Abraham Study: Ishmael and Isaac

June 29, 2017

I am a couple of weeks behind with the Abraham Study, so let’s catch up. Two weeks ago the chapter was about Ishmael, the son that Abraham had with Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian servant. Last week the chapter was about Isaac, the son that Abraham had with Sarah, his wife.

As the story goes, God promised a son to Abraham and Sarah; but they are old and Sarah gets impatient. They have recently lived in Egypt and acquired an Egyptian woman to serve Sarah, and Sarah decides that it is through Hagar that the son will be born. She seems to imagine that Hagar will give birth and just turn the baby over to Sarah to raise. Abraham is uncertain but when Hagar goes to him he sleeps with her and becomes pregnant.

This is where Sarah’s plan goes awry. Hagar now has status over Sarah because of her pregnancy, and the story indicates that she taunts Sarah with it. So Sarah tells Abraham to send Hagar away. Again Abraham is uncertain but does as Sarah asks. Hagar is sent into the desert, where God tells her to return. She goes back and Ishmael is born. Thus, he is the first born son.

Eventually Sarah becomes pregnant and Isaac, the second son, is born. Conflict arises once again between Sarah/ Isaac and Hagar/ Ishmael and Sarah once again demands that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. Abraham is uncertain once again, but God tells him to do what Sarah says.

It’s interesting to note that here the Jewish scriptures, known by Jews and Christians, have one story, but there are other stories about what happens to Hagar and Ishmael. Of course the Christian tradition has the story that Hagar and Ishmael are sent away into the desert, where they nearly die of thirst. But God hears their cries and gives them water and then promises that Ishmael will be father of a great nation.

The other story is quite different– Abraham takes Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca and settles them there and even revisits them later. In this version there is a continuing relationship between Abraham and Hagar and Ishmael.

How does this story and our understanding of Ishmael as firstborn son inform our understanding of Abraham? To begin with, it seems likely that Abraham has some real affection for Ishmael because he is the first born son. At that time birth order was quite important, and the eldest was the heir of the father. The story implies that Abraham was born because Sarah went against God’s intent and that Isaac was intended as heir to God’s covenant with Abraham rather than Ishmael (the Jewish/ Christian traditional reading. One way or another Hagar and Ishmael are taken care of by God.

At this point I find Abraham to be a rather ambiguous character. On the one hand he seems to have this one-to-one relationship with God; on the other hand, when Sarah tells him to send Hagar away he does it. Regretfully, perhaps, but he does it. This seems to be at odds with his reputation as a man of great faith who took up stakes and moved his family at God’s behest.

We don’t hear much more about Ishmael in the Jewish/ Christian scriptures. At one point Joseph is given to “the Ishmaelites” by his brothers. Islamic tradition views Ishmael as a prophet and an ancestor to Muhammad. Over time the Ishmaelites became associated with the term “Arab”.  In Islamic tradition Ishmael seems to be seen as the link to Abraham and, as first son, a reason that Islam should be considered the ‘true’ or ‘primary’ religion; he is at least a partial source of division particularly between Jews and Muslims but also between Muslims and Christians.

For notes Bill Lindsay’s notes on the chapter about Isaac, click here.

 

Abraham– Week 4: Call

June 12, 2017

We continue our Abraham study with the chapter entitled “Call”, about the beginnings of Abraham’s call to follow God. Once again, there are notes from co-teacher Bill that can be accessed here. If you’re reading along or following this blog I encourage you to add your own comments, and if you haven’t started reading the book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths by Bruce Feiler it is well worth the read. It is available on Amazon and possibly through your local library as well!

This chapter addresses the question of what it means to be called by God, particularly as it pertains to Abraham and particularly as understood by Christians, Muslims and Jews. We can also glean form this discussion what it means to be called on a more personal level; for, as Abraham is called, so are we called as his descendants.

The call of Abraham teaches us, according to Mr. Feiler, that God hears the cries of all of God’s people. God heard the cry of Abraham, who at an advanced age had no heir; God responds with a promise of not only more descendants than there are stars in the sky, but also land that will be his and theirs. In order to receive this promise Abraham must leave his homeland and go… somewhere. God isn’t clear in the beginning where Abraham will go, only that he needs to go. And Abraham, trusting God, goes.

This is something new; Abraham is breaking tradition with his father who is a maker of idols. For Abraham, God offers no physical manifestation; neither does Abraham seem to need it. We might wonder how to put ourselves in Abraham’s shoes: is God the still, small voice in Abraham’s head? Is there an actual conversation? We have reported interchanges between God and Abraham, but is this a conversation as we humans understand conversation? And if not, what was it that convinced Abraham to go?

In Mr. Feiler’s book he describes the differences in emphasis between Christianity, Judaism and Islam regarding the understanding of Abraham’s call. For Jews, Abraham’s call began as a call to migration, a call that will lead him (and his descendants) to the promised land. Later the understanding becomes more spiritual in nature as the exile sends Jews on a different journey, a journey away from the land to a place where they are the other. Now the task, says Mr. Feiler, is to “go to yourself…find your roots.” For  Islam Abraham’s response to God, that he picked up and went to another land at God’s instruction, is the ultimate submission and obedience to God. For Christians the Abraham story represents a “hoping against hope” (as Paul puts it)– he didn’t disbelieve God’s promise even though he was of advanced age and “his body was as good as dead” (again, Paul). Feiler’s friend Father John says that “the lesson of Abraham is that you have to be willing to risk it all. You have to give up everything for God.”

As Christians we ask ourselves “what is God calling me to do?” We beleive that all of God’s people have gifts and abilities that we are to use to fulfill God’s work in the world. Frederick Buechner describes the place God God’s us to as that place in which a person’s deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. It may be that we are called, as Abraham was, to pick up stakes and move to a new land. It may be that we are called to a a new ministry in which we are the other, the outsider who must form relationships before we can accomplish any change in the world.

 

 

 

Abraham Study– week 3 “Birth”

June 8, 2017

I am behind a week in writing about our study Bruce Feiler’s book, “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.” Sometimes life intervenes! So this is from Wednesday, May 31 and I’ll be writing about last night’s (June 7th) discussion later in the week. The lessons for May 31, June 7 and June 14 are led by Bill Lindsay, so I am including his notes in the writing for these weeks. Thanks Bill!

The chapter for May 31, called “Birth” is the first of two in a section that are about the historical Abraham and the question of whether or not he really existed, if it can be proven, and if it matters. To me, this is part of a larger question that encompasses the whole of scripture– what do we know, what can we prove, and does it matter? For Christians, answering this question runs the gamut from Biblical inerrancy– every jot and tittle is true and authentic in its authorship (God, through Moses and others) to the idea that the Bible is just a good book which, because it can’t be proven, carries truths but isn’t true, per se. 

To many people the question of the truth of scripture is very important. Some will read the Bible stories about Abraham and believe he was a real historical character. Some will see that there is no physical evidence and understand Abraham as a mythical or composite figure, borne out of centuries of oral tradition and helpful as a anchor for the faith, but not a real, historical figure. Either way, even though Abraham isn’t provable– as Avraham Biran says in Feiler’s book, All we know about Abraham is in the Bible …  In the ground , there’s nothing… But remember , archaeology cannot prove or disprove the Bible . I follow Albright , the founder of our field , in that the Bible as a book of divine inspiration needs no proof . At the same time , you can neither do archaeology in biblical lands nor study the Bible without being aware of the discoveries . 

The Bible is a book of stories, a mix of oral tradition and written history– though maybe not “history” as we in the 21st century think of it. When we read the Bible and study the ancestors of the faith, we do so from a place and time so far removed from its happenings that it can be hard to process it, it can be hard to know how it applies to our lives today–if it even does.

And yet there are truths there. Abraham is a figure of faith that we can look to in order to understand our own. In Christian and Hebrew texts we come upon Abraham as an adult, with little background information other than his father’s name and the fact that they all migrated from Ur to Haran over a number of years.

Muslim texts have more detail. Abraham’s father carves and sells idols, and people worship him. He is of the polytheistic age and forced Abraham, who even as a young boy didn’t believe in the power of idols, to sell them. Abraham is reported to have mocked his father for worshiping idols; he was threatened with stoning and was reportedly thrown into the fire for his alternate beliefs but was saved by God.

Abraham is the first monotheist– the first to insist that there is only one God. Abraham is also the first, if we believe the stories, to be martyred. There is no question why this man, this Abraham, became so important to three major religions of the world and remains the ancestor to us all. So the question becomes for each of our traditions, how can we each honor him without dishonoring the faith traditions of the others?

 

Abraham, Week 2: Home

May 26, 2017

Our discussion this week truly begins our study of the book, Abraham: A Story of Three Faiths. If you’re following along in the reading, the chapter we discussed on Wednesday, May 23 was called Home. In this chapter Mr. Feiler lays the groundwork for his investigation of Abraham, beginning with a visit to Jerusalem.
We began this week by reading Genesis 12:1-9 (New Revised Standard Version (NRSV))

The Call of Abram
12 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”4 So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. 5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, 6 Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. 7 Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. 8 From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. 9 And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

For background I put together a set of images showing various maps of Abraham’s journey as well as some modern day pictures of Ur, Haran, Shechem, Bethel, Ai and the Negev– locations given in the scripture passage of where Abraham had traveled. At the end are a set of pictures of Jerusalem, and it is easy to see how close in proximity are landmarks of the three faiths. In one image is the Dome of the Rock, a building with a golden dome, which marks the spot that each faith sees as a touchstone– the place where Mohammad was taken into heaven by Allah, the place where Jesus preached, the place where Isaac was offered by Abraham as sacrifice.

Jerusalem is a good place to begin to understand what it means to be monotheistic; understanding monotheism can help us understand the roots of the difficulty of coexistence that the three faiths have.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church defines monotheism as belief in one personal and transcendent God. In simple terms, Muslims believe Allah is the one God; Christians believe God as expressed as Creator/Christ/Spirit is the one God; Jews believe that Yahweh is the one God. For each of these groups even acknowledging that the others have a god of their own is to acknowledge that there is more than one God. Thus, it becomes important to maintain an exclusivity or purity of belief in their particular deity. Over time each faith tradition has attempted to impose its own religious beliefs and practices on the others– which continues until today.

Below are some notes I pulled out of Mr. Feiler’s book, on which we centered our discussion:

Notes from Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (B. Feiler): Home
A piece of land emerged out of the water [of creation]. That land is the Rock, and the rock is here.
Adam was buried here, Solomon built here, Jesus prayed here. Muhammad ascended here.
Abraham came here to bury his son.
The Rock is considered the navel of the world
Stand here, you can see eternity. Stand here, you can touch the source.
o Stand here, you can smell burning flesh.
Any panorama, any camera angle, any genuflection that encompasses one will necessarily include at least one of the others.
Jewish boy, Joshua’s, comment (re: waiting for the messiah to come and make all things new, but unable to imagine it happening with Muslims present.)

Abraham
Shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam
History’s first monotheist
Found in Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Koran—which often disagree about Abraham’s history, even on basic matters
Even Abraham’s itinerary changed between generations and religions
]for we who study Abraham in this book, we are looking at] 3 religions, 4 millennia, one never-ending war.

Abraham’s offering of Isaac is a shared story, a shared touchstone for the three faiths.
Christianity—we read at Lent/ Easter– Isaac/ Jesus as ‘sacrifice’
Judaism—Rosh Hashannah
Islam—‘Id al-Adha—“the feast of the sacrifice” -climax of the pilgrimage
But can’t agree on what son was victim
Is that the model of holiness, the legacy of Abraham: to be prepared to kill for God?

Story from David Willna —the point of the story is that this degree of brotherly love is necessary before God can be manifest in the world.
“This (Jerusalem) is not only the spot where it is possible to connect with God, it’s the spot where you can connect with God only if you understand what it means to connect with one another” (David Willna)
“The relationship between a person and another human being is what creates and allows for a relationship with God. If you’re not capable of living with each other and getting along with each other, then you’re not capable of having a relationship with God.” (David Willna)

As we begin this study we see that there is a connection between these three faiths through the ancestor Abraham, but that each wants to claim the God of Abraham as its own one true God. Is the connection enough to say that we share one God through Abraham?

Please leave any comments or discussions in the comment section below.
For next week we’ll read the next chapter, Birth, and begin to seek out the ancestor we call Abraham.

Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

May 19, 2017

This month we’re beginning a new study of Bruce Feiler’s book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. In this book Mr. Feiler journeys around the Middle East, talking to believers of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam about the role that Abraham plays in their particular faith tradition. It is an interesting story and a very readable book, and if you can’t join us on Wednesdays at 5:30 for the discussion, I hope you’ll check in here and add your own comments!

I will be blogging each week about our discussion and I hope to hear from some of you as you follow along. If you are not a part of the COF family, you should know that we are a part of the Christian faith tradition. However, our purpose is to learn something about the heritage we have in common with Judaism and Islam, so hopefully we will have some discussion around those faith traditions as well.

We began this week with an overview of the book, a reading of the beginning of the Abraham story found in Genesis (11:26-12:9), and a discussion of what we know about Abraham as we begin. Abraham is first mentioned as Abram in Genesis 11:26: When Terah had lived seventy years, he became the father of Abram, Nahor, and Haran. Before we get to this point we’ve had the creation story, Adam and Eve in and out of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah, and the Tower of Babel. Right after the Babel story there is a listing of descendants of Noah beginning with Shem, through about 8 generations until we get to Terah, the father of Abram. Besides Shem there is nothing noted about these generational ancestors; there is little know even of Terah except that he lived in Ur and at some point gathered his family and set out for Caanan. Along the way they came to a place called Haran and settled there. Terah’s son Haran had already died before they left Ur, but along with Terah came Abram and Sarai, his wife, as well as Lot, the son of Haran.

Questions:

As we begin our study of Abraham and his relationship to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, what do we know about him?

As we begin our study of Abraham and his relationship to Judiasm, Christianity and Islam, what do we know about the origins and tenets of these three faith traditions?

Our discussion:

Abram and others in this part of the OT* are given ages of hundreds of years. Is this true? Did people really live longer then, or did they reckon time differently?

  • They reckoned time differently– years were shorter
  • This comes out of oral tradition, and a difference of understanding of “age” than what we have today
  • The numbers given as final age were largely symbolic and depended on the status of the individual named.

What do we know about Abraham?

  • His original name was Abram and his wife’s original name was Sarai. At some point God changed their names.
  • Abraham was ordered by God to sacrifice his son Isaac
  • He was given to lying; twice lied about Sarai being his sister instead of his wife.
  • Sarah his wife could not have children; thus his first son was Ishmael from Hagar. Ishmael and his descendants split off into a separate line of descendants.
  • Abram was rich.
  • Abram was nomadic.

What do we know about the origins of Christianity, Judaism and Islam (and about them in general?)

  • They are monotheistic religions
  • Christianity began when the apostles began to see themselves as separate from Judaism
  • Islam began when Mohammad had a vision which became the Quran (this is the faith tradition that we all know the least about.)
  • We discussed the idea that oral tradition played a large role in the beginnings of each faith tradition and that eventually things were written down. There are similarities in the stories found in each tradition– much of the wisdom that these three traditions are know for are found in other traditions around the world.
  • All three have a history of “winning” over the others, each tradition believes “we” will win the ultimate battle and become the one true religion (and each already has an element of believing themselves to be the one true religion.)

This study will take about 10 weeks. The book is divided into sections:

  • An introduction, called Home, in which we discover the Rock of Abraham, the beginnings and touchstone of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
  • God of Abraham, which will talk about the birth and call of Abram.
  • Children of Abraham, in which we learn about Ishmael and Isaac and how they factor into the development of the three faith traditions.
  • People of Abraham, with a chapter for the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith tradition
  • Blood of Abraham, in which the legacy of Abraham is discovered.

Next week we’ll begin with Home and the questions that led Mr. Feiler to decide to take this journey of discovery of how Abraham fits into each of the three faith traditions.

So what do you think? If you’d like to read along and join the discussion, the book is available in paperback on Amazon or can be downloaded to Kindle. Please share your thoughts below; keep it clean and civil please, comments will be moderated.

*Some Christians call this part of our Bible “Hebrew Scriptures” but to me that isn’t entirely accurate either, so for the purposes of this study OT and NT will refer to the Christian Bible, the Torah will refer to scriptures of Judaism, and the Quran will refer to scriptures of Islam.

 

 

 

 

Religious or Political?

February 15, 2017

I am chagrined to realize I haven’t posted on this blog for quite awhile– since October, in fact. Between then and now quite a bit has happened– not only Advent and Christmas, but also the Presidential election and inauguration and the aftereffects of this transition.

I mostly avoid directly commenting about politics on this blog in the spirit of keeping religion and state seperate (though I have been accused of “spewing liberal lies” in my sermons– you can read them and judge for yourself here). However, I happened upon an article today about Charleston SC public schools which opened by pointing how difficult it is to completely separate politics from other aspects of our lives (in that case, public education.) The same thing is true, I think, about politics and religion; in fact it was theologian Karl Barth who was widely credited with saying preachers should write their sermons with the “Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”

For tax purposes, preachers are forbidden from publicly and from the pulpit endorsing candidates for public office. I think this is a good rule and one that I follow. We aren’t forbidden as far as I know, however, from pointing out when the policies of our elected officials are dangerous or damaging to the country or its citizens. When that happens it becomes an issue of justice as much as politics, and justice issues are a preacher’s bread and butter (so to speak.) This is where Barth’s quote comes in.

You see, preaching about Biblical issues without talking about current events leads to sermons that are quite hollow. Yes, it is good for congregation members to hear that they are loved by God and live under grace and forgiveness; but there comes a moment when we have to ask what that means. Preaching salvation only seems dangerous to me because it can lead to a very self-satisfied, self-centered faith, a faith that in the comfort of our own safety forgets about the injustices all around us– injustices such as racial inequality, homelessness, and poverty. These are very kinds of things that the prophets speak against in the Old Testament and Jesus challenges in the New Testament.

Take, for example, this week’s lectionary passage from Leviticus, a book not only of the Old Testament but part of the Torah (the first five books of Jewish scripture.) Leviticus 19:9-10 says 9When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. In these verses God speaks directly to the problems of hunger and poverty by instructing the people to leave grain and grapes on the edges of the field and on the ground so that the needy can come behind them and gather what they need to eat. It is a way of making sure that they are provided for– a method not too different than our SNAP program here in the United States. SNAP is the program that used to be known as “food stamps”– an allowance for the poor and needy that can be used for food and necessities. SNAP is paid for by our taxes, and I’m glad to offer this support because I have no farmland for the poor to use for gleaning as most of us do not; in this way the poor can “glean” from my tax dollars.

Another example of resistance to injustice is found in the Beatitudes of Jesus, where we read “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, blessed are the poor in spirit. In Jesus’ world it isn’t the powerful who will receive blessings but the powerless– and if that’s not a political statement, I don’t know what is! In the kingdom of God injustice will be ended, and the poor, the meek, the hungry, all of those who face oppression and injustice today will be satisfied. The single mom who has to choose between paying the rent and feeding her child will be lifted up out of her suffering; the homeless man will have a safe, warm and dry place to live.

As a preacher of the word of God I cannot ignore these teachings; neither can I not pass them on to my congregation. God loves us, yes! But as the people of God we have a responsibility to care for the ones in our midst who cannot care for themselves. Is that Biblical? Yes. But it’s also political.

 

 

 

 

 

When Did Civility, Tolerance and Respect Become Bad?

October 19, 2016

This morning a Facebook post from a good friend caught my attention. It was a series of pictures of her oldest, who runs cross-country track events and recently won a race. What I appreciated was the message that went along with the pictures: “This kid keeps winning his cross-country races but what makes me prouder is that he waits and congratulates each person across the finish line.”

In a country obsessed with winning and being the best this image stands out to me. In a country embroiled in a very ugly and contentious presidential race, this practice of congratulating others for making it across the finish line stands out to me. In a time when it is acceptable and even applauded to call our opponents names like “loser” and “deplorables” this stands out to me.

Perhaps other elections have been this ugly and stooped so low. I don’t remember any in my lifetime in which the rancor has been so public (however, I know from history that there have been plenty of ugly races.) But the glee with which the civility of our public discourse has been eroded is disturbing, and we should all be embarrassed by the tenor and tone of debate that has occurred.

I won’t rehash what has been said. That isn’t my purpose here. But I am concerned for what happens after the election is over. Will we all be able to move on with our lives? Will we ever be able to recover from the lines that have been crossed and the particular brand hostility and viciousness that have polluted this election cycle?

Some of us are hurt and angry, afraid that we are being left behind. Some of us are hurt and angry that the American Dream that they have been promised seems to have disappeared. Fear and anger go hand in hand, and if not addressed can be deadly.

In his daily devotions last week, Father Richard Rohr calls us to picture ourselves before the crucified Jesus, and recognize that he became all of the things that we fear: nakedness, exposure, vulnerability and failure.  All of that anger we feel because we are afraid is exposed in Jesus on the cross. All of the disappointment we feel because we feel left behind is exposed in Jesus on the cross.  Like a great wound, when anger, disappointment and fear are exposed they can be dealt with and allowed to heal. We find that we no longer need to lash out in anger and we no longer need to fear the other, the future, our finitude because it no longer controls us.

To return to my thoughts about this election season and the damage it is doing to us individually and as a nation, a line in a Washington Post article caught my attention today as well: There are certain qualities of heart and mind that allow for self-government — civility, tolerance and mutual respect. I am afraid that we are losing these qualities because instead of being encouraged to heal ourselves of our anger and fear we are being encouraged to wallow in it and to lash out– which may satisfy for awhile but in the long term will only do more damage to ourselves and our country as a whole.

I am not saying that we shouldn’t speak out against injustice. Injustice must never be tolerated. But if we lose our ability to speak the truth in love, with respect, with tolerance and with civility we risk losing the very basis of our society. And that, my friends, would be a terrible blow not only for us but for the whole world.

 

 

 

A Walk to Remember

April 8, 2016

32They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” 33That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. 34They were saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” 35Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread. 

DSCN3537 A walk can be good for the soul. A walk in the woods especially. When I am feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated by life and all that I have going on, I head for a wooded trail and walk awhile, which I find clears my head and reenergizes me. One of my new favorite trails is at Doe Run Lake park near Covington and Independence KY, which travels the perimeter of the lake. It isn’t “wilderness” like the Great Smoky Mountains national park is, but it is the next best thing. Just enough up and down to feel I’ve had some exercise, just enough quiet to quiet my mind.

The walk to Emmaus might have had a similar effect on Cleopas and the other disciple. It was the day that they had discovered the reality of Jesus’ body being missing from the tomb, and with everything going on it must have seemed like a good idea to hit the road. Maybe they were going home. Maybe they were going to share the news with other disciples who weren’t in Jerusalem. Maybe they just needed to clear their minds, find a way to recharge their spirits after all that had happened.Whatever the reason, there they were, on the road to Emmaus.

As they walk a stranger approaches and asks what they are talking about. They sadly tell the tale: their leader and teacher, Jesus, had been put to death three days earlier; they had hoped he would be the one to redeem Israel, but it seemed that that was not to be. And now they had heard he had risen from death and they were just not sure what to make of this story.

While they were walking they didn’t expect to see Jesus. They didn’t know him when they did see him, at least not at first. But they opened up to this sympathetic stranger about all that had happened, sharing their sorrow and confusion with him. Then grief turns to joy as they break bread with Jesus and realize it had been him all along. in their joy they rush back to Jerusalem, their steps more sure, their mood not somber, but excited. It was a walk to remember, full of joy, astonishment, excitement and hope. Hope for a new future, hope that their dreams weren’t dead because Jesus wasn’t dead, but alive.

In times of discouragement, disappointment and grief we might not expect to see Jesus either. And yet, if we pay attention, we might see him anyway– in the face of a stranger who asks if we’re ok; in the face of a loved one who hugs us and lets us cry without trying to fix us; in the quiet solitude of a wooded trail where we can speak quietly or loudly with God, sharing our sorrow as the psalmists so often did. We feel his love, we feel his comfort. We know we’re not alone and we realize that hope and joy await us in our grief process. We see that new life is possible.

 

5 Reasons to Go to Church

January 18, 2016

Over the years as I have been involved with church and religion, the question has continued coming up, “Why should I go to church?”

Most of the time the question is followed by “I can worship God just as well at home.” Or sometimes “Church doesn’t do anything for me.” Or even, I don’t like the music, the children are loud, or the preacher’s sermons put me to sleep! These days it seems that more and more people are using these or other excuses for not going to church or being involved in a religious community.

But there are good reasons to go to church, even today. And so I have put together what I see as the top 5 reasons to go to or to be involved with church.

5. Discipline  Not discipline as in “punishment” but discipline as in “practice” or “mastery.” We go to church because it helps us to know what it means to be human, to learn how to be compassionate people in the world, and to have opportunities to practice being compassionate human beings in the world. It is possible to learn and do this on your own, I suppose, but it’s easier when we practice among people who can hold us accountable. Better yet, do both– have private devotionals and group study, to maximize your learning power!

4. Learning about ourselves and others– and God  At church we have opportunities to study and discuss theological and spiritual works with other people who are interested in theology and spirituality too. Many people in congregations have a wealth of knowledge to share or a thirst for the kind of knowledge you have. Learning is more enjoyable and easier when done with others, and it gives us a chance to get to know them on a deeper level. Also, during prayer time we hear what our neighbors are facing– the job loss, the divorce, the sickness– and are able to offer our support and share our struggles and receive support. Bible studies and sermons help us learn about God working in the world, and hearing the stories of how our ancestors in the faith encountered God we also learn to understand our encounters with God.

3. We are moved outside of our comfort zone  Just the act of going to church may cause you to step outside of the normal, everyday routine you’re used to. Getting involved in Bible study or mission activities or fellowship groups can shake things up for you, help you see the world in new ways, change your way of thinking about the world and the human beings around you.

2. Good food abounds!  I’ve never been to a church that didn’t have good food and good cooks. From potluck dinners to ice cream socials church people know how to share the best of their culinary ability. Congregations might make food the focus of their ministry, hosting a weekly or monthly dinner that the whole neighborhood or community is invited to. By sharing our food we share ourselves, growing in faith as we go.

1. Good people abound as well!  Yes, there may be drama in church and yes, sometimes people aren’t as nice and compassionate and loving as we might like. From outside of the church we might see them as hypocrites; but from inside the church we realize that they’re good people who struggle sometimes, just like everyone else. When we spend time with someone on a mission trip, at dinner before choir, in a Bible study we come to know them, sometimes better than we know our own families. They might even come to feel like family. We see where we have things in common. And we might see God working in their lives, helping them to become better people– and helping us to become better people too!

Sure, it’s easy to not go to church, easier than it was in the mid-20th century when going to church was just what you did. It’s easy to stay at home on Sunday morning, or go to the lake or to a ball game; it’s easy to point fingers at people who go to church but who seem so unpleasant sometimes. It’s easy to let the world convince us that it doesn’t matter it we don’t go to church. Still, I encourage you to go, and see just what we might find good about going to church.

Walking through Darkness to the Light

December 23, 2015

The following is a reprint of an e-votion I wrote several years ago.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of great darkness—on them light has shined.                                                                Isaiah 9:2

 

At it’s best, the holiday season can be a happy time, a joyful time, a time of wonder and magic. Christmas is a time of celebration, a time when we remember the birth of the Christ child and how his presence changed the world forever. Christmas is also a time for giving to others, to the special people in our lives; we buy presents and bake cookies and generally do things for other people to honor them and show our love for them. It’s a great time to go caroling with friends, to visit people we haven’t seen for awhile, to go to parties and gatherings, and in general have a merry old time.

But for some people the holidays are not so merry. For some people the holidays are a reminder of what they’ve lost:   a loved one, a friend, a spouse. The tragedy of loss may have happened long ago, or it may be recent—I think of the families of the hikers who are lost on Mt. Hood—but the pain the same. For some people the financial stress of gift giving sucks the fun right out of the season. Everywhere they look they are encouraged to buy, buy, buy! and they end up doing so—even if they can’t afford it. And there are other people who don’t know why Christmas is celebrated, but only know the Santa part, who are missing out on the real source of joy that we as Christians feel. For these people and many others, the holidays may seem like a dark time, a time of sadness and stress rather than happiness and joy.

We all walk in darkness from time to time; but somehow if we’re walking in darkness at this time of the year, when it seems like all of the people around us are ridiculously happy and merry, it can be even tougher. It’s no wonder that suicide rates rise at this time of year, that domestic violence rates go up, that alcoholism and drug abuse rates rise. But there is hope. Hope is the reason that people find joy in the Christmas season—hope for the future, for our future and the future of all who suffer—hope that came to us in the form of the baby Jesus and who lives in each of us even now, 2000 years later. For those who are suffering or lonely, Christ teaches us to pray for them and visit them, to give of ourselves to them. If we are the sad ones, we may find that visiting others who need us will bring the hope and joy to our hearts that we’re missing. And if people are walking in darkness because they haven’t heard the Christmas story, Christ sends us out to them to tell the story of our experience with the good news of Jesus Christ—so that they too may have the hope and joy that comes through him.

If you are lonely or suffering and in need of prayer and fellowship, I encourage you go to a Christmas Eve service. Or visit a neighbor. Or call someone. Or write to me and I’ll pray for you. Let’s light up Christmas by giving of ourselves and giving Christ to others.

God of miracles, I look to your love at this time to bring the joy and love to my heart, and to give me hope for the future. Help me to share this hope and joy with others so that they may move out of the darkness and into the light. Amen.