Covenants Guide Us Through the In-Between Times

How do you remember your past?  Are there important stories from your past that have played a role in who you are today?  Are there pictures, objects, even artifacts that you display prominently in you home or office that help you remember where you came from, who you are and what is important?  Perhaps as you begin the lesson, you can bring in a picture, an object, or a story from you past to share with the class.  You might decide to encourage the class to share some of their “stories of origin.”  Doing so builds community and trust. It also sets the stage nicely for this Sunday’s lesson!

Covenants (legal and binding promises) aren’t about the past, however.  Making commitments to one another (marriages come to mind as an example) are about the future.  Such a promise, from one person to another, is a forward-looking agreement in which both sides make commitments of action on behalf of the other.

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The Mysterious and Life-Giving Journey with God

Journey is a major theme in the Bible and it comes to readers early.  Adam and Eve journey away from the garden, due to their sin that separates them from God.  Noah and his family take a journey in a boat that puts them in a new place and in a new creation, once the waters recede.  Then, we meet Abram.  And we met him because God abruptly calls him to leave home to go to a place he will later show him (12:1).  Abram’s journey with God lasts from Genesis 12 – 25.  All of it a journey without arriving at a final destination.  There are high and low points, and they are all learning points for Abram.  Continue reading

A Sweeping Victory -January 22, 2017

Our Bible Study lessons this month have illustrated the power of Christ to transform our lives from an inward, shackled, dead-end existence to a life of purpose.  We find in Christ’s work the freedom to give up things that have held us back (January 1), the knowledge that God has a plan and purpose in mind for those he loves (January 8), the desire to embrace others as brothers and sisters in Christ (January 15) and the assurance that even in difficult times, God will always be very near (this Sunday).

In Romans 8, Paul echos the Old Testament prophets when he says God doesn’t break his promises or abandon his people.  In fact, through Jesus, we are absolutely integral to his plan for all of creation!   But the old adage holds true in the life of faith: anything worthwhile will also include challenges and even a little pain.  Paul’s letter to the Romans spells out how, through Jesus, God has created a way forward for people who are otherwise defeated by the law – people like you and me.  Through Christ, we are gifted a brand new life in order to participate in God’s making all things new!

Understanding what comes before our focal scripture will be helpful in teaching what God has in store for our classes to hear this Sunday.

In chapter 7, Paul has become very honest as he describes how he struggles with sin – sin the law has made so evident that it feels like a death sentence.  The law helps him understand that sin is wrong but his “earthly flesh” can’t resist it – can’t help but to sin again and it leaves him in a state of helplessness; ready to give up.

However, chapter 8 offers a big corrective to this helplessness we all experience.  The law is correct – we are never going to be right before God.  Sin is too much a part of our lives and in our world.  Those who think they can be “good” and keep the law end up being self-focused, concerned about themselves and unable to carry out their critical role that God has for them in the redemption of the world. Self-righteous people are a turn-off to others who recognize their helplessness before the law.  They are not a living picture of the gospel at work!

For those who are able to admit their helplessness, who are at the end of their rope, the life saving and life altering gift of Jesus is their breath of new life into dry bones.  People who admit they are broken are a living picture of the gospel at work!

Attention to God gets us outside ourselves; living for others.  The Message version says “Focus on self is the opposite of focus on God.”

When the gospel is embraced, the Holy Spirit takes up residence in our lives which help us interpret everything through the lens of Jesus’ life.  We become God focused.  Sin will still happen but when the limitations of sin rear its ugly head, the life-giving work of God in Jesus is there to off-set and give us reassurance.

We are not going back to our old way of life.  Our new life does have purpose.    “We experience life on God’s terms” – we are no longer slaves to the law that reminded us how defeated we were.  “We are more than conquerors.” (Romans 8:37)  We are forgiven.  So don’t wallow in self-pity.  Romans 8 :12-14 in the Message reads:

“God’s Spirit beckons.  There are things to do and places to go!”

Through Jesus, God is birthing a new thing through those he has called.  Everything in creation is sensing this, Paul says, like a pregnant mother, who knows she has to go through the pain of childbirth in order to experience the joy of a new life she helped create.

These “birth pangs” or “labor pains” bring us to our focal scripture.  Paul wants us to remember that the birth of something new also means the death of what has been.  The old way will not go quietly.  Whether it is our old, sinful nature or the communal sin that favors some and excludes others, change for something better is painful.  Giving up control in order to embrace the freedom of God’s “something new” isn’t always easily embraced.  As Martin Luther King pointed out, sometimes Christ followers are called to “trouble the waters” so that what once held dominion in our world can make room for a new way.  Hopefully that new way is the Kingdom of God that fully gives authority to God and freedom to all of his creation.

So, what are the labor pains that we endure as Christ followers?  What are the labor pains that our world endures when the tension of what is (our sinful nature) and what should be (a time of peace with Christ as King) are realized?

Do these labor pains embolden us or do they make us doubt God’s promise?  Likely, these pains bring about both reactions in our life.  Life is not guaranteed to be easy for anyone.  Doubt is a normal part of life and does not indicate a lack of faith.  Often, it indicates a robust faith.  A resigned life that gives up on God and on hope is the absence of faith.

So, Paul, knowing that God’s people will endure trials, concludes with a grand message of hope for we who “trouble the waters” on behalf of the redemptive purposes of God.  Truly, Paul says, nothing will separate us from God’s love.  Nothing!

Here are two video possibilities to use in conjunction with your lesson:

False Narratives about God’s Love, with James Bryan Smith
First six minutes, in particular.  The author of The Good and Beautiful God series describes his struggles of believing false narratives of a God.

Ragamuffin Reflections – When your loosing your faith

Blessed is the poor in spirit. (9 minutes long)

 

Blessings as you facilitate your class in experiencing God’s love and moving them to trouble the waters in Christ’s name!

 

 

 

 

 

 

One New People – January 15, 2017

Our Formations lesson this week is a good one.  Its one that is especially timely and challenging for us at the outset of 2017.  Our focus has been on Christ Our Savior.  If we believe Christ is our savior, then our habits, actions, and words should reflect this fact.  Our lessons have been looking at different behaviors in which this truth should be clearly visible.  First, we have considered what we are willing to loose or give up so that we can fully follow Jesus.  Last week we considered what we have been saved from and for what we are being saved.
This Sunday we consider how, in Christ, we are a new, unified people.  The key question is:  Whom do I need to embrace as a brother or sister in Christ?  This is timely as we stand a week away from the inauguration of a new president and one day from MLK day observance.  On many fronts, 2016 was a year that our nation and even the whole world seemed divided.  This includes people of faith.  How are Paul’s words instructive to followers of Christ, who are to be a witness to God’s unified and coming kingdom?

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Renewing The Commons

 

As a kid from the south, New England captured my imagination from the first time I visited.  Some of it was the normal stuff of a curious child – New England was geographically far away from South Carolina and may as well have been a different country given the architecture, weather, behavior, and the tendency to neglect the “R” in most words.  For a child visiting relatives every four years or so in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, New England came to represent everything my home was not.  I was fascinated!

Through all my visits there, a few things have stuck out about New Englanders.  Their cities and towns are old, at least as things go here in the “new world.”  New Englanders tend to be territorial.  Generations live their lives there and never really move away.  For them, the next town over is a long way away.  It can be hard for a newcomer to break into the fabric of the New England village.  But once you do, you are golden.  Citizens, though insular, tend to take care of their own.

Most New England villages are centered around a town square.  This square is often referred to as a “common.”  A common in colonial days was a place that was owned by no one but belonged to everyone.  The town’s people were allowed to graze cattle there and to cultivate little gardens for their household.  It served as a marketplace and a center for news and information – a place where goods and ideas were exchanged.  The most recognizable common in New England is the Boston Common – now a beautiful park in the middle of the city.

These days, the word common doesn’t have a strong reputation.  Who wants to be referred to as common, anyway?  At best, common refers to ordinary or average.  But, as Huguenot Road moves through its series on being neighbor, I hope we can give the word common a loftier place at the table.

Diana Butler Bass has recently helped me discover meaning in the word common.  In her latest book Grounded: Finding God in the World, she devotes a whole chapter on commons. To help introduce commons, she retells a story from her college days, when, upon entering the main dining common for the first time, she was overwhelmed by the vastness of the room at lunch.  Where would she sit?  And with whom?  But then she spotted an acquaintance from orientation who waved Bass over to her table.  Not seeing room for an extra tray and no seat available, Bass began to decline the offer.  But then the group of students began pushing “the jumble of plates together to make room and pulled up a chair to the table.  ‘There is always room for one more,’ they said.”   Not surprisingly, these people became dear friends.

“I learned many things in college,” reports Bass.  “But the most important: the commons is infinitely expandable, a place of hospitality for everyone.”

Like the school dining hall, a common is a shared space.  A place where people are free to come and go, but where hospitality is available to all people.  Bass reports that while historians are uncertain about the origins of the common, they have noticed that many town commons were located on land that had been deeded to the local church.  These church lots were transformed into shared public space.   

Bass goes on to say that in New England, the church was usually the largest building in town and served a multitude of purposes.  “The meetinghouse lot extended the sacred into the streets, providing a smooth access between the building where the Holy Word was preached and the “world” where faith would be practiced.  Divine worship led directly to diligent work.  The church and commons were intimately related, and there was no division between spiritual and secular.  The green was a gift from the godly congregation, thus enabling the whole village to gather and form a congregation outside the walls of the church building.”

So what does this piece of Americana have to do with hospitality today?  For a public that is more connected than ever by technology but more isolated than ever by the echo chambers of their own affinity group, for the growing nones who are “spiritual” but not religious – suspicious of organized religion, for those who long for a genuine conversation about faith but don’t think that can happen in a church, a common space is sorely needed.  And one that is real, not virtual.  A “common” is a safe place where people can engage in an honest exchange of goods and ideas, where neither have to relinquish control or identity but where each person is valued.  Some of the modern day  commons, also referred to as “third places” are found in coffee shops or, perhaps in Richmond, in craft beer establishments.

But what about church buildings?  Most are still located in surrounding neighborhoods or city blocks which have an identity of its own.  How can the church building or grounds become a community common or “third place?” Could church property, even its buildings, once again become a place where all citizens meet in the exchange of goods, ideas, and community?  Unlike the meetinghouse of old or today’s worship center – with its walls, pews, rituals and membership – the commons is open and its borders are permeable.  I believe the church can create a new commons, one founded on hospitality and not on what the institution might gain.  In other words, a common can be a visible glimpse into the Kingdom of God, providing the same kind of vision Isaiah once had:

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.  – Isaiah 25:6-8

My church is finding creative ways to offer a common to our surrounding neighborhood.  Food Trucks pull up every Thursday and the community gathers in our front lawn.  Community groups from the county parks and recreation to scouts to AA meet each week in our building.  How might your church serve as a community common?  May God enlarge your vision of hospitality in your community!   

Quotes taken from:

Bass, Dianna Butler, Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution.  (New York: Harper One, 2015.)  p. 239-241