subdivision. Six bedrooms and five baths.  Even with a live-in nanny, we had two spare rooms. My husband was a business consultant and I was working my way to the executive suite managing technology companies.  We thought this extravagant lifestyle was what we were supposed to do. Living the American dream.  We thought we had earned it. And truth be told, we raised two amazing sons here.  I am grateful for many things that living here provided.  But I have a far better understanding now of what is important, lasting, and meaningful.

There is one thing about living in this sort of opulence that you have to understand.  There is a high value placed on “keeping the peace.”  Good, smart, upwardly mobile people know how to keep the peace.  Otherwise no one likes you.  No one invites you to their parities.  No one networks with you.  No one talks to you when you walk your dog.

Yet, that kind of peace isn’t real.  Real peace – what the ancient Jews call shalom – is a wholeness that encompasses everyone – not just one’s self or one’s family or even one’s neighborhood, but everyone. Shalom is not obtained until every living thing experiences it.  Often “keeping the peace” is the opposite of shalom.  Temporary and even hurtful.

So today I am going to break all the rules about “keeping the peace” and work for Shalom instead.

There can be no shalom in this neighborhood or city as long as we are okay with this sidewalk being there! I am not okay with it.  Not for a day.  Not for a week.  It’s a hate crime for it to have been written.  And it is an even bigger hate crime to let it sit there.

So I posted the picture I took of the graffiti on the neighborhood chat board.  Within minutes, I had a note from a board member saying I was going to stir up trouble scolding me to take these sort of matters to the board first.  Maybe he had a point – after all, we need to “keep the peace.”  He is a good person so I complied and took the picture down.  I heard from several board members who assured me the sidewalk would be fixed.

It is weeks later now.  It has not been fixed.  I’ve talked to multiple board members and I cannot even get a date from the city as to when it will be fixed.  I can get no details as to what the issue is.  Just a “we are all doing our best.”  And to let them handle it.

This situation is made even worse because in the last few weeks, the city has been tearing out sidewalks throughout the neighborhood and repairing them.  In fact, they tore out sidewalks within feet of the “I hate n-word” sidewalk!  But didn’t remove the highly offensive squares.  Is this intentional?  I hope not.

Then to top it off, while pondering all of this one afternoon, a woman stopped me in the grocery store and said, “You are the one who complained about the sidewalk graffiti.  They aren’t going to fix it.”

“How do you know this?”

“I know.”

Okay Chartwell board and/or City of Johns Creek . . .   I have paid more than $17,000 in neighborhood dues and $100,000 in taxes!  I wish I had made better choices and that money had gone to feeding the homeless or taking care of immigrants. But here we are.  I have never asked you for one single thing in the twenty years that I have lived here.  I have never complained about one single thing in the twenty years I have lived here.  Please fix the dang sidewalk!  Stop all the nonsense and just do it.

I challenge you to never settle for “keeping the peace” and instead seek to create real shalom.  Is it easy?  Not ever!!  Am I going to get beat up – probably not physically, but I don’t imagine my Great Dane and I will get as many friendly waves during our morning walks.  That will make me truly sad, because it is fun to be carefree and loved.  But I can live with being disliked if that is how it must be.  What I can’t live with is a sidewalk that hurts even one person.

Update:  Thank you to all the people who joined me in contacting the city on Friday.  More than 80 of you had shared this blog by noon. The sidewalk was fixed by the end of the day.  Below was an email from the city manager, who was extremely helpful.  The Chartwell board, two members in particular sent me ugly emails calling me crazy and irresponsible, and signing one email by wishing me Shalom.  This after I had pleaded with them to take action for several weeks, offering to make the calls and visit the city myself, and giving them notice a week ago that I would be forced to take action if we couldn’t even get a date — a date for it to be fixed, not even fixed — by Friday.  On the other hand, I had nothing but supportive emails from other homeowners and the city itself.

Ms Fordham

I haven’t gone myself to check yet but I know our crew was directed to pull out that section of sidewalk and replace it. I will go by either tonight or tomorrow morning to confirm that the work has been completed properly.

The Police did investigate and the new homeowner at that address told our Detective that he was power washing the sidewalk recently and knocked off the grout and light cement covering and uncovered the racist graffiti. Apparently it had been written a while back and the County had done a poor job of repairing it to make sure the writing was removed.

So, it seems that this hideous act was committed a long while back and we are unable to investigate. I’m glad it appears that we don’t have a new problem.

I will back check to be certain the work has been completed and I’m sorry for the delay in getting this done. I’m still reviewing what caused the delay but it appears to me that the issue was called in and a work order issued that took a few days to get to. It should have been treated as an emergency and removed immediately. We will enhance our training on how to handle these problems.

I’m sorry for all the delay on our side. It’s unacceptable. I hope our quick work now to rectify this will be satisfactory to our citizens and bring peace to the neighborhood. If I can be of further service don’t hesitate to contact me.

Warren

Thank you to everyone who took action!

Fixing the Sidewalk
Men fixing the sidewalk. Does it seem notable to you that the crew is African-American? I’d comment on this, but it is worthy of more space than I’ve got. 

Coincidentally, Dr. April Love-Fordham is the author of James in the Suburbs: A Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James, which asks the question if one can truly be a follower of Jesus living the wealthy suburban lifestyle.

sidewalk in chartwell3

Experiencing God as a Rock

DSC04900a Monk and JungfrauRecently I have been spending my prayer time meditating on the different ways God has been described in scripture. There are some descriptions that we are all familiar with:  God is love, light, and truth.  Those make sense to me.  There are some feminine descriptions that I personally treasure, but many people like to ignore: God is a mother hen, a woman in labor, and a woman who has lost her coins.  There are also some unusual descriptions that intrigue me: God is a soothing aroma, clothing, and flame.

For I will proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe greatness to our God! The Rock, his work is perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God, without deceit, just and upright is he; (Deu 32:3-4 NRS)

But there is one description of God that I have found more baffling than the others: God is a rock.  Go outside and pick up a rock – look at it for a moment.  How is this God?

I’ve spent the last two weeks considering this as I hiked in the Alps. The first day of hiking – covering a 3600 foot change in altitude over 13 miles of sometimes impossibly steep trail – gave me a lot of time to think.  Though I hadn’t really planned any particular sort of meditation for my hiking, as I looked at my surroundings, I saw rock after rock after rock.  So as I climbed, I begin to consider just what it meant that God is a rock.

The LORD is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer, my God, my rock in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Psa 18:2 NRS)

It was then I became aware of the many different ways that I was encountering rocks: A tiny rock that somehow fell into my boot that made me uncomfortable as it worked its way under my heel.  A multitude of prayer rocks that hikers had stacked where the Weisse (White) and Sefinen (Black) Lutschine Rivers collide.  A huge boulder that had fallen a great distance and taken down every tree in its path.  I saw mountain peaks of solid rock covered with snow.  I saw the ruins of an ancient castle built both upon a rock and out of rock. I became more aware than ever that rocks had different textures and colors.  I saw rocks through which water had carved out a cave.  One night, my husband and I starred at the sheer face of the Black Monk from our bed naming the shapes we could see in the rock.  He saw an elephant.  I saw a dancing alien.  We took pictures of rocks in the sunrise, in the sunset, and in the brilliant noonday sun.  There were rocks, like the Eiger, which are too dangerous to climb.  And rocks that humans had formed into fences to keep the unwanted (perhaps human – perhaps beast) in or out. We sat on rocks, stood on rocks, and stumbled over them. Rocks were everywhere!

They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, “See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” (Rom 9:32-33 NRS)

In the end, I wondered if God wasn’t all of these things.  From a castle fortress that protects me to a tiny pebble in my shoe that makes me uncomfortable until I address it. It occurred to me that just as my husband and I both saw different things in the moon light shinning on the Black Monk, doesn’t God appear to us each differently at different times?  To Moses as a burning bush and to Elijah as a small still voice?  We often use God to create “rock” fences that keep us isolated from one another.  And how many times have I stumbled over God either when I least expect God to show up or when I am pretending God isn’t there?

What I learned most about rocks was that the big magnificent ones take patience and skill to climb.  New skills are learned each day.  Sometimes it helps to have a guide.  And some, like the Eiger, are just too dangerous to climb – perhaps these impossible rocks are there to remind us that we are finite, but God is infinite and that we will never experience all there is to know about God.

God is a rock!  No, wait.  God is my rock!

Rocks from my trip…

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April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. Great for an individual read or group Bible studies!

My Grandfather’s Grandfather had Slaves.

My grandfather’s grandfather had slaves. Let that cold horrible fact seep in for a second.  Could anything be a worse condemnation? A bigger curse brought upon a family?  The fact is that my ancestors were so selfish and mean that they purchased other human beings and forced them to do the work they didn’t want to do themselves or didn’t want to pay someone to do.  Even now the thought fills my office with an ugly smoke that stains the walls and can’t be cleaned off no matter how hard a human being tries. It is a disgrace. And the flag that represented their lifestyle is a disgrace too.

Now skip ahead decades into a new century.

My grandfather (the great great-grandson of a slave owner) is dying and I have been sent to a room on the second floor of the hospital to see him.  This is the hospital where I was born and the hospital where he will die.  I walk run up the grand staircase in the lobby.  When I opened the door to his room, it is filled with so many people that I cannot see my grandfather.  Five, six, seven African-Americans.  He is the only white person in the room.  There is laughter and talking.  Certain that I have come to the wrong room, a plump 60-something woman sitting on the hospital bed turns to see who had opened the door, “Honey, you are in the right place.” Then turning back towards the bed, “Charlie, your granddaughter has arrived.”  She stood and waved me in to see my grandfather.  He was sitting up and introduced me to his friends – coworkers who had come to see him. They told me that he was a good man and that he talked about me a lot.

It made me proud that he had such good friends.

My grandfather did not die that day, but it started a conversation about race that we had never had before.

His family had come on very bad times by the year he was born.  Of course, slavery was long over.  His mother died and his father became ill with a fever that left his dad mentally incapacitated.  So my grandfather had been sent to live with relatives.  The last education he had was in the third grade, when he was forced to take a job building furniture in a factory.  He was so small he could not reach the work table and had to pile up wood to stand on.

Of course, racism and discrimination was legal at that time. At the factory, the black men were paid far less than the white men.  Even their work areas were segregated.  But somehow, my grandfather made friends with a few of the African-Americans. One day my grandfather mentioned that he had a project to do at his house that weekend.  On Saturday, one of the black guys showed up at his house to help him.  They worked all morning, but when suppertime came, instead of inviting the man in for dinner, my grandfather told my grandmother to feed the family in the kitchen, but bring the man his supper on the front porch.  He didn’t invite him into the house.

Not inviting the man in horrified my father and when he expressed it to my grandfather, my grandfather was overwhelmed with shame.  My grandfather’s apology to his friend opened up a discussion about segregation – about what it meant to be black in the south.  My grandfather’s heart turned that day.

storeIt was then that my grandfather decided to travel back to the part of North Carolina where his grandfather had lived to search for descendants of the slaves his great-grandfather had owned. There, in a black-owned country store, sweeping the floor, he found an older black man who shared our family name.  Perhaps it was my grandfather’s charm, but more likely, it was coupled with the kindness of these African-Americans that enabled relationships to form.  They were open and kind to my grandfather and became friends during his many visits which followed.

It was during these visits that my grandfather came to the understanding that segregation and discrimination were nothing but evil. He was also in a position to do something about it – although it was small, he still could do something!  He had risen to the level of supervisor at his factory job and became determined to integrate the work areas.  No longer would there be a separation between black and white factory workers.  He would call for equal pay and benefits too.  It cost him his job.  Until he was hired back a few months later.

The people in his hospital room that night had worked with my grandfather.  Their lives mattered to him. And his life mattered to them too.  It is by doing small things – being kind, loving, and speaking up where we have power and even where we don’t – that we can make change.

Make a commitment to build friendships with a person of a different color. Make a commitment to change what you can for the well-being of others (including taking down the flag).  Make a commitment to pray for justice.  And speed it up, because it is taking way too long!

 “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28 NRS)

***

April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. Great for an individual read or group Bible studies!

For the abused and mistreated: What does forgiveness require of you?

The talk show guest didn’t intend to question the sincerity of those offering the Charleston gunman forgiveness, but his words spilled out that way.  What he said was, “Just saying that you forgive someone doesn’t mean that you’ve actually forgiven them.”

The anchorwoman sitting next to him quickly helped him clarify what he meant, “You aren’t questioning the sincerity of those offering the gunman forgiveness – right?”

“No.  No.  Of course not.  I am asking the question for myself.” After a long pause, he still choked back tears, “Someone hurt me badly and I told them that I forgave them.  But I know they haven’t changed.  And I don’t want them near me or my kids ever again. Have I really forgiven someone if I want them out of my life forever?”

The talk show’s guest’s question is an important one – especially for followers of Christ. But let me explain Jesus’s teaching on forgiveness before giving my answer to his question…

Christians do believe that our relationship with God hinges on God forgiving us.  But what many of us may not realize is that Jesus taught that giving forgiveness happens before getting forgiveness:

Jesus said, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Mat 6:14-15 NRS).

By the way, in all of those uncomfortable years of my youth spent in evangelical churches never once did I hear an altar call start with, “Come on down and get saved if you are willing to forgive everyone who has offended you.” Being willing to stop drinking, gambling, and carousing was more important in that venue.  Nonetheless, Jesus taught his followers that forgiveness was a condition of following him.

Jesus also gave his followers the responsibility to set others free by forgiving them:

Jesus breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (Joh 20:22-23 NRS)

This wasn’t Jesus saying, “My followers get to choose who God forgives and who God doesn’t forgive.”  This was Jesus telling his followers to forgive others and in doing so they would set relationships between both God and humanity right.

So knowing that, how do we make forgiveness more than just words?  How do we know we have actually forgiven?

Jesus set the perfect example for us:

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luk 23:33-34 NRS)

45288As Jesus demonstrated, we know that we have forgiven others when we can sincerely and earnestly pray for their well-being just as Jesus did for the Roman soldiers who had tortured him, nailed his hands and feet to a tree, and left him to suffer for hours before dying. But even though Jesus required that his followers practice forgiveness, he never required that his followers stay in harm’s way. In fact, he taught his followers to remove themselves from the path of the abuser.

“And any place that does not receive you or listen to you, as you go out from there, shake off the dust from the soles of your feet for a testimony against them.”(Mar 6:11 NAS)

“Have I really forgiven someone if I want them out of my life forever?”  “Have I forgiven the gunman if I want to see him locked away forever?”  This is the same question that I have heard many times from abused women who have come to me for counseling.  So often, other pastors and counselors have told them that forgiveness means that they need to continue a relationship with the offender – especially if it is a relative or husband.  Yet, rarely is an abuser able to stop – rarely are they truly repentant even though they may swear they are.  God knew this.  And staying in relationship with an abuser or offender is not what God requires. Jesus taught that we should pray for the offender’s well-being, but “shake the dust from our feet” – in other words, get away from someone who is refusing to respect you.

For the Charleston gunman, the victims will know they have forgiven when they can pray for his well-being.  And it is okay if that takes time – for some it will come easily and others it will take a lot of prayer.  But forgiveness does not require that we welcome the unrepentant offender back into our lives any more than it requires that we cancel their prison time.  Instead, forgiveness means that we are sincerely able to pray for their well-being: “Father, forgive them.”

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April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. Great for an individual read or group Bible studies!

Nine Years Ago Today…

April Robe287
April’s Ordination in 2006

Nine years ago today, I was ordained.  A week later I was installed as the senior pastor of my first church.  At the time, I thought I would spend the rest of my life preaching, doing pastoral care, leading the church elders, and — well, just being a regular pastor.  I never thought that nine years later I would be where I am today — writing books about scripture full time.  I have been contemplating this current vocation quite a bit lately.

As I contemplate it, the Apostle Paul often comes to mind.  He left his Jewish faith where he was a member of the Order of Pharisees (a strict Jewish sect) to become a follower of Jesus.  It was not an easy transition.  The Jews were mad at him for leaving and the Christians were suspicious of him because he had participated in their persecution.  Paul was sent away for several years for his own protection.  No sooner does he return, than he is arrested for healing, casting out demons, confronting the Jews, and talking way too much about Jesus.  He is then taken to Rome, shipwrecked on the way, and locked up.  It is under house arrest where he writes parts of the New Testament.

paul
Notice the sword by Paul’s bed. I don’t guess the guards felt he was much of a threat. And their armor may have inspired him to write about the “armor of God.”

Instead of becoming depressed or obsessed with gaining his freedom, he uses the time for two things:  One was to teach the way of Jesus to those with whom he came in contact while under arrest.  The other was to write about Jesus.  He wrote about Jesus to the churches – often ones that he had visited or started.  I’ve noticed several interesting things about what he says to these churches.

First, Paul told them that he longed to be with them.  He would rather be with them than write to them.  I share this longing with Paul so much that it hurts!  I miss preaching every Sunday, performing weddings, doing baptisms, and, most of all, presiding over the Eucharist.  Fortunately, I am asked to teach, speak, and offer pastoral care quite a bit.  I cherish those times.  It is so much more fun to look into the eyes of fellow learners and share our thoughts than it is to type words on my keyboard.  I am so very grateful for these opportunities – keep them coming!

Secondly, Paul said that he worked for Christ and Christ alone.  I marvel at how God has moved heaven and earth to give me this opportunity to work only for God.  I saved quite a bit of money all those years before I was ordained – managing the engineering organizations at several startups. Between that and my amazing husband, who joyfully feels it is his ministry to provide time and space for my writing, we have always had way more than enough.  We even have enough to share with others!

Thirdly, Paul prayed for those to whom he was writing.  I have started doing that too.  It feels very holy to pray for those I may never meet.  Paul saw himself as a servant to those who read his letters.  I had never thought of my writing this way, but I do now. It makes me happy to think of myself as serving others!

Fourthly, Paul asked others to pray for him.  I ask that of you!  Pray that I will not only truthfully interpret the mysteries that God has revealed, but that I will learn more and more how to do it in a way that is challenging and intriguing.  Though I have a doctorate in ministry, I have no real training in writing, but seek it out every chance I get.

Before I end this post, the other thing I mentioned was that while Paul was in prison, he shared his faith.  He ministered to the church members in Rome who visited with him.  And also with his guards.  Those guards were sent far and wide to conquer and protect Roman territory.  They were likely key in spreading the teachings of Christ.  In fact, gravestones of Roman soldiers from the first century have been found as far away as the United Kingdom.  Some have the sign of the fish on them – a sign used by early Christians to declare themselves followers of Jesus.  These soldiers may very well have been the ones that guarded Paul!

“For we are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” — Eph 2:10 

Thanks be to God who gives us good work to do!!

***

April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. Great for an individual read or group Bible studies! The cover painting, The Journey, is by He Qi and can be purchased on his website.

When A Church Elder Called Me an Ass

While I was a pastor at a small country church in west Georgia, I started a Wednesday night program where the whole church would come together for dinner, then I would tell a Bible Story to the adults and children. Afterwards, the different ages would break apart to discuss the story. My husband would lead the adult discussion and I would take the teens.  Others would take the younger kids and babies. It was an awful lot of fun and we always had a full house of people and a parking lot that overflowed into an adjoining field.

One night I told the story of Balaam’s Ass… this is an Old Testament story of a donkey that actually spoke to warn its owner of impending danger.  I used the word “ass” in telling the story because it made it funnier and was proceeded by an hilarious discussion of when it is okay to say “ass” and when we better not.  Every time I would say the word “ass”, the kids would laugh and together we would cover our ears.

***

When the ass saw that its owner, Balaam, was going where God did not want him to go, it refused to carry its owner any further and lay down.  Balaam didn’t understand why the ass was lying down so Balaam struck the ass with his staff.

Then the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”

Balaam said to the ass, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!”

But the ass said to Balaam, “Am I not your ass, which you have ridden all your life to this day? Have I been in the habit of treating you this way?”

And Balaam said, “No.”

Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the danger in going the way God did not want him to go.

 — Adapted from Numbers 22

***

After I told the story, everyone separated into their age related groups. Then, to start the adult discussion, my husband asked, “Do you have someone or something that warns you of danger?”

One of the men, forty-something, and an elder in the church spoke up. Before I tell you what he said, you must get your deepest Southern accent ready.  Ready?  Here goes…

The church elder, in front of God and everyone, said:
“Pastor April is my ass!”

assFor a moment, my husband thought maybe he should punch the guy, but then realized that being the guy’s ass meant that I was warning him when he was going the wrong way.  And that was exactly one of the things a pastor is supposed to do for her congregants.

So – for my pastor and priest friends – if you’ve ever been called an ass at church – just maybe – maybe – it was meant as a compliment!  Then again… 🙂

April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. Great for group Bible studies!

A Trinitarian worldview will change everything you thought you knew about God

goose72Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday when we celebrate the sending of the Holy Spirit.  Sadly, however, many Christians don’t have a Trinitarian view.  For them, the story of Jesus is completed with his death and resurrection.  In doing so they see the point of God the Father (who sent Jesus) and of Jesus the Son (who revealed God to humanity), but they don’t know what to do with God the Holy Spirit.  In fact, they replace the work of the Holy Spirit (which Jesus said was to continue teaching us and applying what Jesus taught to our lives) with the Bible.

Jesus said, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (Joh 14:26 NRS).

This popular Trinitarian omission misses the entire point of Jesus’s life and death – and leaves us with a “Jesus came so we could go to heaven when we die” mentality and a “the Bible is not only perfectly perfect in every way, but transcends culture and time” mentality.  However, Jesus didn’t come just to die and be resurrected so that we could go to heaven.  He came to give us eternal life, which begins long before we die.  He did this by giving us (something far better than even the Bible) the very Spirit of God to indwell those willing to be indwelled.

Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (Joh 3:16 NRS).  Jesus said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Joh 17:3 NRS).

The work Christ did in his life, death, and resurrection enables humanity to receive the Holy Spirit and be in relationship with God.  Pentecost was the day the Holy Spirit arrived.  No longer would our relationship to God be mediated by a priest or a religion or a list of rules or even the scripture, instead we would have direct access to God through the Holy Spirit. We would have God’s wisdom and power within us.

“Like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Pe 2:5 NRS).

The problem is that so few of us allow the Holy Spirit to live within us.  We fail to give the Spirit permission to transform us.  We don’t take time to listen to the Spirit’s guidance so that we know how to be the hands and feet of Christ.  We don’t allow the Spirit to speak through scripture into our world today – instead we strap on words meant for another culture without interpretation.  We don’t depend on the power of the Holy Spirit to empower us.  We box the Spirit up and tell it to behave.  We make it impossible for the Spirit to talk to us, guide us, or empower us.  We have no wisdom or power to be the hands and feet of Christ.  We do absurd things in the name of God – instead of things that love, heal, and serve our world.

Because you are God’s children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6 NRS).

The Spirit longs to transform us!  Let it! The change we will see is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

***

April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. Great for group Bible studies!

Two Ways to Make a Contract with God

Most people think they have a contract with God.  For our part, we keep a list of rules, do a list of good works, and believe the right theology.  In turn, God will give us good things now and in the life to come.  That is how it works – right?

Oh so wrong according to Jesus.  If that is what Jesus had taught, then the religious leaders of Jesus’s day would have had no reason to kill him.  But Jesus taught something very different.  Something that took away the religious leader’s power over everyone who followed them.

Jesus tells this story of two sons  to the religious leaders. . . each son wants to make a contract with God:

The younger son had been looking for love in all the wrong places and living wrongly.  Things go from bad to worse when he finds himself homeless and hungry.  In his desperation, he decides to offer his father a contract in hopes that his father will let him come back home: “I will be your slave and you will be my master.”  But the father will not sign the contract!

The older son, who has never caused his father any problems, catches his father throwing a party for that rebellious younger brother.  He is intolerant and judgmental of anyone who doesn’t take the road that he takes.   He points out to the father that doggone-it, they had a contract.  He would work hard for the father (keeping the rules, doing the good works, believing the right theology) and the father would give him good stuff.  But instead of honoring the contract, the father is giving the good-for-nothing younger brother all the good stuff that rightly should go to the older son.  Maybe so, but the father denies that there was ever any such contract!

handshake-and-contractJesus was teaching that God does not make contracts. God makes covenants.  God’s covenant says, “I will be your God and you will be my people.”  All we have to do is say, “okay.”  There is no contract involved – no work that we have to perform – no rules that we have to keep – no theology that we have to adopt.  Of course, there is a sort of price to pay.  God has promised that those who say “okay” will become like Christ.  God will give them the wisdom and power to serve God and others.  They get to take part in the mission of God.  This is what we say “okay” to: to letting God transform us.

In the story that Jesus told about the two sons, though the Father rejects both of their contracts, he offers them his unconditional love – a covenant: he will be their father and they will have all the rights as his heirs.  All they have to do is say, “okay.”

This is Christianity – what Jesus taught. How has Christianity become something so unrecognizable?

April’s Bible Studies

Why are we here?

When sudden tragedy strikes, it is often a time when many of the big questions about the meaning of our lives and the universe just won’t go away.  Friends of mine, Chris and Karen Burpo, recently lost their son, Scott.  At Scott’s memorial service, held at St. David’s Episcopal Church, his father tackles the question: “Why are we here?”  

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Why are we here? We are here to celebrate the life of Scott Burpo.  But…

Why are we here?

We are here because the church is Scott’s home, the church is where he was baptized, and where he was confirmed.  This is the place at age 16 that he renewed the baptismal vows that his parents and God parents had said for him at his baptism. This is where he promised to put his whole faith and trust in God’s grace and love.

At his confirmation, the Bishop said this prayer:

Strengthen, O Lord, your servant Scott with your Holy Spirit;
Empower him for service;
And sustain him all the days of his life. Amen.

Scott Burpo
Scott celebrated his mother Karen’s birthday by serving UNIDAD families with her at St. David’s.

The Bishop’s prayer obviously worked, because Scott was empowered for service.  This is the place Scott learned about service as an acolyte, as a man, and as a Christian.  From an early age Scott always had a generous soul.  His generosity is reflected in many of the on-line tributes I have read on social media over the last few days.  One of the last pictures we have of Scott and Karen together was taken when he came up to visit us for Karen’s birthday this year.   The picture was taken of the two of them with aprons on, smiling, and serving dinner to our Unidad families.

As further proof that the Bishop’s prayer worked, the Holy Spirit did “sustain him all the days of his life.”  While he was not regular in his attendance lately, he did not forget what he was taught here (by Gene Jeffords, Hendree, and many others).  Over the last weeks when he was not always in good spirits, we talked about God’s plan for him.  He remembered that God loved him, and I know he drew strength from that as we talked.

Finally, we are here because this place meets Maya Angelou’s paraphrased definition of home:

“The safe place where we can go as we are (at any time) and not be questioned.”

Why are we here?

We are here because we all loved Scott and miss him dearly.  His teachers are here.  Many of his friends are here.  His families, both his birth family and church family, are here.

We are here because he touched our lives in a variety of ways.  His donations to people in need, his helping and supporting friends in need, and organizing his work team for volunteer clean up duty while they were on the road in Oklahoma at the time of the deadly tornado in Moore OK in 2013.  In many ways he modeled Jesus in helping where and when he could.

Why are we here? We are here because we simply don’t know what else to do.  Scott doesn’t need our help any more now, because he is rejoicing in heaven.

We are gathered here to together to say prayers and thanksgivings of the burial office for two reasons.  First we are gathered to officially give Scott back to God and to thank him for his gift of Scott in our lives.  Second we are here to care for each other and to ask God’s help for us all.  Our collective presence helps each of us remember what Scott knew, which can be summarized in these words from John 5:24:

“He who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.” 

Scott heard that message here, and he believed it, and now he has eternal life. The Gospel reading today says:

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” 

Scott picSo that is where Scott is now, and forevermore.  But what about us?  We are gathered here to give him a big send off, but we know that he is being greeted by a heavenly host of saints who are there to welcome him to his father’s house.  Maybe they will be praying for us as we pray for him.  In the days ahead we are left to comfort and support each other in our bereavement and our loss.  We should be of that good courage that he was. And love one another like he loved us all.  And rejoice with him and all of the saints in the Eucharist.


Printed with permission of Chris and Karen Burpo

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April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James

The Party!

When you read the three parables of Luke 15 – three parables that Jesus uses to stand down the rule-oriented, intolerant religious people of his day – they all end with a BIG party.  The Shepherd brings home the lost sheep and throws a party.  The woman finds the lost coin and throws a party. The lost son returns and his dad throws a party.

peanuts_happy_danceThey all gather their friends and neighbors to rejoice.  The word translated “rejoice” literally means to jump up and spin in the air with delight. It’s a big raucous celebration!

Okay – so let’s recap.  In these parables, God’s heart is breaking because we’ve wandered away from God.  When we either let God find us and pick us up or see God running toward us, there is no condemnation. Nor is there a punishment.  Nor is there a “better do better speech.”  All we really do is say “yes” to our creator.  Yes! I want to know you – to be transformed by your love – to love others like you love me! Yes! Yes! Yes!  God can’t wait to scoop us up or throw loving arms around us.  And then God throws a party complete with cool clothes, good food, dancing, and music.  I am not making this up.  Read Luke 15!

This party, where the friends and neighbors of God gather, is what the Kingdom of God is all about.  There is really no sense hanging out with religious people who are intolerant, rule-oriented, judging, and condemning.  Find the ones that understand the Kingdom of God is like a party.  Hang out with them – because God is in their midst:

“The LORD your God is in your midst. . . He will exult over you with joy, He will be quiet in His love, He will rejoice (jump in the air and spin around!) over you with shouts of joy! (Zep 3:17 NAS)