This morning, after breakfast, my wife asked me to cut up a watermelon that she had bought a couple of days ago. She reminded me that I was the one to do it, since I had said that I liked doing such things. And, she is right, I do enjoy it, although I get so busy that I tend to forget that enjoyment and just see it as a task to be done. But she had fixed me breakfast, and so I didn’t want to turn down her request.
As I stood there cutting the slices and then cutting the slices into cubes, I rediscovered how much I enjoyed doing that. There is something about leaving behind the computer, and forgetting for a few minutes the stack of work that I have to do, and instead using my hands to do something with an incredible creation like a watermelon. There is something about the act of working in that way, of being in touch with the meat and the juice of the watermelon, that connects me with the earth from which it came. It was a refreshing experience, as I recalled that it always is.
On the occasions when I wash dishes, and don’t be misled into thinking that I do that very regularly, I find the same kind of spiritual renewal as I do with watermelon cutting. Maybe it is the water itself that does that. Perhaps it is the short-term task of getting things cleaned up. Maybe, again, it is doing something with my hands. It is definitely not something I do every day, and yet maybe I should if it is going to be healing in this way.
It is good to step aside from the usual, and to discover, or re-discover, the beauty and the joy of doing something beyond our ordinary activities. What is one of those beautiful activities for you? Do you step into that activity often enough?
When I attended seminary, I naively assumed that I had been prepared to serve as a minister. There was some truth in that of course. I had been exposed to scripture and theology in ways that had expanded my views of the Bible and of life. I had taken preaching classes that had given me some sense of confidence as well as the ability to evaluate what I had done, if I chose to do that evaluation. I had done the exercises in a counseling class that had barely prepared me to counsel people in real life, and I had experienced real life situations both in the local church and in hospital settings.
Of course, life continued to unfold, and new situations arose, and new experiences came, for which I have not been specifically prepared. Yet, as life came to me, I tried to approach things in the way that I had been taught to approach scripture. In seminary I wasn’t given the answers for every question that might arise about scripture. Rather, I was given the tools to be able to examine scripture, in light of its content, its history, its long journey from being written to my reading of it. It was the same with being a pastor and providing help and insight to people. It was the intention of my instructors that what I had been taught more than anything was how to translate the knowledge and understanding into diverse situations.
Life in general is like all of that of course. We have each been under-prepared for much that comes our way. I think of parenting, for instance. I received no instruction whatsoever for what was one of the most important roles in my life. That being said, the basics of who I was shaped how I thought and acted as a parent. I was young, and I made mistakes. I would do some things differently today. And yet I hope that most of what I did was helpful and supportive for my son and daughter. At the very least they seem to have survived it all well.
The parts that I think I got right in being a parent were that I loved my children and I wanted them to grow into who they felt they were supposed to be. Sometimes we have ideas of what our children should be, and we push them toward it. Sometimes we have been taught a certain theology or philosophy of life, and that approach to life can be life-giving for others, or it can come close to crushing them. If we have been taught about the sins of life, and the unforgivable things that should never be done, then we tend to be judgmental and may well create barriers between our selves and others. If we have been taught that love and compassion and grace are the best guidelines for our life, then we will touch others – our children, our spouse, our friends – in far different ways.
For me, love and compassion are at the heart of my theology. They are always more important than having people measure up to some list of rules for how life should be lived. Grace is God’s gift to us. We are given the joy, if we choose, of passing it on to others.
One of the challenges for preachers is to stay fresh, to not just keep revisiting the same texts and the same themes. Some preachers do that by using the Lectionary, a three-year cycle of readings that takes one more or less through the entire Bible in that time span. Every now and then I turn to the Lectionary, but mostly I enjoy pursuing various topics and themes.
I once read, somewhere, that preachers tend to have seven themes on which they preach, even if they turn them various ways as they address different scripture passages. If I sat down and gave it some thought, I would likely discover my seven themes. And it may be that even those who use the Lectionary do discover their same seven themes in different parts of the Bible.
If we preachers do indeed revisit those same seven themes in worship gatherings, it becomes important to introduce other elements that help to keep the experience fresh. That is a challenge in many a Protestant tradition where the spoken word is seen as central and is given preeminence in times of worship. But worship is more than preaching.
I have written before about how important the arts can be in introducing different ways to experience God, the scriptures and even our own souls. But even if people are resistant to the arts, there are still things that can be done.
One of the profound experiences for me in our Sunday celebrations comes when we have a time of silent prayer. We do that just about every other week, and it is something that will be fresh for each person every time we do it.
When we first began that practice in worship, there was a lot of uncertainty among people. Ten seconds was a good amount of time, but then the shuffling, the coughing, the moving of papers would begin. Silence is difficult for many people. It is uncomfortable. Even the person leading the time of silence can be uneasy as ten seconds can seem like twenty minutes. But over time we have lengthened the period of silence. Gradually, we have moved from ten seconds to close to a minute, and even longer at times. And as we have done this regularly together, people have become more comfortable, and the silence has obviously become significant for people. Just this last Sunday, I was about to draw the time to a close when I glanced up and saw that everyone was sitting with their eyes closed, and most with their heads bowed. So, I kept us in silence. We dwelt in silence for at least a minute and a half, perhaps longer. Now that isn’t much time if you are sitting alone in your bedroom. But that is an amazing amount of time for a gathered people of various ages and inclinations toward silent prayer. It was a vivid demonstration to me of the power of experiences that take us beyond words.
One of our current projects is to put together a gazebo. We bought it on sale, stored it, and now that the location is prepared we are assembling it. Something like this is naturally assembled step-by-step and piece-by-piece. I have put together things like this in the past and knew beforehand that it would take some time. However, when I held in hand the package of more than one hundred screw and bolts, with a couple of other plastic bags holding assorted items, and then read in the instruction booklet that the assembly should take about thirty minutes, I could only laugh. Of course, if you have six to eight people, all of whom have put together this exact gazebo before, then maybe thirty minutes will do it, but I still doubt it. The person who wrote the booklet, including misspelling the word “assembly,” probably never assembled such a project.
It reminds me of the person who tries to tell me how to get my life together, even though he or she hasn’t been living my life and has no real idea of what they are talking about.
There is a sense, certainly, that life is step-by-step as well. Sometimes we jump over a small hole, or even a deep crevasse, but generally speaking we move ahead, or even backward at times, step-by-step. Most of life has no shortcuts, and, if we are adventuresome and positive about it, we can enjoy, or at least appreciate, each of those steps along the way.
For most of us, life does not come with an instruction booklet. There are of course those instructions that we do get from parents, and the ones from teachers as well as we make our way through school. But for the deep down, deep in the heart and soul, decisions of life, we can’t just turn to page seventy-two to find out what we are to do next.
Some people will tell you that the Bible is an instruction booklet, and that God has accounted for every life situation that could possibly arise. That approach tends to make the Bible into a list of rules, and certain steps for life. I believe that Jesus never codified such rules for us, precisely because he wanted us to figure out things for ourselves, responding to the grace that he nurtures within our hearts.
Now the Bible does provide guidance for every decision and situation in life. Jesus does help us out in that regard when he takes all of the laws in the instruction booklet and reduces them to two – love God and love your neighbor as yourself. People do still try to make it more difficult by quoting this law and that rule, but if we follow Jesus’ lead then yes, there is truly guidance for everything in life.
I can’t find anything specific in the Bible about assembling gazeboes, but I do know that I need to love myself and my wife as we do it, being patient with the process, and finding joy in each step, even when the instructions are themselves not very helpful. I do walk with trust that if I go step-by-step, assembling it piece-by-piece, I will finally step back and see my completed project. And that will be a great joy.
As I prepare my message for this coming Sunday, I am going to begin with a question: “What do you call a church of perfect people?” I may solicit answers, or just make it a rhetorical question. In either case, my answer is, “An empty building.”
For those who are looking for the perfect church, it is a fruitless search. There may be some places that are perfect for certain people, perhaps because that person is accepted even with their imperfections, but by that very acceptance of an imperfect person the church itself cannot be perfect.
Now, let me hasten to add that the word “perfect” is a relative term. For most people, “perfect” means having no flaws, no imperfections, no problems, no conflicts, total peace and beauty. However, if we were to ask Jesus for his definition of “perfect” it would, I believe, include such things as, filled with love, acceptance and compassion. A “perfect church” for Jesus would, in my opinion, be a place filled with those who are highly flawed, people who may be accepted nowhere else, people whom it may be difficult to interact with, and people who are willing to accept and love the people who are flawed, rejected and difficult.
Sometimes people who don’t belong to a church feel that churches should be perfect in the sense of the first definition in the previous paragraph. Sometimes people who are in churches feel that churches should be perfect in that same way. After all, people know what chaos and disturbance and difficulty is out in the world, the church it seems should be a refuge from such things.
But, just as Jesus was often a contrarian in his dealings with people, so the church that lives fully is contrary to such expectations precisely because churches are composed of ordinary, flawed, difficult people. The difference is that within the church we are supposed to be committed to welcome of one another, acceptance of people, forgiving toward one another, and being a reconciling people. For those churches that live in these ways, following the example of Jesus, the church often can seem like a perfect church. For those churches that focus instead on individual expectations and hopes for perfection, there is apt to be so much discord that the future of that church will be in doubt.
Being the church is seldom easy. But the perfect church is indeed one where we love one another, respond compassionately to one another, forgive one another and welcome everyone. And there are those times when all of that seems to come together, and everything does indeed seem perfect.
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