Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lent, Legend, Leprosy, and the Liberation of a Little Girl: Modern Psalm Week 1

One of the joys of parenting is the chance to tell and retell biblical stories to our children. 

This (intended-to-be) daily ritual has also served as a regular reminder that no matter how many times I read the Bible, there will always be something new to learn. 

That was the case the other day when the story my kids chose from their children’s Bible was the preschool version of 2 Kings 5. 
It's o.k. I had to look it up, too. 

The story is about a little Israelite girl who was taken captive by Naaman, commander of the Aramaen army (modern day Syria).  The narrative reads:
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet [Elisha] who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
The remainder of the chapter illustrates Naaman's encounter with Elisha.  The prophet instructs the commander to bathe in the Jordan so to be healed of his leprosy and ultimately returned to Aram. The real kicker is when Elisha gives Naaman a blessing, “Go in peace" (5:19).

When I read the abbreviated and paraphrased rendition of this story to my kids, what was most fascinating was how the childrens Bible reduced this narrative into a neat and clean story about enemy love, i.e. little girl who sought the healing of her captor, and a foreshadowing of the free gift of grace we receive in Christ, i.e. Naamans offer to pay Elisha to be healed being ultimately rejected. 

I was not about to dive into exegetical debate with my three-year-olds.  I also thought their fragile imaginations may not be ready for my cynical nuances. Yet I couldnt shrug off the disturbance of conscience- were we really supposed to celebrate the healing of this warden of an imprisoned youth while that same little girl remained in captivity?

I gave the story a pass for the night and tucked the Twinado into bed. The next morning, I was still unsettled. 

Did the writer of this text leave something out? What about the little girl? What about liberation of the captives?  Why didn’t Elisha demand the little girl’s release as payment for Naaman’s healing? After all, if it wasn’t for her, Naaman would have withered until he died a slow, painful, lonely death.

Instead, Naaman is given more than his fair share of chances, forgiven of his pompous attitude when invited to bathe in the Jordan, and sent away as if it were no big deal to worship both the God of Israel and the false idols of Aram.  

Gehazi, Elisha's own servant, identifies with my bewilderment, "My master has let that Aramaic Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the LORD lives, I will run after him and get something out of him" (5:20).

And then I hear echoes of Common and John Legend’s recent hit, “Glory." A perfect modern psalm to begin the Lenten journey:
Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtapositionin' us
Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
Agreed.  The justice of 2 Kings 5 isn't specific enough, or at least not universal enough.  What about  the little Israelite girl whose desire for freedom is overlooked in favor of the redemption of her oppressor? It appears this juxtaposition, i.e. of Naaman's liberation with the freedom of the enslaved, was missed by the writers of this piece of Scripture.

Even when we dig deeper into Gehazi's rally cry for retribution, we are confronted with the ulterior motive of his quest for a fair resolution.  Gehazi is neither concerned about the little girl nor justice.  Rather, the servant wants payment.  So Elisha responds: 
"'Where have you been Gehazi!?'...Therefore the leprosy of Namman shall cling to you and your descendants forever.  So he left his presence leprous, as white as snow" (5:25, 27).
Will this little girl's war ever be won? Will her Selma march ever come?

Needless to say, this portion of the Hebrew Scriptures does not currently rank high on my list. The messiness and loose ends disturb my soul. On the surface, God's preferential option for the poor and oppressed has encountered a potential lapse in consistency.

But 2 Kings 5 may be the perfect Lenten meditation. 

The narrative begs us to consider the little girls and all others who live in captivity while their captors reap the benefits of power and privilege.  Naaman’s deliverance dares us to wrestle with the tension of praying for the redemption of our enemies while also, or more specifically, longing for justice on behalf of those abused and offended by their egregious behaviors. This justice should neither be reduced to nor confused with vengeance or acquisition of financial gain.  The children’s rendition of the story challenges our conscience as we confess the ways in which we smooth over the rawness of the human experience in favor of palatable religion. 

Elisha’s blessing, “go in peace," even confronts our dreams of shalom in light of a world saturated in so much war, terrorism, dis-ease, various -isms, and deep-seeded despair. 

These are all the musings of pilgrims on a Lenten quest to the cross, longing for the glory of Easter morning.

I guess I’ll keep reading 2 Kings 5 it to my kids until that glory comes.  After all, they may have already been wondering what happened to that little girl. Maybe I should I ask them...

Modern Psalm for the Lenten Journey: Week 1

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Church as Friend to the Community, Advocate to Children: Reflections from Weekend with Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson

"Has the church become so insular, in light of our perceived problems and divisions, that we've missed the opportunities in the global society emerging all around us?" This was possibly the most profound and pointed question posed by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of the PCUSA Office of Public Witness.

We were gathered at The First Presbyterian Church of Germantown in Philadelphia for day two of conversations on Race and Christian Witness, a collaborative event hosted by the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus and the Presbytery of Philadelphia in celebration of Black History Month. Sunday's remarks built upon a foundation laid by the previous day's challenge, "If we [the church] are still boxing one another at the bottom we will never be able to confront the real and oppressive power struggle at the top."

The pastor, prophet, and social advocate dared us to consider if our church speak and ecclesial debates serve the greater good- the greater good not being the legacy and preservation of bricks, mortar, and polity. Rather, do our church systems and committees, debates and varied theological convictions birth a concern for the greater good of our community and our neighbors with whom we share a zip code?

This may have been the reason Rev. Dr. Nelson shifted the tone of the gathering's discourse and the sentiment of his rhetoric. Better said, the traveling preacher broadened the conversation on reconciliation, frequently limited to black versus white, to include issues of immigration, corruption in the prison systems, violence in our neighborhoods, and the education afforded to our children.  Rev. Dr. Nelson raised his prophetic voice, "If the community with a church on every corner is crumbling, there's a problem with the church.  If there's a church in the community, education should not be a problem. The church has to become again a friend to the community, a friend to the children."

This missional commitment to communal engagement reminds us over and again that our mandate as the people of God is not solely to leverage the church, although there is a proper place for such ecclesiastical work that has now become my own, but more so to work towards the in-breaking of God's dreams for the world.  Disclaimer: these dreams are not for the establishment of some sort of eternal church in the age to come. In the verbiage of Presbyterianism, God has called the church as a provisional demonstration of and to bear witness to the kingdom of God already here and yet to come.*  This sobering reality of the church's finitude should not cause us sorrow, but propel us towards renewed and authentic works of love, justice, and reconciliation. 

Rev. Dr. Nelson was not raising any radical ideas or innovative paradigm shifts this past weekend. I am confident he would say the same. Instead, his powerful preaching was a call to memory and recollection of the church's shared history of fidelity and incarnational labors of love in diverse contexts around the world.

Yet somewhere along the way, likely as the faithful became immersed in the age of individualism, our collective narrative became isolated rituals cemented in doctrinal and governmental systems. Which led to some of the preachers final statements of hope and exhortation, "God can [and will] work through us, but we've got to get out of the cultural mindset of me, myself, mine."

Rev. Dr. Nelson reminded the church that despite an age of decline, we still have work to do.  God is not finished with the church or our missional witness near and far. As long as two or three are gathered...

I am blessed to be a part of the rich heritage and creative spirit that is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  While there is much to lament, there is far more to celebrate.  If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we will find great encouragement and renewed strength in the vast collection of stories, past and present, whereby the church has embodied it's call:
"This community, the church universal, is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares God’s labor of healing the enmities which separate people from God and from each other." (Confession of 1967,  9.31)
The conversations that took place this weekend are only the beginnings, actually the continuations, of reflections framed for the purpose of participation in Jesus' call towards reconciliation.  The world around us is indeed divided, saturated in racial, generational, economic, religious, political, educational, and denominational segregation. What message does the body of Christ reverberate in a world all too familiar with division and strife? Is it any better?  We can do better.  We must do better. As we fix our eyes on our call as a reconciliatory people who follow a crucified and resurrected Savior, we will do better.

Thanks, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson. You not only moved our conversations a little bit farther, but also pushed us to put into practice real Christian Witness.

"We have to do something better; we have to do the one thing that is needed.  We have to believe; not to believe in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ...So far as it lives in and from itself it is a religious community like any other, serving the enmity against God's grace...As soon as [the church] looks into itself it finds only a religious community.  But it must not do this."
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II. 1 159-61

*I love the old language from earlier edition of BOO, "The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity." (G-3.0103). Provisional is defined, arranged or existing in the present, possibly to be changed later.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday through the Eyes of Children

"Before God built me I was flat," my son said one night before bed.

"Then what happened?" I asked. 

"God breathed on me and I got big."

I had never previously thought about the human dimension before the whole God breathing into humanity's nostrils thing. Sure, it always struck me as an odd choice on God's part. I simply glossed over the obscure imagery as though it was normal for all divine-human relationships.
"Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being" (Genesis 2:7).
Could you imagine if that was how they taught CPR?  My son was right, it was a little silly. 

I frequently tell people, "my kids are the greatest theologians I know.” They point out the obvious in ways that confront previous held assumptions. They expose truths and mysteries about faith and biblical story that students of Scripture and professional church folk, like myself, have missed despite our degrees and fancy titles. 

Like the time my daughter asked, when she saw a picture of Jesus’ 12 disciples, “why are all of Jesus’ friends boys? Where are the girls?"

We then found the story in Mark 5 of the little girl who was raised from the dead.  The parable instantly became her favorite. 

In these child-like musings, my children teach me.  And when my son spoke of being built, as though we were balloons waiting to be inflated, I could not help but think about Ash Wednesday and the beginnings of our Lenten journey. 

Ash Wednesday is a reminder that our existence hinges on the Creator. We are not independent beings.  
"We do not merely regard ourselves as bound; we are bound. Our own existence stands or falls with the existence of God." (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.1)
Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our finitude and dependency upon Another.  We are bound to the God who made us.  We are bound to one another. The ashes remind us that we are even bound to the creation itself. 

And when we here the words, “remember you are dust, to dust you shall return,” we  are reminded of our need for God over and again to breath into us. We depend upon God’s Spirit, for without the breath of the Creator we remain flat. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Who Is Walter Heath and What's an Associate Presbyter?

On February 25, 1965, Walter R. Heath passed away after a life of 80 years.  Along with a fondness for baseball and always looking his Sunday best, Mr. Heath loved Jesus and served as a devoted member and ruling elder at Faith Presbyterian Church just outside of Baltimore, MD.

That's all I know about Walter R. Heath.

Aside from one more detail, Walter R. Heath was my maternal great-great grandfather.

That's right, Presbyterianism is in my blood.  Despite years of leaving out the tradition whenever I described my pre-presby background and thanks to recently unearthed family history by grandmother, I can now proudly claim the Reformed Faith as part of my heritage.

And on February 22, 2015, almost exactly 50 years after Walter Heath's passing, his great-great grandson will bring Presbyterian ordination back into the family.   I can't wait to grab my robe, a stole, and head down to the church off Loch Raven Boulevard so I can snap a quick picture en memoriam.

When I was fifteen and sensed a call to ministry, my family and I were members of a Lutheran congregation in the suburbs of Baltimore. I vividly remember one on the vicars in our ELCA community who affirmed my call and challenged me never to limit the possibilities God would make available and the doors God would open as I responded to the call.

She was spot on.  Yet, I am quite confident neither of us would have thought my call to serve as an ordained pastor and teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) would have been one such door God would open.  I certainly doubt my position as an Associate Presbyter in the Presbytery of Philadelphia would have been what she or I would have forecasted for my vocational future.

But God is a God of mystery and surprise.

Since I have responded to that call, whenever I share about my new ministry and title as Associate Presbyter, I am met with a bit of a blank stare of confusion.  Whether family member or friend, person cutting my hair or neighbor next door, my vocation is ambiguous at best to those less than familiar with Presby speak.

As a friend posted on my Facebook wall:

If you look into the PCUSA Book of Order, a presbyter can be described in this way:
"This church shall be governed by presbyters, that is, ruling elders and teaching elders...Presbyters are not simply to reflect the will of the people, but rather to seek together to find and represent the will of Christ" (F-3.0202, 3.0204). 
That may not always help the novice Presby, so here's more:
"Teaching elders (also called ministers of the Word and Sacrament) shall in all things be committed to teaching the faith and equipping the saints for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). They may serve in a variety of ministries, as authorized by the presbytery. When they serve as preachers and teachers of the Word, they shall preach and teach the faith of the church, so that the people are shaped by the pattern of the gospel and strengthened for witness and service. When they serve at font and table, they shall interpret the mysteries of grace and lift the people’s vision toward the hope of God’s new creation. When they serve as pastors, they shall support the people in the disciplines of the faith amid the struggles of daily life. When they serve as presbyters, they shall participate in the responsibilities of governance, seeking always to discern the mind of Christ and to build up Christ’s body through devotion, debate, and decision" (G-2.0501). 
This coming Sunday, I will be ordained as a teaching elder/pastor/minister of word and sacrament to serve the Presbytery of Philadelphia as a presbyter in their regional office.  The ministry, which I will continually grow into in the days and years ahead, takes on a three-fold form (how very Barthian of me):

1. Pastor Alongside Pastors: networking and leading alongside the faithful ruling and teaching elders of the Presbytery, which incorporates nearly 130 churches and has a rich 300-year history (298 to be exact).  Actually, American Presbyterianism began in Philadelphia and provides more than enough history and ministry witness for me to explore. 

2. Storylearner and Storyteller: narrating the many attestations to what God has done, is doing, and will do in and through the faithful of Philly. This will take on various forms and expressions, utilizing all sorts of platforms and mediums to tell the story of the Body of Christ in and around the city. Look out blogosphere, Twitter, and dare I say podcast world.*

3. Steward of Resources: navigating ways to support and sustain already existing and fresh expressions of the church in communities connected to the Presbytery. In just a few weeks on the job, it is already evident that prophetic imaginations and creative spirits are abundant throughout the Presbytery of Philadelphia.  As an Associate Presbyter, I am privileged to walk alongside those who are on the ground doing good work and imagine methods and strategies to equip the saints for their incarnational and diverse ministry. 

I come into my vocational call and pastoral ministry with arms and ears and eyes wide open. I have much to learn and many to meet.  The bulk of the next few months will be spent as a humble servant whose heart and mind will take on the form of a sponge, absorbing as much as I can from the many partners and collaborates in ministry. 

Yet one thing I can now cling to as added affirmation and validation whenever I face challenges sure to come, I can do this. Presbyterianism is in my blood.  

*If interested, here is the first story I wrote about great ministry at one of our churches in the city: