Fifth Sunday of Easter: The Epistle Passage – Coming to the Lord from . . . . wherever

Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation-
if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” I Peter 2:2 – 3)

This is a good verse when thinking about new believers – of any faith tradition really. The apostle Peter is talking about belief in Christ, and so our reflection is informed and guided by that. But all new believers long for good clear understanding of the faith they are entering into. Peter’s qualifier of “tasting” of the Lord sets his comments in Christianity. And from this point on, we educated in that belief system.

“Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and
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.” (Verses 4 – 5)

Peter’s remarks and teachings not only instruct in new faith, but support the forming of a church, or at least a body of believers. Christianity is not to be lived out in isolation, although many times that is the case.

“For it stands in scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,”
and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.” (Verses 6 – 8)

Peter also frames non-belief as a deliberate action; that is, knowing better but choosing not to belief. I am not convinced it as straightforward as that. Or rather, I make room for not knowing about Jesus and our Lord God in a way that makes it clear that it is a good choice. I also make room for devote sincere belief that may not be constructed and lived out in the way mainstream Christians may know and live it. In fact, it seemed clear to me many years back that some mainstream Christianity had already diverged from what I felt and believed that Jesus taught and exemplified.

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (Verses 9 – 10)

I truly and strongly feel that there is a potential for a latitude in authentic and devote faith in the Divine. Coming from an Anabaptist background, I emphasis authenticity as opposed to “mere” motions and surface faith. Coming from a background on my paternal family side, I also have great regard and respect for authentic Judaism. There is irony there because Peter might well have been talking to Jews who had not accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Or, he might have been talking to Gentiles who had no faith in a monotheistic deity. There is room in the family of God for many peoples to come in, from all sorts of backgrounds. And Peter certainly had a rough road of it coming to faith. That’s just one of the many reasons he is close to my heart.

May you, beloved reader, come to faith in our Lord God from whatever your background is. Selah!

BEARING WITNESS . . . Saying it with words

You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior.”(Reference: Isaiah 43:10-11 )

I have strong memories of reciting the creed of faith during church services. In fact, I can almost visualize on the page of the hymnal I grew up with. And somewhere I have a copy of that hymnal, but I cannot put my hands on it. I did find a new version that I think replaced the old one I have in mind. The creed we used was either the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s Creed. Both have the high points of believe in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, and the established church on earth. I am sure if you did a Google search you would find both.

Dirk Philips in his tract “Confession of Faith (Concerning) God” stressed the importance of acknowledging and witnessing God, and serving God only. He said in part, “We believe and confess that there is one God and Lord just as is basically contained in all of Scripture and expressly stated in writing, Deut. 4:35; 6:4; 1 Cor. 8:4; 12:6; Eph. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:5; Gen. 1:1; Isa. 45:21. This only God is a Creator of all creatures, a sustainer of all things, and a mighty King. . . . He is a Lord of heaven and of earth, an eternal, true, holy, living, merciful, righteous, long-suffering, and alone good and wise God, the first and the last, who knows all past, present, and future things. . . . He alone is a Redeemer and Saviour in whom alone we must believe, whom alone we must fear and love, Matt. 10:28; 22:37; Ps. 34:9; to him alone we must pray, and serve him alone, and in whom alone we must hope and trust, Exod. 20:2; Isa. 43:11. Him alone we must hold and confess for our God and Lord; in him alone we must place our salvation and from him alone hope for recompense, Heb. 11:6. To him alone be glory and praise in eternity. Amen.”

It was the excerpt of Philips’ confession that reminded of reciting the confession of faith that I mentioned above. There is also the “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” that I have commented on twice when it was in the rotation of the year long theme found on Third Way Cafe in the “Sip of Scripture” section. (The same site and section that this year features Reading from the Anabaptist Bible .) The “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective” is not a simple multi-lined creed, but a small book that outlines each aspect of faith such as God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Scripture, Marriage and Family etc. The book contains two creeds of faith in the appendix.

Many Christian faiths share the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed, and over the years it has evolved slightly in its language. The versions I found online were not entirely inclusive, so be warned if you go searching for them. But then the creeds constructed by the historic Anabaptists were not overly inclusive either, so what you find may well reflect context from a different era.

At the risk of bruising tender sensibilities, it is more important to state your faith and beliefs clearly than it is to use inclusive language. I am very sensitive to inclusive language, but even more sensitive to clear statements of faith. If God is described as “He”, “Father”, “Him” etc, one must overlook that and discover instead if the faith confessed reflects the nature of God and one’s relationship with that God. The important question is . . . Who are you bearing witness to?

May you beloved confess and bear witness to a God who seeks to include all people, in all places, and at all times. And may that God bless and bear witness to you in return. Selah!

DISCIPLESHIP . . . Following God closely

The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.” (Reference: 2 Kings 23:3 )

We have learned how the historic Anabaptists Feared the Lord, and how they thought and on the spiritual practice of Repentance. Now we turn to the practice of Discipleship. Modern Anabaptists / Mennonites address this spiritual practice in their Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective , a source of scripture that the daily “Sip of Scripture” uses in there five year thematic cycle. But we will be looking at this practice as the historic Anabaptists understood it.

The first scripture, from 2 Kings, concerns what King Josiah did to follow the laws and commandments of God and to have the people of Israel follow the laws and worship rightly. Josiah cleansed and abolished the practices and places that were an abomination to God. But moreover, Josiah pledged himself and pledged on behalf of his people to follow God faithfully and properly. It is not enough just to repent – there must be visible change.

While the historic Anabaptists did not as violently change their ways (see the rest of chapter 23 to understand my statement), they vehemently maintained their discipleship to God. Joost Verkindert, like many historic Anabaptists, was jailed because of his faith practices and expressed beliefs. He was visited on August 17, 1570 by the “bishop’s commissarr” and told his wife of the visit in a letter. “I showed him, that Israel was forbidden to follow their own opinions, but were to observe only what the Lord had commanded; and I told him how severely Saul was punished by the Lord, because he, following his own mind, had spared the king of the Amalekites, and the best of the oxen and sheep.It would have been clear to the “bishop’s commissarr” that Verkindert was comparing the state church leadership of being like Israel and following their own faulty opinions. The “bishop’s commissarr” replied that they did not follow faulty and erroneous practices. Verkindert told his wife he responded by saying, “Thereupon I told him of the pious king Josiah: that he did not regard the ancient customs and ceremonies of his forefathers, but that he destroyed all that had been instituted contrary to the law, and commanded the law to be observed aright. 2 Kings 23. To this he had but little to say.” You must understand, beloved, that such questionings were not done under gentle and mild conditions, but were done in the prison where conditions were brutal and torturing frequent. For the historic Anabaptists discipleship meant following God’s commandments and laws, as they understood them, despite what anyone else might say or do, or whatever precedents and practices might have been in place before. They were called to a strict and exact way of faith and life, and would not deviant from it even at risk of death.

May you beloved follow God as the Lord leads, and may you not ever let anything make you step away from it. Selah!

Peace, Justice and Nonresistance – A Covenant for a New Tomorrow?

“In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground. Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety.” (Hosea 2:18 )

It is appropriate I think that this is the last verse of the year. Tomorrow we start a new year with now hopes and possibilities. We carry with us what is in our past, but we look to the future for better things. Just think most gentlest of readers, if God would make a covenant and we would and could keep it, so that all of creation could lie down in safety and never fear. Is that dream too big for the coming year? What if we could leave behind forever the hatred, aggression, violence, and death that has too often punctured the past year?

I know I desire to make such a covenant with God.

As it is the last day for looking at the scriptures that are used as reference points and theological touchstone for “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective,” I would like to make some concluding remarks about the Confession and the faith tradition that produced it.In using these verse as support and explanation for the articles faith, we as Mennonites have also placed interpretative nuances to the verses – at least this is true for those who know how and where these verses have been used in the Confession. For many year the Confession was not often talked about or referred to. This was in part, I think, because Mennonite beliefs were pretty consistent throughout the denominations. But when differences in beliefs started to appear, the Confession was examined and discussed. What will come of this I do not know. For a while over the summer there seemed to be a “buzz” about the Confession, but as far as I can tell that has lulled again.

The Confession stands no longer, I think, as a frame work or guide to faith. It is more like a part of our history that for some is out of date and for others needs to be used more. It does tell the viewer/reader a lot of who we were and what beliefs were most relevant to our faith life and daily life.

Modern society has changed a great deal since the Confession was written, and as Mennonites moved into the new era with its expanding technologies and discoveries, the Confession was hard pressed to keep up. In some ways I do not think it did. But in other ways the underlying tenets of faith are still relevant – or should be. Peace and justice, discipleship, spirituality, the love of scripture, the Trinity of the Divine – these things endure. And I think should be a part of other faith traditions than just Mennonites. That was one of the purposes of the Confession, to share these faith articles. I hope gentle reader you have received something positive from this back stage “peek” at Mennonites through the lens of my own perspective.

Tomorrow we start looking at scriptures from “Bread for the Enemy: A Peace and Justice Lectionary” by Dorothy Jean Weaver. The year was 2008 when we last looked at these verses. In 2008 when “A Simple Desire” commented on these verses I do not think any of us writers had seen the lectionary book the verses came from. I decided this year it would be good to at least has some familiarity with the book, so I bought it. I would like to excerpt something Weaver said about this book. “These texts may or may not use the language of peace and and justice. They may paint differing portraits. But, each in its own way, these texts serve as pointers on the long and tortuous journey of God’s people toward that ultimate vision of God’s shalom, that vision which we find more clearly reflected and uniquely embodied in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Here, then, is evidence of that journey.”

While this may be a review of passages five years ago (and possibly passages of scripture used in other years) many things have changed in the past five years, and the way those verses were received then may not be how they are received now. It will be a year of pondering and mediation. It is my hope and prayer that you will join me in reflecting on this pieces of scripture. As ever, selah and shalom!

Peace, Justice and Nonresistance; Who’s got your back?!

“Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” (Exodus 14:13-14 )

This is a very “Charlton Heston” type of verse. In fact in my mind’s eye, I can just hear and see him, in very Cecil B DeMille style, deliver a line much like these verses. But there is a great deal of truth and wisdom to these verses. The Lord is very much on our side. We only have to be patient for the Divine to act on our behalf. Of course, the downside is that God is on everybody’s side, so if we expect the Lord to “kick butt” on our enemies, we will be waiting a very very very long time.

I knew in college who lived on the same dorm floor as me, and when I was going through a major stressful change in my life, she sort of kicked me when I was down. Years later we met up again and she apologized for what she had said. And I forgave her easily, because I did not hold a grudge against her.

But imagine for a moment if I had seethed and raged at her, waiting until God gave her the comeuppance I might have thought she deserved. Wouldn’t it have busted my need for vengeance when she had asked for forgiveness and would have had to decide what to do? We may be still and wait for the Lord to deal with our “enemies”, and the Divine will – in God’s own way and time. Being still and waiting does not mean holding our grudges and nursing our hurts so that at the proper time we can add our negative emotions etc to whatever we believe God will do.

Being still and waiting means letting go of our hurts and complaints etc and moving forward positively with our lives. That is not part of the Cecil B DeMille movie, but it is part of God’s shalom. DeMille would have us watch our enemies drown and be washed away – suffer horrible deaths and loss. Have everything that our enemy loved and valued stripped away.

In a few days gentle reader, we will be moving into a New Year. I gently suggest you gather up any vengeance and grudges you have, and toss them out like pages on a worn out calender. You don’t need them anymore! Let the Lord do what is according to the Lord’s plan; you move forward looking to better days. Remember, the Lord is for us and encouraging us not to worry about past hurts but to allow our God to heal us.

May you gentle reader live your life confidently knowing that our God is all the protection that we need. Selah!

Family, Singleness and Marriage – Finding the bone and flesh that makes you whole

“The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” (Genesis 2:23-25)

I have heard it said there is one particular spouse for each person, and supposedly each of us is to find that certain and be joined/married only to that person. Well, of course, this raises a whole host of problems from people who’s gender/sexual orientation is not accepted to people who marry/partner several times. I used to believe that there was one specific person for each of us, and then worried that I would not find “the one.” Then I decided that it is more important to be the right person (that is, to be the best person you can be) rather than find the right person. My thinking now is that finding someone to partner with you throughout your life where you are supportive of them and they of you. Each of us needs and desires different things out of life, and successful marriages are not based so much on compatibility as on the desire to form a bond that is intended to last your entire life span. And that is not any easy bond to find, make, or last for 50 years or more.

The Confession uses this verse to affirm that “Scripture places sexual intimacy within God’s good created order.” It goes on to place sexual intimacy within the bonds of marriage. Again, these assumptions, while fine and good for some circumstances, can lead to problems with intolerance, prejudice and judgmental attitudes. If people would only stop a moment and listen to the intent & spirit of these verses instead of getting caught up in the legalistic definitions, I think society would be more at peace.

Listen; two people find each other, and decide that they want to journey through life together, supporting each other and being there for one another. They find a place where they can be together and nurture each other, relying only on each other. They delight both the similarities and differences of one another. Through conversation and physical & emotional intimacy they bring pleasure and joy to one another, and receive pleasure and joy. They come to know each other so well, that nothing has to be hidden from each other, and there is no embarrassment in revealing their deepest secrets to one another. They promise each other this relationship will last their whole lives, and they commit their entire selves to maintaining the beauty and strength of the relationship.

Is this not what we desire for ourselves? Is this not what God desires for creation? Why then do we judge others when they have found this? And why would one prevent people from entering into this type of relationship?

It can be lonely being on your own. Some people can live their lives with having relationships that are less intense than I have described – some by choice and others by circumstances. I hope gentle reader you have found someone to journey through life with, either as daily partners or ongoing friendships. I pray that God blesses and watches over your relationships and the people you relate to. Selah!

Discipleship and the Christian Life: Suffering for the faith

“… If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” (1 Peter 4:16)
“… So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” ( 1 Peter 4:19 )

Five year ago [What does it mean to suffer?] I asked some probing questions about how much we truly suffer – in our modern age – by being Christians. Are we absolutely miserable because of our Christian commitment? Are we missing out on enjoying life because “suffering” gets in the way, or our commitment to God forces us into a certain way of life? And just how do we think our suffering compares to believers in the past – both the distant past and in the past hundred years?

But I am no longer that critical. The reason? Because the definition of Christianity and the hallmarks of that life are so diverse and scattered that one strain of Christianity can actually be at odds with another. And that, gentle reader, means there is suffering. Suffering by the Christian or Christians who believe they are the right. Suffering by those Christians who really are in the wrong. And suffering by the general non-Christian population seeing the friction and dichotomy between these two “Christian” groups. It may not be the suffering that Christians did in ages and eras before. But it is suffering – do not be in doubt on that point.

And the greatest tragedy is that this suffering can not be abated and healed until we know what is correct and authentic Christian belief. I have given my opinions on this issue; but this is not the time to re-examine and discuss that. I have never been a fan of divisiveness, and I am certainly not going to allow it here. But would I do suggest is that the varying Christian groups take solace from these verses. If they feel strongly that are suffering because they do not see or feel unity with other Christian groups, then these verse is for them. And if they suffer because Christianity itself is misunderstood and attacked or maligned, these verses are for them.

I would not ask a committed Christian to veer from their faith beliefs. I would ask though that all Christians remain open to discussion about their faith, both with other Christians and those who do not espouse a Christian faith.

May our God see our suffering, and heal us, every one. Selah!

Who’s In The Church?

“Then I remembered what the Lord had said: “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God? When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.” (Acts 11:16-18 )

One of the best things about most Nativity sets is that they include the three wise men. And if it is a really complete set, sheep and camels. I like that the three wise men are included because it tells me that both Jews and others, aka Gentiles, are welcomed to worship Christ. And that others, aka Gentiles, bring special gifts to the worship of Christ.

One of my favorite disciples, Peter, brings this wonderful story to the disciples and believers in Jerusalem. The believers there accuse him saying, “You entered the home of Gentiles and even ate with them!” they said” (verse 3) as if being in close proximity to them and breaking bread with them would contaminate Peter. Maybe they sincerely thought it would. But Peter convinces the Jewish believers that rather than being contaminated, he was enlightened and edified by the encounter.

The God they believed in turned out to be a wider and more encompassing God than they had thought. Jesus might have learned that lesson as a very, very young child – too young to humanly remember. Maybe he saw the fancy boxes up on his mother’s keepsake shelf and asked where they came from. And his mother told him the story of the three strange foreign men who came to see him at his birth, and brought strange but wonderful and valuable things to him. Of course God had always intended to bring all peoples to the God-self, and during Jesus’ ministry on earth he connected with Jews and others. But I rather like the idea that it started early in his life, this acceptance of what strangers can bring.

May we gentle reader remember this lesson when we encounter people who are different from us. And may we welcome them and the gifts they bring as the Christ child and the God-self do. Selah!

Ministry and Leadership – Ministering according to what’s inside us

“Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25: 34-36 )

[I checked with the Confession and this article is the only article this verse is applied to.]

It is the day after Christmas, and during my growing up years it was a much a recognized holiday as any other on the yearly calender – not as great as Christmas day, but still deserving of a day off. And when I can, I take it as vacation time. I feel fortunate when I can, and philosophical when I can’t.

The history of Boxing Day, as it is called, is mixed. It could be the day that servants and others receive their Christmas presents and bonuses etc from their employers, the day after the great celebration. Named Boxing Day because they received plain boxes instead of wrapped presents perhaps? It could be Boxing Day because it is the day all the boxes from the previous day’s activities are dealt with and taken away. In the consumer world it may be Boxing Day because all the special items ordered are to be boxed up and returned or sold at a reduced price.

For this day, December 26, 2012 and paired with this verse, we might look on it as day that all that we did is packaged up and presented to the Divine to examine and reward, if it merits it. Imagine, if you will, having laid before the Christ child our hearts and souls “boxed up” in our mortal bodies, and now it has been looked over. Will we, servants of the Lord, be looked on with favor? Or have we only offered the remnants of our lives plain and unadorned with compassion, caring, forgiveness and mercy?

As I noted above, this verse is used with the article on “Ministry and Leadership”, and I think it is an appropriate place for the verse – if we keep wide the definition of ministry. All we do in this life in a way minister to another in that it affects the other. Whether we are good minister or not so good ministers gives way to how people see Christianity and respond to it. But it also affects us as people too. If we have ministered to the hungry and the thirsty, the sick and needy, the lost and alone, then we have improved not only their lives but our own.

Perhaps this Boxing Day we should box up our old way of life, and in light of the birth of the Christ child, open up a new box that is a new way of living. May you gentle reader be gifted by God’s Spirit, and may you gift others with your caring and compassion. Selah!

Make a Christmas Noise!

“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:7 )

One of the things I came to realize as I thought on and pondered about my post for Christmas was that it was so quiet. But Christmas is not a quiet event. What with the Wise Men journeying, the shepherds being sung by an angelic choir, the sheep and cattle etc baaing, mooing and lowing, and Mary most likely crying out in child-birth while Joseph tried to assist her– it was not quiet.

For that reason, I do not like my Christmas silent either. I like to listen to Christmas music as much as decorating for the season. Would that I could have a Nativity set that played music as well.

I have been singing and listening to Christmas music for as many Christmases as I can remember. But for all the songs I have heard, the one that captures for me the essence of Christmas is the “Carol of the Bells.” It clear ringing and chiming captures the excitement and thrill of Christmas – the coming of our Savior. But I have found even better than just that song is the version that the Trans-Siberian Orchestra recorded several years ago. It is called “Christmas Eve / Sarajevo” and my research tells me the story behind the song was that of cellist who returned to Sarajevo. Distressed and despairing of the violence he began playing his cello in the middle bomb-torn city center, and as Christmas approached started to play Christmas music.

When I first heard the piece by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra I was blown away! It combines the Carol of the Bells with another one of my favorite Christmas songs, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” It captures the fury and fervor of Christmas, the rushing of our Savior to earth after having been planned for so long ago. I have included an audio file downloaded from the internet. Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)

If you had to wait through a brief commercial, I apologize. Such is the internet. But the seconds of commercial time is well worth listening to the music, and watching the video that accompanies it.  And I think the writer of Isaiah would approve of the “zeal” of the music.

May you gentle reader greet Christmas with all the “zeal” it is due. Selah!