On Boredom

September 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

A local branch of our area’s mega-church has moved into town. They’ve been here for a year or two already, but they’ve just recently completed construction on their new facility.

Anyways, they’ve erected a billboard proclaiming “God isn’t boring, church shouldn’t be either”.

While I can appreciate the sentiment behind the proclamation, I can’t drive past the billboard without wanting to cringe.

Don’t hear me wrong.  I don’t want people to be bored in church.  But neither do I want people being formed to think in terms that make their boredom (or lack thereof) a significant issue.

My grandma used to say that if you’re bored, it’s your fault.  You can always find plenty of ways to occupy yourself…there is no shortage of work to be done, or prayers to be said…so stop expecting to be entertained every minute of your life.

I can’t count the number of times I would sit in church as a child, counting words, then letters, in our church bulletin.  Sometimes I would lay down in our pew and count the tiles in the ceiling.  I also tried to find images in a water-stain on that same ceiling.  If I was too fidgety or disruptive, my parents would put me in my place.  So I learned how to occupy myself in non-disruptive ways, how to count down the minutes until Sunday School.

In other words, I remember Sundays when I was bored out of my mind.

It’s only in looking back that I can see where boredom taught me how to sit still, how to be quiet, how to wait.  Boredom taught me that there was something mysterious going on in church that was bigger than me, and that I needed to respect that mystery.

If not for myself, then for the other people in the room.

Fast forward twenty years, and this billboard, in my mind, symbolizes everything that’s wrong with contemporary expressions of faith.  “Mainstream” churches, and far too many individual Christians are buying in (or is it selling out) to the cultural notion that with enough technology, enough money, enough ways to fill our time…we never have to be bored.

And we can even call our tech-infused, Sunday morning playtime “Mission”.

We’ve successfully moved our individual and subjective experience to the center of Christian faith.  Where once mature Christians emphasized the importance of solitude, silence, and simplicity, we have instead embraced crowded space, ambient noise, and the technology to keep us connected to our artificial, superficial, and less-than-real communities of ‘friends’, all the time.

Heaven forbid the first disciples were ever bored.

After all, what might that say about the view of God their rabbi taught?

I take issue with the phrase “God isn’t boring, church shouldn’t be, either”.  Not because I think God or church should be boring…but rather because it’s akin to saying “Dads aren’t boring, families shouldn’t be, either”… or “Women aren’t boring, marriage shouldn’t be, either”.

It just doesn’t make any sense.  Yet I have a suspicion this message appeals most to the very people who need it the least.

Most of us could stand to slow down.  We could stand to unplug, get away from the screen, go for a walk, get some exercise, or just sit for a time with nothing going on.

It would do us some good to remember the Christ who confronted his demons alone, in the wilderness, the Christ who withdrew to solitary places, the Christ who walked and the disciples who followed, step after weary step, mile after dusty mile.

It would do us some good to remember the Christian way that has existed (indeed, even thrived) for thousands of years without all of the distractions that defend us against boredom, against our very selves.

I guess I think it’s OK for church to be boring…much in the same way it’s OK for church to be exciting, because boredom is a state of mind we bring to the task at hand.

In other words, if you’re bored, look further inward.  Why are you not standing in awe of the Almighty God?

Why are you not humbled before the throne, giving your worship in spite of whatever is happening “up front”?

Why are you not, instead of critiquing the ‘performance’, spending your mental energy examining the dark recesses of your own spirit?

If you’re pinning your experience of church on the worship leader, or the band, or the preacher and how well they perform, you’re heart is in the wrong place.

It’s not about boredom or excitement.

It’s about God.

Concerning Prayer

September 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

September 9, 2012                Mt. 6:5-15

Christine and I have found a new show that we really like to watch.  We don’t have cable, so we don’t have a way of watching regular TV…but from time to time we discover shows that we like, and so we check the seasons out from from the library.

That way, we don’t have to wait a whole week between episodes, and we get to skip the commercials!  The only downside is trying to get through the season before you max out your renewals!

So we recently found a British show we really like called “From Lark Rise to Candleford.”

It’s a show that takes place in the late 1800’s somewhere in England, and basically it follows the life and the interactions of a girl who grew up in Lark Rise, which is a very poor, rural community where the people do what they can to get by.

She gets a job at the post office in nearby Candleford, where the people are better off financially, and where they tend to look down on her and the people who live in neighboring Lark Rise.

Anyways, in an episode we saw recently, her brother was interested in making something out of egg shells, something like a necklace.  They would take an egg from a nest, prick it on both ends, and then blow out the insides to keep the shell intact for whatever craft he was making.

The scene that stuck with me was the father talking to his son, explaining that he should take no more than one egg from any nest as he was working on this thing.

“Not for what it does to the bird”, the father says to his son, “but rather for what it does to you”.  

Moments like that are what I love about the show.

The father is a hard working man who seeks to instill in his child a sense of integrity and honest work.  He wants him to learn the value of leaving something behind, even if you have a reason to take it all.

It’s just so rare to hear a message of self-restraint outside of church…that my ears kind of perk up when I hear it, so it stuck with me.

I like this show.

I like it because I think it does a good job at teaching some important lessons, and I like to imagine what life was like a hundred or more years ago.

I’m biased towards simpler times, even though I’d never choose to give up my modern conveniences.

I like this type of show, and it’s especially good when the actors do such a good job at playing their roles.

You can come up with the best storyline in the world, but if an actor can’t pull it off, it’s going to fall flat, right?

(Have you ever suffered through a show or a movie with really bad acting?)

…Well, did you know that in ancient times, the greek word for “actor” was hypocrite?

It’s a word that referred to actors on a stage, not unlike actors in a television show.

The word didn’t always have the negative connotations that it does for us today.

A good Hypocrite was someone who could really stage a performance…someone who could really put themselves into their role and convince the audience that they were the character they were presenting.
It was a pretty neutral word for much of its history, kind of like the word ‘actor’ is for us.

You could be a good hypocrite, or a bad hypocrite.

But at some point the word started to carry more negative connotations…and it should come as no surprise that politics were involved in the transformation of the word!

Around the 4th century before Christ, a guy named Demosthenes ridiculed his political opponent Aeschines because before he got into politics, he had enjoyed a career in acting.

He was a hypocrite.

And the accusation that Demosthenes made was that because he was successful at impersonating characters on stage, he could not be trusted as a politician.

In other words, he made the argument that his opponent had the ability to present a story that wasn’t his own, in order to reap a personal reward.  He couldn’t necessarily be trusted, because you couldn’t be sure it was really him talking.

The Greeks valued integrity in their politicians.  I don’t know if it was the first ‘smear’ campaign…but it’s a tactic that’s been in play for thousands of years.

The Greeks knew that the place for acting out a story was in the theater, where the audience knew the difference between fact and fiction, where the people knew what they were getting into, and where the motive of the actor was clear.

Now, I don’t want to blow my own horn too loud this morning, but I did some acting in high school.  I was pretty good at it, I was a pretty good hypocrite…(or at least that’s what I was told).

Acting gave me something that was worth more to me than money at that point in my life.

I got affirmation.

I got encouragement.

I was told “good job” hundreds of times after a performance, from people who knew me and from complete strangers.

And I’d be flat-out lying if I said that wasn’t a big part of why I did it.   Looking back, it was clear what my motivation was…to tell a story, and to get this affirmation for doing it.

You could say I received my reward in full, after putting on a performance.
Good hypocrites, Good Actors, are so convincing at what they do, that when the show is over they receive their reward.

…Now, when Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the passage we’ve heard today, he told them not to be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.

That’s their reward.

That’s what any actor longs for.

To be seen and heard, and to convince people that their character can be trusted.

Public recognition is an intoxicating thing.

But if your performance never ends, you can quickly start to lose your sense of self.

I still remember my sixth grade teacher saying something to our class about the difference between our public selves and our private selves.

The point he was getting at was that there are appropriate ways to act in public, even if you don’t want to act in those ways.

Waiting in line, for example, or showing courtesy to a stranger.

These are small performances we put on when we want to be thought well of.

They’re not bad…but if you’re having a bad day, chances are you need to find some time to yourself, some time where the performance ends, and you can remember your true self.   (Otherwise, you can start to forget who you are).
Acting, or Hypocrisy…is a seductive way of life, because it’s so easy to show people what they want to see.

So the first thing Jesus is saying about prayer, is not to do it like the hypocrites, the people who never stop performing.

God is more interested in who we’re becoming than he is in how well we perform.

Prayer is more about choosing not to rob the nest, than it is about getting all the eggs you need.

Go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.
If you’re not able to just “Be”…in solitude with God, it’s easy to start forgetting who you are.

Just read up on almost any really well known celebrity, and you’ll know what I mean.

The “who” of who we are…The Truth of Who We Are…comes out in secret.

The truth of who we are isn’t what we do, it’s who we are when the show is over.  It’s who we are and who we’re becoming when we’re alone.

We pray in secret, not so much because our prayers will change the world, though they might.

Rather, we pray in secret because we need our prayers to change us!
Jesus is teaching his disciples a way of life…not simply a method for manipulating God to do as they would like God to do.

Go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is in secret.

Then your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you.

He goes on to say later that God knows what you need before you even ask Him!

So why ask if there are no secrets with God?

Why ask if He already knows?

Jesus goes on, teaching his disciples not to pile up empty phrases when they pray, like the Gentiles are in the habit of doing.

The image makes us remember the story of Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal on the mountain…how each one would pray to their God to light the offering on fire, and the God who would light the offering on fire with no help from his prophets…that would be the true God.

Do you remember how the prophets of Baal prayed loudly, passionately, all day long trying to call down fire for the offering?

That’s the image that’s at work here.

They shouted to their god to send fire…they even cut themselves with swords, thinking that if they just made enough of a scene and put themselves into it enough…eventually their god would answer.

They piled up phrase after phrase in the hopes that Baal would do as they asked.

And of course he didn’t.

The True God will not be manipulated to answer us.  He is not there to serve us, or to prove a point we want to make.

I have a feeling that sometimes God wants us to ask for things, so that we become aware of what it is we’re asking for.

If I’m praying every day for a new car…(if not in so many words, at least in how I’m living my life)…then maybe it’s good to be made aware of that, and then to let God speak to me…in secret…about the desires of my heart and the formation that needs to happen.

What is it you’re asking God for?

Is it the kingdom come?  Is it for God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven?

Sometimes we get our roles reversed.  We think God is there to make the world more to our liking, or to clean up our lives…we think God is there to serve us through prayer, when actually it’s the other way around.

There’s a reason Jesus ends this teaching with the theme of forgiveness.  

Prayer puts us in the posture of recognizing our own brokenness, recognizing the pain we’ve caused others, as well as the pain they’ve caused to us.

And then it moves us towards the mystery of forgiveness.

For in the kingdom of God there are no enemies, there is instead forgiveness and reconciliation.

These are important themes; central themes; in the Christian life, not just nice ideas.

But they’re easy to leave out of the equation if all we’re doing is acting, if we never get to that secret place.

I invite you to find some time this week, every day, not just once, to go to a secret place and listen for the voice of God.  If all that’s there is silence, then listen to yourself and find a good listener to talk to about what comes up.

Would you pray with me as I close, using “sins”

“Our Father, …”

The Eunuch, The Queen, and The Water

September 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

September 2, 2012    The Eunuch, The Queen, and The Water      Acts 8:26-40

I’m hoping this is enough of a farming community that it’s not offensive to talk about what happens when bulls reach a certain age, or a certain size.

At least in Sandy’s case, with the help of a trained Veterinarian, they turned her bulls into steers.

And if you’re not sure what that means…then it’s going to be a long morning.

Apparently there are good reasons to have this done.

Bulls get big, heavy, and strong…and turning a bull into a steer makes them a little easier to work with.  It mellows them out a little bit.

When you take away a bull’s ability to produce testosterone, it’s good for the meat, too.
It becomes a little more tender, and it tastes better…at least these are the things I learned last week when we were talking about it here in the office.  (the things you don’t learn in church, right?)

So that’s our lesson in agriculture for the morning.

It might be a little more than we need to know…but education is a powerful thing!

So, a Bull is born a Bull…but this process of castration turns the bull into a Steer.

Now, just to be sure that we’re all on the same page…the same process that turns a bull into a steer, turns a man into a eunuch.

It’s not pleasant to think about, but there’s a lot in the Bible, as in life, that isn’t pleasant.

This is a pretty familiar story.  We know there are three main characters…Philip, the Ethiopian, and the Holy Spirit.

And we’ve probably learned from countless sermons on this passage, that it’s all about conversion and baptism and obedience and a willingness to go where the Spirit leads and do as the Spirit would have you do.

I’ve heard a lot of sermons on this passage…and a lot of them have focused on either the Spirit, or Philip’s willingness to follow the Spirit’s leading.

Not many have really focused on the Eunuch.

Maybe it’s because it’s uncomfortable to hear about a Eunuch…because it just isn’t natural, and chances are we don’t really know any Eunuchs today…so we don’t have a category in our minds to deal with a Eunuch anymore.

This became clear to me when I was reading some commentaries this week.

Some of them deny that he was a “real” eunuch.  They say that maybe he just carried that title…but didn’t have the physical characteristics that would have made him a eunuch.

Others focus so much on the events in the story…like I said, Philip and the Spirit and the baptism…that they don’t even mention the fact that he was a Eunuch, much less that he was serving the Queen of Ethiopia and had control of her treasury.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’ve never paid much attention to this Eunuch before.  All I’ve needed to know is that he was rich and powerful, and that he joined the Jesus movement on this desert road out of Jerusalem.

But it turns out there’s a lot more to this story!

According to the Priestly law, Eunuchs would not have been allowed in the Temple.  (Deuteronomy 23:1 tells you why if you’re interested).

Yet, we read he had gone to Jerusalem to worship.

So we know he was at least a seeker.  He was interested in spiritual things; the things of God.

Who isn’t, right?  Even atheists care about God enough to deny claims of faith.

We also know he was educated, since he was reading to himself from the scroll of Isaiah, and we know he was rich because he had his own copy.
This was before the copy machine…even before the mimeograph!

Scrolls were expensive, and they weren’t for individual use.

We know he was in a position of power, because he was in a chariot, and we’re told he was an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.

And here’s one point where the NRSV is a little more accurate than the NIV.
The NRSV says “The Candace”…not just “Candace”.

OK…so that’s a lot to digest.  We know the Eunuch was something like a seeker, interested in the things of God.  We also know he was wealthy, powerful, and intelligent in the service of “The Candace”, who was queen of Ethiopia.

He must have had a good life, right?

Except for his unfortunate…operation…we might almost envy his position.

But then I started looking into who this queen might have been.

And of course almost everything you find about ancient people can be debated, with some people thinking this and other people thinking that…but probably, this “Candace” wasn’t really a name as much as a title.

Our Bible talks about Ethiopia…but the region they were referring to was probably a little different than the Ethiopia we know today.

The area in question had this system of government where the Queen was called a “Kandake”…or a “Candace”.  Sometimes these Candaces were referred to as “Warrior Queens”.

The women here might like to hear this!

The Candace actually ruled over the king in their system.

They might not have understood it in quite those terms…but the Candace could actually order the king to kill himself, and he was bound to obey her command.

There’s some disagreement among people who have studied this…some think the Candace was the king’s mother, others believe it was his wife…but the belief that kept it all together was that the king was so divine, that the act of ruling was beneath him.

So the day to day activities of ruling the kingdom were passed to his mother or his wife…The Candace.

In this way, the Candaces…the Warrior-Queens…of this area of ancient Ethiopia, they were responsible to rule the kingdom.

Now, it wasn’t uncommon at this time, that when one people conquered another, they might carry off at least a segment of the population, and they might turn the males into Eunuchs.  It was a brutal reminder of who conquered who…who belonged to who.

These Eunuchs might then become slaves or servants, fit to serve in the royal court of their captors.

This is what Isaiah warns Hezekiah about in 2 Kings 20, verse 18…when he says that his sons will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon (2 Kings 20:18).
The only reason I think any of this is important, is that it helps to give me more empathy for this Eunuch than I ever had before.

See, there’s a good chance this guy was a prisoner of war, serving in the royal court against his will.

Sure, he had risen through the ranks, he had gained wealth and power and a certain amount of privilege…but at what cost?

Maybe he had learned to keep his head down, to keep his mouth shut, and just do his job.

Don’t we know that’s how you get promoted when you’re captive to the Warrior-Queen?

Don’t we know that’s how you survive, in service to the Queen of Humiliation?

There’s more to our story than our position and our wealth.

We’re all Eunuchs of a kind.

We’ve all been stripped of something valuable.

We’ve all been marked by shame and humiliation, yet we’re doing the best we can with the lot we’ve been given.

I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Eunuch was reading from Isaiah…reading about being “led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before the shearer is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

This is what you do when you’re bullied into submission.

If you want to survive…you keep your head down and your mouth shut.

But it goes on, and becomes even more personal, saying “In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.  Who can speak of his descendants?  For his life was taken from the earth.”

It’s no wonder he asked Philip about this suffering servant that Isaiah was getting at.

He identified with the imagery in ways that most of us…just can’t.

He found himself in the Biblical story.

Scripture becomes immensely powerful when we find ourselves in it, would you agree?

…Hopefully by now you’ve maybe started to at least think about the twelve scriptures that are most important to you, as part of the twelve scriptures project we’re beginning as a church.

I’m betting that the scriptures you choose are going to be scriptures that you’ve found yourself in.  Scriptures that just perfectly capture some aspect of your human experience.

And that’s all good, but what I’m looking forward to most about our engaging the scriptures over the next several weeks…is the process…not the outcome.

Jesus is known in the process…on the road….in the chariot.

Jesus is known in the space between us…in the asking questions one of another, in the sharing of our pain and humiliation and the scars that have made us who we are.

That’s sacred space, and it’s where conversion happens.

I’ll let you in on a secret.

One of the things that made me most nervous when we started pastoring was situations like Luke is describing here in Acts.

Early on in our ministry, I was full of anxiety about this thing called ‘pastoral counseling’.  It was the part of this job that I probably felt least prepared for, and was most nervous about.

I was afraid I might encounter a Eunuch…that is, someone who doesn’t fit in any of the boxes I have…someone who I don’t understand…someone who has been marked by pain and humiliation, someone who would ask questions that I wouldn’t know how to answer.

Have you ever worried about that?

Have you ever been reluctant to ask probing questions because you’re afraid of what the answer might be?  Have you ever felt unprepared to engage someone on their ‘turf’?

If so, you’ve been on the brink of this ‘sacred space’…and hopefully you’ve taken the plunge and entered it at least a couple of times in your life.

That’s where conversion happens.

It’s where our defenses crumble…it’s where our walls have no meaning…and it’s where our lives begin to take a different direction.

I’d like to invite you into that space this morning.

Conversion is more than a moment.  It’s a commitment that takes you from humiliation to freedom and rejoicing.

Life can feel like it’s just one thing after another; that all we’re doing is putting our heads down, keeping our mouths shut, and getting our job done because that’s what our captor desires.

But that’s not the way of Christ.

Whom do you serve?

Where is the road you’re on leading you?

The Eunuch in today’s story went on his way rejoicing, and Philip continued his work.

It’s never too late to change masters.

We all become scarred by life.  We all go through times of humiliation, times of servitude, times where we put our heads down and get the job done.

But the way of Christ is the way of Freedom.  It’s the way of restoration and transformation.

Committing yourself to this way is not a one time thing.

Is there the possibility that you need to re-commit yourself to Christ and his church, to find yourself again in the pages of scripture?

I’m going to speak on behalf of the ministry team this morning…that if you’d like to talk with someone after the service; an elder or a pastor, we’re available to process commitment with you…what it means to be a part of the church, what the way of Christ means, and the questions about faith that all of us live with.

For Christ is known in that sacred space.

Knowing him is a journey, not a destination.

Where Am I?

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