One Sunday In Taipei

http://www.slpcenglish.org/multimedia-archive/2017-12-11-seeking-gods-face-finding-gods-bottom-exodus-3312-23/

 

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October Stories of Life

November 4

Somehow, October filled up with lots of things that were more interesting than writing and posting stories online. Yesterday (November 3) when catching up with the lack of posting sermons to my blog (www.aboksu.wordpress.com), I noticed that what originally was supposed to be fun (stories, pics and stuff) had become lugubrious. So, for a little levity, here are a few of October’s adventures.

October 8   Serve a Meal

About 4 years ago one of the elders at Dongning Church, a charming man, established an international small group to facilitate interaction between the many international students in the congregation and the local members. He has fingers in so many pies, and the group has shrunk because Tainan Theological College’s international student course ended. The case came to either end the group of find someone else. In January I took over month to month programming. Of course, I inherited all of the commitments he had made, too. One of those was that the international group would help serve the after-church-supper in October.  I didn’t think much about it in January, but October eventually came around.

In September I began asking, and everyone told me not to worry. The church’s “cook” had already decided the menu. The food was paid for out of the church budget, but still I had no idea what we were to DO.  It turned out, “show up before church, set up chairs and tables, wash and slice fruit, and clean up after.”  That was OK.  4 people from the group came, so others from the church donned “I’m on duty” vests and helped dish out the vegetables and meat. All was well.  The fact that I needn’t have worried didn’t stop me from doing so.

 October 3-4 A Holiday that we Celebrate

Mid-autumn Festival was late this year. The moon, as seen in Southern Taiwan, was full and fantastic, and “the rabbit in the moon” was very visible. This is one of the ancient holidays of Chinese people, so we all got it as a day off. On the night before the seniors at Tainan Theological College held a BBQ, which is traditional (though the food they served was thoroughly contemporary). We ate in the smell of charcoal smoke, and came home full, to shower off.

October 9-10 Holidays that we Don’t Celebrate

When I was in elementary school there were kids who didn’t come to class on Jewish holidays. I didn’t know what that meant (though eventually I learned). When I came to Taiwan in 1976 I discovered a set of holidays that I’d never heard of before, including September 28 (The Birthday of Confucius) October 10 (National Day), October 25 (Retrocession Day) October 31 (The Birthday of Chiang Kai-shek) and November 5 (The Birthday of Sun Yat-sen).  These made for a lot of days off during the early part of the semester. Eventually, when Taiwan was no longer a martial law dictatorship under one party rule, the holidays on Oct. 25 and 31, and on November 5, ceased to be celebrated, and September 28 became a day to send a nice card to your teacher (someone gave me a flower). What remains from the mess is October 10, which commemorates the rebellion in China that began the downfall of the empire in 1911. Because it was on a Tuesday this year, we were given Monday off, but were required to make it up on September 30th by working on a Saturday.  My Monday class opted to make it up sometime later in the semester. We haven’t done so yet.   

October 15  Beach Picnic

When I started leading the Tainan International Community Church I basically just took over making sure that we met for worship every Sunday. Other matters remain in the murky area of “traditions” of which I learn more as we go along. On October 1st someone asked me about the annual welcome party at the beach for newly arrived international students. Knowing nothing about the tradition nor about how to set that up, I said, “You run it, and I’ll be there.” The next week during church it was announced for the 15th. I was surprised, but hey, what can you do.

Others took charge (much to my relief) and I was tasked with doing something by way of worship, but nothing “too long”.  Happily, that week the Old Testament lesson in the Roman Catholic Lectionary was from Isaiah 25 was about a feast of “good food, fine wine, and the best meat.” So that was our scripture, and I was able to say about 8 minutes of stuff about it.

The picnic was at a beach that sort of created itself after a breakwater was built some time back. One of the church members, a British guy, had gone out there a few years ago and begun gathering drifting bits of bamboo and rope. The tower he built is now 40 meters tall! There were about 12 of us present, and all went well.  Next year, I won’t be here.

October 16-19  Brouhaha

A group of citizens in Tainan are attempting to get October 20th declared “Peace Day”. It is the anniversary of the day in 1895 when some people from Tainan went out to the invading Japanese troops, who were ready to start an artillery barrage the morning of the 22nd, to surrender the city. On the run-up to October 20, 1895, the Japanese had subdued all of west Taiwan EXCEPT Tainan, and the local government (such as it was) had pretty much crumbled. Rich people, worried about the destruction of their property and safety of their wives and daughters, asked Thomas Barclay, the founder of Tainan Theological College, to represent them in front of the Japanese Imperial Army. That night, Barclay, Duncan Ferguson (another Scot) and 19 Taiwanese crossed no-man’s land to the Japanese sentries and were taken to the General.  The next morning the city surrendered peacefully.

A year ago some local folks decided to start commemorating the date. This year they arranged for me to portray Barclay. I put a note about the history and the event in a local Facebook group, and got a strong denouncement from one guy my imperialism and “missionary propaganda”! But the moderator of the group said that my post should stay, so I left it.

Discussion ensued, but I stayed out of it. After a while the guy who denounced me made a slightly bigger fool of himself than I had made of myself, and things came out alright. But I felt uncomfortable for a few days.

October 20 Fake Mustache

On October 20 I was taken to the skin care lab at a local pharmaceutical college where a bushy fake mustache was built onto my upper lip. It looked terrible, especially in closeup. But I wasn’t nearly so ridiculous looking as the guy who was made up with a full beard to portray General Nogo, who commanded the invading Japanese garrison.  The event came off very well, and we were all in the newspaper the next day.

October 21 My few minutes of fame

Newspaper, television, maybe even radio, I was famous for 15 minutes. That’s done now. I can get on with the rest of my life.

October 28  Concert

The recorder group in which I play at Dongning Church was part of the annual fall neighborhood concert on October 28. On one of the pieces we did, the fast one, I only pretended to play most of the notes, and was glad when those were drowned out by people who played them correctly.  On the slow one, I got both notes and rhythm correct most of the time. The other groups that played, a woodwinds ensemble, a strings group, and some piano and cello things, were beautiful. It’s great to be part of something so neighborhood oriented. I’d say there were about 120 people there.

October 30 Camera at the Window

Tainan Theological College is making a movie, and I’m to be in it. The videographers are gathering lots of stock photos, footage, and other material. On Monday someone set up a TV camera outside the window of the classroom where I was teaching and captured some of what I do in front of a class. Apparently a white guy speaking Taiwanese is considered unique. On Thursday they came back and took an hour of my time for more informal chat. Nice folks. I hope they find something better than me for the final cut, though.

October 31  7&7

When I was a young soldier in Vietnam, and learning about things one drinks in a bar, I learned about something called a 7&7. I already had a favorite cocktail, so I didn’t try it. On October 31st I did “7&7” for a couple of hours in front of an Old Peoples’ College class. I’d been invited last summer, when I was confident in materials already stored in my computer, so didn’t even give a topic. But in late September my hard disk failed, and away went everything I could have just reviewed and presented.  Without a topic, I was “a ship at sea with my sails torn.”

About 10 days before the event something I was reading sparked in me the idea of speaking on the 7 Cardinal Virtues and the 7 Deadly Sins.  I couldn’t list but one or two (if that) on either list. I began reading, and regretting my choice, soon afterwards.  All weekend before I grabbed whatever hours I could find for writing, and the afternoon before got finished. But there was no time to practice.  I’m hoping that the powerpoint slides carried it for me, that and local, contemporary references.  I do NOT want to be invited back to this group. They are wonderful, but that’s too much work!

November 1  Whoops!

I’m re-teaching a course which I’ve taught two times before, but I tossed all the notes from previous years and began fresh this time. The computer crash in September also took all of the related files which were stored there, so it’s good I wasn’t depending on them.

The course aims to get each student to write a personal set of beliefs in the form of a catechism.  6 weeks in, they weren’t yet “getting it”. So, I found a set of files in my Google Drive account from 2 years ago; one of which had my name in the title. I sent them the link, thinking it was something I had written myself.  Turned out to have been a student’s final presentation from last time. I had to apologize to the class, and now must seek out the guy whose stuff I shared, (he graduated last year) and send a note.

Changes in Attitudes

Exodus 17:1-7 and Philippians 2:1-5

Introduction

In recent weeks hurricanes have devastated some tropical islands in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, where our brother and sister Juan and Ruth have family members residing. Tropical Islands around the world are threatened by sea level rising, and storms of any kinds in tropical regions are things to fear.

But tropical island life continues to attract people who live in places where the winters are cold. Upon retirement, these “Northern People” often buy winter homes in warm places near the sea, or relocate there. This kind of migration, like all migrations, challenges cultures on both sides.

40 years ago a “bar singer” in a tropical island town released a song and a record album singing the praises of life on a tropical island, in which he urged people who were from other places to relax and slow down if they wanted to settle into the life of his place. Changes in latitudes (moving south) required changes in attitudes.

If one wishes to become “one of God’s people”, what changes of attitudes are needed?

1: Have this mind in you.

This afternoon we read only the first part of the assigned New Testament reading for this week. I chose to shorten the verses because I wanted to focus on the last one we read, which tells us that we should have the attitude of Jesus Christ. It’s right there in the middle of the reading, which should properly extend all the way from verse 1 to verse 11. The problem for me has always been that I’ve ignored all the good stuff in verses 1-4, because verse 5 urges me to look at the even better stuff that follows to the end of the reading.

Have the attitudes that Jesus had.  YES!!  That’s great, until you start reading them, and thinking of your own life.  After all, Jesus is a little bit long of a reach for most of us.

In the verses directly about him, we learn we should be willing to give up everything, to become servants, and even to be hung on a cross.  That may be fine for Jesus, but it’s beyond me.

Some of us might say that we’ve given up a lot to be in Taiwan now. (I happen to think that I’ve landed in a better place than the one I left to come here, but that’s personal.)  For many of us, we’ve given up life in familiar culture and among family to temporarily take up residence in Tainan. BUT, we’ve come here not to become servants…. After all, many of us are here to get a degree that somewhere or other says, “MASTER” or “DOCTOR”.

Even so, if you don’t want the “downside” of becoming like Jesus, you may not want the upside, which is that in the end, at the mention of your name, people will bow down to honor you. That’s REALLY a long reach. As much as I DON’T want to give up everything, become a servant and be crucified, I don’t want to be so highly honored, either. When I came to Taiwan long ago and taught at Cheng Kung University for a year, students would rise and bow to the teacher at the beginning of each class. I remember being more than embarrassed about that. To think of being Christlike, and getting bows from all in heaven and on earth and under the earth, just scares me.

So, as the people of God (if that’s what we want to become), what are we to be?  In the scriptures we did read today, we found two examples. One negative and the other positive.

II The Negative Example  Exodus 17:1-7

We can read the stories in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, at the beginning of the Bible, and even the stories in Joshua, Judges, Ruth and the 2 books of Samuel as the story of people learning how to be God’s people. Their ancestors had not been so good at it. Some of them worshipped other gods (Like Joseph’s mother, Rachel), some assimilated to foreign ways (like most of the children of Israel while in Egypt for several generations) and others had never belonged, but joined the group that had finished with Pharoah and was setting out for the promised land (the Bible says that “a mixed bunch of other oppressed people” went out of Egypt following Moses.

 

They knew someone was offering them a new deal, but they were not sure how to “BE” part of that. They wanted the prize, but, like most of us, didn’t want to struggle for it. When they got to a place called Rephidim, they encountered a situation of no water to drink.

They had gone out, not following God, but following Moses, so they turned to him in complaint. Natural enough.  Apparently Moses himself didn’t know how he was supposed to “BE” because his response to them indicated that he regarded himself as God. “why are you complaining against God?”  In response, the people doubled their bets.  “We’re thirsty. And you are a baby killer and a property ruiner.”

Faced with this complaint, Moses remembered something very important. He was NOT God, so he prayed, and got instructions, which he followed.  History got made, and a place got named.

Many bible stories are about how places got named. This one is not much different, except the names given to it were negative. Meribah and Massah.  Complaint and Whining.  Lots of other Bible place name stories are there, then never mentioned again. This one is found in Psalm 95, which begins, “Come let us worship the Lord’, and ends, “don’t be like the people at Massah and Meribah”

Enough of the Negative example, let’s move to something positive.

III: A good Attitude

In Philippians, like in Exodus, we met a group of people learning how to be God’s people. These had come from a pagan background and were learning about conforming to the ways of Christ.

Writing to them, St. Paul praised them for the strength of their commitment to Christ, their comfort in being loved by and sharing the love of Christ, and their fellowship with the Holy Spirit. He found their compassion for one another to be especially worthy of praise.

Isn’t that enough? These people had come from Macedonian and Roman folk religion, which was mainly about power. They had progressed to love, fellowship and compassion for one another.

Apparently, it wasn’t enough for St. Paul. He was measuring not on the standard of how far they had come, but on how far they had yet to go. And we read about it in verse 2.

You Love Jesus?  You have fellowship with the Holy Spirit?  You have compassion for each other?  Great. Now, move on….  Start thinking the same.  Start loving the same.  Start to be ONE in soul and mind.  I guess they still had a lot of changes to come ahead.  When looking at myself, I realize that I have the same challenges, and the same aversions to them.

To think the same as someone else is against the culture in which I grew up.  But, there are different cultures around the world.  In the university where I got my first degree there were twin sisters from a very different part of the United States from where I had grown up. They were “exotic” because they were twins, they were beautiful, and they had a different accent when they spoke English. BUT, one day I realized just how different they were CULTURALLY when one of them, in reference to the possibility of doing something or other, said, “But then you’d have to be worried about what other people would think.”  In my basic culture, it didn’t matter AT ALL what other people would think.  In terms of what we’re told here by St. Paul, though, I should be paying attention to that.

And he urges them to “love the same”.  Maybe that’s not a challenge to you, maybe it was just friendly advice to them, but it still sounds far from where I am right now.  Sadly, I’m better off as we move to verse 3, where we’re told what NOT to do.  Lots of people are like that, better with the “YOU SHALL NOT” than with the “YOU SHOULD.”  So, don’t act selfishly and don’t act proudly. OK, I think I can move in that direction.

Then, like the people of Israel in front of Moses, who when they were criticized for complaining got louder and more specific, St Paul gets into our faces by getting louder and more specific. Step 1) “Be humble towards one another.”  Step 2) “always consider others as better than yourselves”. Step 3) Look out for one another’s interests, and finally, Step 4) that transition statement in verse 5, have the attitude that was in Jesus Christ.

CONCLUSION

Are you in a degree program? Because you’re still here, it means you haven’t yet finished.

Are you moving up the career ladder? Because you’re not yet the Chief Executive Officer, it means you haven’t yet arrived.

Are you working on developing a romantic relationship that could lead to a happy marriage, or working on having a better marriage than what you currently have? You’re still on the way.

None of us have yet arrived at these human goals, nor have any of us yet arrived at the end of the process of spiritual development that St. Paul recommends to us.

On the way, there are places like Meribah and Massah, where we will be complaining and becoming stubborn.  And when we’re there, God will meet us and meet our needs.

On the way, the goal posts will be constantly moving further and further away, as they were for the people at Philippi, to whom St. Paul was writing.

But out there on the horizon is the promised land, Jesus Christ, a mind like whose we are slowly developing as we are transformed, from glory into glory.  Have that mind in you, and you’ll be headed in the right direction.

In the name of the Father, And of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

On That Day Isaiah 25:6-10

On this mountain the Lord All-Powerful
will prepare for all nations a feast of the finest foods.
Choice wines and the best meats will be served.
Here the Lord will strip away the burial clothes
that cover the nations.
The Lord All-Powerful will destroy the power of death and wipe away all tears.
No longer will his people be insulted everywhere.
The Lord has spoken!

At that time, people will say, “The Lord has saved us! Let’s celebrate.
We waited and hoped— now our God is here.”
The powerful arm of the Lord will protect this mountain.

 

Introduction

Since digital photography replaced film, and telephones replaced cameras, we take a LOT more pictures than we used to, and we throw few of them away.  Eventually, though, we may have to sort them all out, then we’ll face a problem. Should we arrange them by date, or by theme, or by the people who appear in the photos we’ve taken?

The book of Isaiah in the bible is the product of a group of people who sat down sometime during the Persian empire, when their own homeland in and around Jerusalem was governed by an emperor far away, with ancient and “contemporary” documents, and put them together to tell the history in a way that would make sense to the people of their time.  They didn’t sort things “incorrectly”, but according to what made sense to them, then.

On That Day (Then)

The verses we read today, from Chapter 25, are all in what language teachers call, “the future tense”. Whenever and in whatever situation they were originally put down, they were about something that hadn’t yet happened. They foretold something good about the place “this mountain” that was being talked about.

It appears that they were originally written when the people who lived in that place were being squeezed between two empires, Egypt and Assyria, that were competing to be #1 in the region. The mountain was inconveniently located where the these empires both felt they needed to maintain control for their own safety. Kind of like being located in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea today.

The prophet who originally wrote these words of hope to his people trusted that God would work things out, and do so wonderfully, with a feast of finest foods, choicest wines and best meat. It would be a celebration of salvation.

On That Day (Editors’ Choice)

The group of editors who pieced together what we call the book of Isaiah today did so in a situation that THEY may have considered, “that day” already arrived.  The Assyrian Empire had long disappeared and the Egyptians had been conquered by the Persians, who allowed the people of “this mountain” to return home and pretty much govern themselves, but with subsidies from the central treasury. Their arrangement of materials showed the readers of their time that things had been pretty bad in the past, but God had worked it out for them all. They wanted people to be happy.

On This Day (Us in Taiwan)

We reside on one of those patches of soil that is squeezed between two empires, competing with each other and caring little about what happens where WE are. China and America each want something from the other, and each has a different “vision” for this land, Taiwan. We look in hope for the future of this nation.

In the meantime, we enjoy what Taiwan offers, a feast of finest foods, choicest wines and the best meat. None of us knows what tomorrow might bring. Like the people to whom these verses were originally written, we are encouraged to look forward in hope. If you’re not, as I am, hopeful about Taiwan, then it may be about your education plans, your romantic yearnings, your job prospects, or your eventual inheritances.

The prophet here urged his people to look forward to something good. Christian faith says the same thing to us… there’s something wonderful, some salvation, awaiting us. Compared to our lives now, it is a feast of finest food, choicest wine and best meat. Look to Christ, hope in him, for that.

Amen.

Seeking God’s Face, Finding God’s Bottom

Seeking God’s Face, Finding God’s Bottom

 

Introduction

Favorite musicians of our teenage years fade over time. I can testify to that truth, but I have one exception to the rule. Judy Collins is now 78 years old and I’d go almost anywhere and pay almost anything to be at a concert if she were to be on stage. But I don’t have to. Through the magic of the internet and you tube I can call up just about anything she ever preformed on camera or recorded in a studio and be transported. From the time I first fell in love with her voice and way of being on stage, I regarded whatever she sang as a “Judy Collins” song. Only later did I learn that though she wrote many songs, much of what she performed was written by others. In the late 1960s and early 1970s she recorded a lot of songs originally by the Canadian poet, Leonard Cohen. The combination of Cohen’s language and Collins’ voice can, at times, pierce to the depths of my soul and make me fall to my knees.

When I looked at this week’s suggested Old Testament reading, Exodus 33:12-23, a few lines from Cohen’s poem, “Like a Bird on a Wire” floated up from my memory (in Judy Collins’ voice). They shape how I’ve listened to the story of Moses in conversation with God.  The lines are:

I saw a beggar leaning on his wooden crutch,
he said to me, “You must not ask for so much.”
And a pretty woman leaning in her darkened door,
she cried to me, “Hey, why not ask for more?”

    Let’s start with the pretty woman, whose question is a reflection of what Moses was doing in the story that we read from the Bible.

I: “Why Not Ask for More?”

The stories in Exodus are about God’s rescue of people out of slavery and into freedom. God is the main character in the book. The next most important character is Moses. They were a powerful pair, and though in the stories, God never forgets WHO is the more powerful, sometimes Moses seems to.

Chapter 32, the one before the story we read today, starts with the people who were on their way to freedom turning from worship of God and obedience to Moses. They decided to make an idol of an agricultural fertility god, like they had worshipped while they were slaves, and have a party. As THAT story develops, God got angry and decided to wipe them out and start over again from Moses alone. Announcing this plan to Moses, God received some push-back, and Moses convinced God to repent. The result was that instead of getting wiped out, those people got sick, and were told to go away from God’s mountain.

Chapter 33 is about their departure, and about how a place was made for Moses to have his intimate, “face to face” conversations with God without having to go too far away. There was a “tent of meeting” for that purpose. It’s in the “tent of meeting” that our story today begins.

Once again, God and Moses are having a conversation. Coming off his great victory of arguing God out of anger, Moses moves on a step, asking God for different privileges. He asks to “know God’s plans”, and God says, “I plan for you to win.” Then he asks for God to accompany the people as they move along, and God says, “OK, I’ll go with you all the way.”

That’s when the voice of Leonard Cohen’s “pretty woman leaning in her darkened door” seems to come through. “Why not ask for more? Moses asks to see “the dazzling light of God’s presence.”

Moses is kind of like us. His first request was for something that would make him a better leader. His second request was for something to help the people whom he was leading. The third request was for something to make him feel good. It would have NO benefit for the people, nor for his ability to lead them. It was for him, and for him alone. It’s kind of like if you’re writing a doctoral dissertation, you ask for wisdom to write clearly so as to please your advisors and committee. Then you ask that whatever you produce will be useful to science. Then you start hoping that you can patent a lot of ideas or publish a book and get rich and famous from it.

II: “You Must not ask for so much.”

Leonard Cohen’s poem didn’t only have that pretty lady at the door, there was also the beggar, leaning on his wooden crutch, reminding us “you must not ask for so much.”

Moses had gained forgiveness and life for the people whom he was leading, he gained a vision of the future that would help him continue to lead them. He got what he asked for again with the assurance that God would not abandon them or leave them to their own devices. He was, as the expression puts it, “on a roll.” But when he went too far, he was brought up short of his goal. Not because God didn’t love him, but because, if we follow the story, what he asked for was likely to lead to his death. God said, “you can have a lot. You can be in the presence of my glory, you can hear my name, but you can’t “see my face” because that will kill you.

In that way, God was like a parent who says to a child, “You have all the freedom to eat any of the good food in this house, and you can go anywhere in it, but you can’t go out the gate into the street because you’ll get run over by a motor-scooter.”

Moses asked to see “the dazzling light of God’s presence”. That’s the simple English translation of one Hebrew word, Kabod, which is otherwise translated in English as “glory”. That’s the only time the word is used in this story. In the response, God talks about “my face”. But even that, (rather less than glory) would be too much for Moses. And here’s where the pictures on the screen may begin to make sense. What God promised to allow Moses to see was “my back”. The Hebrew word used here, Achri, is the same word for “rear end of a cow.”

The story ends where the cow did. Chapter 34 starts with something else.

Moses was seeking to see God’s face, but was permitted to see only God’s backside. Apparently, that was going to have to be enough.

III: On the Face of It

In many cases, the face of something doesn’t really tell us anything we particularly need to know. Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel, The House of Mirth, is set in about 1890 among the upper classes of New York City. These were the “finest people” whose wealth came from ancestors who had been social leaders for hundreds of years. They seemed, at times, to like each other, but were unkind to any women or men who had lost their wealth and had to “leave” good society.  They especially disliked persons who had only recently become wealthy and wanted to “enter” high society.  The attitudes of the “finest people” showed them to be anything but “fine.”

In my early 20s I met an old guy who told me about a job he once had. He was in a factory that received a liquid product (Scotch Whiskey) in barrels and put it into bottles. His job was to put labels on the bottles.  The labels were from many different brands, each of which had a different price, some brands were considered low quality and had quite plain labels. others were considered high quality, had fancy labels, and high prices. He said that the product all came from the same big barrels. He would receive an order to put the labels for the cheap stuff on so many bottles, and the labels for the better brands on so many other bottles.  On the face of it, the product was different. Inside, though, it was all the same.

We relate to God, who loves us, watches over us, cares for us and protects us, in the same way no matter what’s on our face, or what’s on our inside. We are ALL in God’s presence, no matter what faith we proclaim. Even if we proclaim no faith in God at all, we live, move and have our being in God. So, seeing God’s face, rear end, or only the palm of God’s hand shielding us from the glory, it’s all the same from God’s side. On OUR side; whatever God’s presence, protection and love does inside each of us as individuals, and as a church, is where the difference lies.

Conclusion:

Hear the word of the pretty lady leaning in at her darkened door, and ask for more.

Hear the word of the beggar leaning on his wooden crutch, and don’t ask for so much.

But don’t forget to ask, to dream big dreams, and to take those to God. The answer that comes might be, “OK.” But it might also be, “not THAT much,” or “no”, or “not now.”

From the hand of God, receive what you are given, even if that’s only a glimpse of God’s back-side. Because you are in the presence of the splendor of God, you are in hearing distance of God’s sacred name, and an object of God’s compassion. Let that be enough for now, but keep seeking more.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Basic Training for Life In Community

Introduction

Any of us, men or women, who has undergone military basic training can testify to the difficulty of the process, and the completeness of the transformation it brings (even if only for a few months or years). One starts as an ordinary human being, probably somewhere between 18 and 23 years of age, and is transformed, through difficult experiences, into a soldier. But, few of us have undergone that.

Probably more familiar is the kind of basic training that goes on for students in learning different approaches to education and different places where that takes place. Between 2004 and 2012 I was closely tied to the international student program at Tainan Theological College, where every year there were 6 to 10 students from South Asia, Africa and the Pacific in residence.  The place where “basic training” was especially needed was in the library. Some of the students had come from backgrounds where their schools had small libraries which they hadn’t used much, or at all.  A professor explained to me that for some of these students, during undergraduate study, they had received all their textbooks at the beginning of the term, and, if they were to read something else, their professors had already chosen the books for the library reserve shelf. If the professor didn’t say what chapter of what book to read, they didn’t even open one.

Some students had come from schools where the libraries were small, so they could find books just by looking at the titles of ALL of the books on the shelves.  Others had a background using card-catalogs, but few of the students had used a computer catalog to look for a book, and NOBODY had ever done inter-library loan.

Once a student mentioned that a book he wanted for research was too “technical” for the theological college library to have a copy, so I found one in the library here at Cheng-Kung University and told him about it. But that was no good. He didn’t know how to find it himself, and had no idea of, even if he found it listed on line, how to get it into his hands. We get basic library skills by being trained in them.

We need basic training in many areas of life. That’s partly why we have schools. If we are talking about religious faith, that’s why religious organizations do many things In Islam there are “madrasas”, which train children in reciting the Holy Quran. In Thailand and Burma there are monasteries that even take in children to train them to be monks.

At the Theological college I no longer deal with international students, but this term I’m teaching a couple of courses aimed at that basic training. In one I’m hoping to train students in how to preach to children, giving basic lessons in the things of faith in ways that attract, instead of repelling, little ones.  In another class I’m attempting to get adults to list out the things they already believe in simple questions and answers, so they can see where they have “gaps” in their beliefs, and know what to work on.

I: Basic Training for Life

The stuff we find in the Bible can be both very complicated and very basic. Probably many of us are familiar with some person or another who knows his or her religious traditions and texts very well, and when confronted by a situation can tell stories and give opinions on all sides of the question. We may be awed by such a person, and give up on ever attaining religious goodness ourselves. We assume that this is the model for what God wants.

Yet over and over through the Bible we find short lists of what God actually wants of us. A couple of weeks ago we considered the ten commandments, which basically can be divided into two lists: the first about how we should relate to God, and the second about how we are to relate to each other. So, we are to worship God alone, and not allow any competition, AND we are to respect each other, not doing things like lying, stealing, or killing.

But even for all the simplicity of that list, there are still 10 items on it, which may be more than any of us can remember at any one time.  Today we read a shorter list, from Micah chapter 6. It has only 3 things on it. These are basic training for life in a community of human beings.

The first requirement calls us to do what is just, the second to show constant love and the third to live in humble fellowship with God.

II: Justice

I looked for pictures to illustrate justice, but didn’t want the ones I found. They were mostly of a blindfolded Greek goddess holding a pair of scales upon which claims were to be weighed against each other to seek “balance”.  You’ve seen the pictures. The goddess, “Justice” is blindfolded because she herself does not influence the outcome. She only holds the scales.

That’s a Greek and very Western concept of Justice, and is fine insofar as it goes, but it falls short of what is considered “Justice” in biblical terms. Since our text, from Micah, is from the Old Testament, let’s stay there for the moment. In the Old Testament, Justice is part of a wholeness, a completeness, of relationships in community. It is not blind to conditions, but goes about its task with eyes wide open and head turning from side to side to see where, in the relations of any group or between people and groups, there is imbalance and especially incompleteness. Justice seeks to make things whole.

Justice is not “Making sure that an injured person gets her revenge.” In fact, justice is AGAINST revenge. If I have harmed you, only to have you harm me back, then that is not justice, that is double harm.  Justice is about restoration to completeness.

There’s a new high school in Washington D.C. in the USA. That’s a city mainly made up of poor people of color. The rich and powerful come in from outside of town to run the government, but don’t live in the city. At this school students who get into trouble or misbehave are not expelled or suspended, they are brought into healing circles with teachers, counselors, social workers and psychologists to analyze what went wrong and how to resolve the problem and restore relationships. Because there is so much going wrong among poor people, not only in Washington D.C., but everywhere, creating wholeness and building justice takes a lot of work. But this is one of the most basic things that human beings need for life in community. And it was right there in our Bible text today.

III: Showing Constant Love  (Kindness)

Basic training for soldiers is not just about how to march in a line. Basic training for students using a library isn’t just about where to find the books.  Soldiers do more than march, and students do more than find books. The basic skill of “Justice” can be rather cold and soul-less. We have more to learn.

Many of the people with whom I grew up in church, Sunday School, and middle school youth group gave up on church during high school. There were so many rules we had to follow, so many attractive things that were forbidden to us, and so many ways to “sin against God” that a lot of kids found an easier life in just throwing off the whole thing. I’ve come to a point in life now where I say, “I don’t blame them.”

Whenever it was that someone introduced these verses from Micah to me (which was NOT while I was in Sunday school, where they wanted me to obey EVERY rule), I felt relieved, but still didn’t take to them, because I felt there had to be more. God couldn’t just want “Kindness” (which I thought of as a sort of weakness). God certainly wanted us to be clever and quick of mind, ready to fight off the devil and all the evil in the world.

As I’ve gotten older, “kindness” has become more important to me than keeping all the rules.  The translation we have in the Bibles we use here at Tainan International Community church, which reads, “show constant love” is even better.

The word in the Hebrew is one of a several used in the Old Testament. There’s a word for the kind of love God has for people, and another word for the kind of love people show for God. This is the second word… the one of “people’s love for God”. This kind of live is found inside a contracted relationship with God (in the Bible this is called a covenant). God isn’t just a convenient source of help in times of trouble, or some sort of heavenly Father Christmas who gives us what we want when we need it, God is the central relationship in a life that can be called human, and brings all things into proportion.  How do we respond to something so big and powerful?

IV: Humble Fellowship

The third part of the verse says that we are to live in humble fellowship with God. How can you do that?  God is so big, and we are, by comparison, so small. So, let’s turn the phrase around, saying: “fellowship with God humbly.”

Fellowship implies relationship. How do you maintain any relationships in your life?  There’s an expression used when people in love must part for a season, because one has to go away to study, or to take a job, or to do military service. People say, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I don’t know about your experience, but I think that’s a lot of B.S.  Absence makes you forget. And it’s true regarding maintaining our relationship with God, too. We need to spend time together, in prayer, in meditation and contemplation, and perhaps even in reading the Bible, though I’d recommend “reading” instead of “studying” it.

Living in fellowship is living in communication. Living in fellowship with God “humbly” is a further consideration. Dr. David Meyers, who wrote one of the basic Social Psychology textbooks used in universities all over America, was quoted in the New York Times one year saying, “I’m a Christian, so I know that there IS a God, and I know that I’m not him.” Living humbly is knowing that even in this covenant relationship with God, you are NOT God, and you are not an equal partner in the fellowship. Grateful life in that relationship is what is called for.

Conclusion:

Even (maybe even especially) religious people ignore such a short and simple list, and any of us who are or have ever been graduate students are even more likely to pass over it because we prefer complexity. By Jesus time, people had pretty much given up on getting things right, or they had complicated it so much that life became restricted to thinking about not making any mistakes. When someone asked Jesus which of the many commandments on the list he carried in his heart was the most important (wanting Jesus to sort things out for him), Jesus answered in the words of what we have come to call, “the great commandment.”

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and the most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’…”

Sisters and Brothers, do this, and you will live.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

Better than Shackles OR Freedom

Better than shackles or freedom

Introduction

A community college in America is a non-residential school (there are no dormitories) where students take instruction leading to a two-year degree, known as the “Associate of Arts”. Fees for attendance are rather low, (I went for free) and the schools are often quite large. Anyone who studies there is encouraged welcomed to transfer the course credits they earn to larger universities, where they would have paid much more.  So, “community college” is considered a wonderful way to begin one’s higher education, especially if you come from a family where NOBODY else has ever attended college, or you don’t have much money, or you have to work at a part-time job while you are a student.  EXCEPT, it was discovered recently that instead of finishing the Associate of Arts degree in two years, many students take 3 or 4 years, and a large number never finish at all. It turns out that community colleges offer so many choices and encourage students to “try whatever you like”, and the result is that at the end of 2 or 3 years’ study people may have a lot of college credits, but they’ve studied nothing in particular. The 4-year universities don’t accept all the variety that the 2 year students arrive with. For some folks, community college has been too “free”.

Contrast that with what students have experienced in secondary education. They are told very clearly what courses they are to take, and the teachers watch over them and push them through to finishing “with their classmates”.  They study things that someone else has chosen for them, and which they may eventually feel prepared them for nothing.

In response to the high rate of “non-completion” in community colleges, some have instituted “guided paths” (something less than a college major) to help students choose more wisely from among the options, and be more likely to finish, if not in 2 years, then in 3.

In secondary school, the RULES and lack of choice were a problem. In community college, the Freedom has become the problem.  Life in general, not just student life, presents a similar set of problems to many of us. We don’t want to be controlled, we fight against control, yet we find complete freedom to be scary and dangerous.

Child development specialists talk about the power a young child finds when she learns that she can say, “NO”. (This is generally at about the age of 2.) When, a few years later, a child can speak a complete sentence, this one is likely to be heard, “I want to do what I want to do!”  Not yet able to manage all things, a child wants freedom from rules.  This is a natural development, and means good things for the personality, but it’s difficult to live with.

You might compare it to how once you are in a boat, there are no roads on the water, and you can go wherever you can float. But having a navigation map handy, that will tell you where the underwater rocks are, so that you don’t tear the bottom out of your boat. The religious way to describe that map is to call it “a Grace.”

I: The Ten Commandments in their Old Testament Setting

According to the stories we read in Exodus, one episode of which we considered last week, a mixed group of God’s people (we’re ALL God’s people) followed Moses out of Egypt to establish a new and independent country. They were free from the control of the Egyptian government and their slave masters. That was all behind them.

Sometimes people who have been slaves greatly desire freedom, and lead revolutions that result in their freedom, but they don’t know how to be free, so some among them will continue to live as slaves, even though they are free.  Here in Taiwan the absolute control of the KMT began to break down in the 1990s, but it took until last year, 2016, before the people threw off the chains.

Where we met them today, the law of God we’ve come to call “the ten commandments” is placed in chapter 20 of Exodus, the book in which the story of liberation is told. That placement confused me last week, so I tried to map out who was where at what time in the story. What I discovered was that this placement, at the beginning of a story that goes on through chapter 40, is, in itself, a special Grace for tired readers.

In chapter 19, just before the commandments, God is on top of the mountain and the people are at the bottom. Moses climbs up and down several times. If you read it, you find God saying to him, “come up here so I can tell you something”, then “go back down and tell them,” then, “come right back”. God thunders and Moses interprets the noise to the people. But there are no stones with commandments written on them. Those don’t come into the story until about chapter 32.  Much of what we have learned from movies, cartoons, bible story books and Sunday school teachers we may have to unlearn. This was not a simple accomplishment of one guy climbing a mountain one time and coming back with God’s law.

The people had lived by Egyptian law while they were slaves. They moved out, following this Moses guy, and demonstrated that they didn’t know how to get along with each other or how to act regarding the God who Moses told them was setting them free. They needed some guidance. The story of how the commandments came to them is long and a bit twisted, but whoever set it out for us knew the main point, and set the rules down in a nice list right at the beginning. So whether those people had them first or not, they got them, and now we have them.

And there’s good stuff in here. Those people, and us too, are told that there is only ONE God, whom we are to worship. That’s first and most important. There are commandments that set people into relationship with that ONE God, and then several more that set people into relationship with each other. The commandments are general enough to allow interpretation and to endure across several generations and cultures. After the last one is described to us in verse 17, we’re told that the people received them with fear. No surprise.

But like many good and living things, over the course of time, the laws got dried out and hard. A young girl who was among my friends while I was growing up had a part time job in a restaurant during her university years. The place had a refrigerated glass cabinet with some shelves where the restaurant displayed slices of fruit pie so that people could be attracted to have some for dessert. She once told me that she had put the pie slices in the cabinet and then watched for several days as what was originally moist and appetizing turned dry and hard before anyone asked for it. And when someone did, she served it to him and he paid for it.

II: The Ten Commandments in the New Testament Setting

By the time of Jesus, the ways that people lived with the 10 commandments had hardened. Keeping them was not a way to relate to God. It was a way that people criticized others to keep them “in line”.  Jesus kept the commandments gently. He didn’t worry too much about a commandment when a person was in need. At times he healed people (did good for them) on the Sabbath day, which his enemies pointed out was breaking the commandment. You can even find a story of Jesus choosing to stay with strangers rather than obeying his mother’s call to come home. And in one story, when Jesus’ mother told him to do something, he said, “Woman, what do you have to do with me?”

Today we read a story in which Jesus used a vineyard, a powerful image from his people’s traditions about themselves, to describe what had been going on in their relationship to God.  They had turned the commandments and the rest of the Law of God into something like a border wall, as is found between Israel and Palestine today. Inside the wall they enjoyed the fruits of what was given them. The people outside the wall were excluded. And anyone who came to assert God’s claim to what had been provided for the good of EVERYONE was resisted or mistreated. When one who particularly embodied God’s claim, who taught that the vineyard did NOT belong to the keepers of the law came, they killed him.

Those who heard the story knew that it had been told against them. But they could do nothing to Jesus then, because the people whom they had excluded from the good things of the vineyard, the good things of God’s grace, heard the story too.

The excluded people were oppressed, like their ancestors had been in Egypt. Their political and economic oppression principally came from the upper economic classes and from foreign countries. BUT there was home-grown religious oppression, operating through their own religious leaders who used what they called, “the Law of God” as a tool.  Even though they knew that they were operating by a misinterpretation of what God wanted, they continued using their interpretation of God’s law as a tool for beating those below them and keeping them under control.  “The True Command” was simple. It only took two sentences to state: “Love God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind. Love your neighbor as yourself.” They didn’t want this true command, this “grace”, They wanted sharp, hard-edged tools.

Two weeks ago I attended a set of lectures in Taipei. After each lecture there was time for questions, and as in many meetings of this type, some people could not resist using “question time” to give lectures of their own. One guy stood to say that Christians should throw out the Old Testament of the Bible.  His idea wasn’t new. It has been discussed, and rejected, over and over ever since the New Testament came into existence.

His argument was that the Old Testament is all rules, and the New Testament all love. He’s wrong. It’s pretty clear that he hasn’t read all of either the Old or the New. Whether addressing Law or Love, both the Old and New Testaments are filled with the Grace of God, the grace that we need for living with each other.

III: The Law of God for us in Taiwan here and now

In the 1950s many scholars proposed hierarchies as schemes to explain things like psychological need (Maslow), educational method (Bloom) and moral development (Kohlberg). Kohlberg’s theory speaks to us in Taiwan as we deal with law. It says that at the lowest level, we do what is morally right because we don’t want to be punished.

20 years ago, when the law in Taiwan changed to require that people on motorcycles wear safety helmets, there was a loud uproar about “freedom.” Some people said that it was their own decision whether or not to die of a head injury, and the government shouldn’t try to protect them from their freedom. Others claimed that it was “only to help those who make and sell helmets to get a profit.” To encourage people to follow this rule, the police in Kaohsiung put officers at almost every traffic light for a few weeks. People began getting traffic citations for not wearing helmets, and each citation cost NT$600. It only took a couple of weeks in Kaohsiung before everyone was wearing helmets. The did it, NOT to protect their heads, but to protect their money. The result was that the number of head injuries in motorcycle accidents fell in Taiwan. The law turned out to be a grace.

About 10 years ago, when I was still living in Kaohsiung, the law about wearing seatbelts in cars changed. Previously only the passengers in the front seat of a car, and only while on the freeway, had to wear them. Eventually that law changed to say that everyone in the front of a car had to wear them whenever a car was moving, and now it includes everyone front and back. But 10 years ago, when I climbed into a taxi at the Kaohsiung train station, I noted that my driver fastened his belt before he entered the road. I asked if he felt safer, he replied that his money was safer.

Kohlberg’s hierarchy of moral development moves through “I obey because I’ll get punished otherwise” up through 5 or six stages to “I obey the law because it’s better for everyone when I do, even if they don’t.”

In Taiwan’s society, as a whole, we’re not there yet. And as individuals, we may also be nowhere near. But it is the essence of loving our neighbors as ourselves. In God’s commands, whether in Exodus or in the New Testament, we find the kind of guidance and protection that helps us to live more grace-filled lives with God and with each other.

Conclusion  God’s law as grace to us

In our church’s order of worship most things we do are listed. There’s one that I do every week that’s not in the list, though. Every week, after we’ve told God about our lives and reminded each other that God loves us, I say something, usually taken from one of the scriptures we read a bit later, about how we are to live. If I were to write it into our order of worship, it would be called “the Law of God.”  That’s where the law belongs in worship and that’s where it belongs in our lives. We keep the law because we need it to guide us in life. We keep the law because we are thankful to God for the forgiveness that we enjoy (that’s part of loving God) and because it’s better for everyone when we do (that’s part of loving our neighbors as ourselves).

The Grace of God, which we find in the law, means that we are not like community college students with too many choices, we have guidance. It also means that we’re not like slaves in Egypt, who are not free. In God’s grace, we are free to love one another, loving our neighbors as ourselves, and loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.  Perfect love means we don’t have to be afraid. Thanks be to God, who loves us enough to guide us in how to live. AMEN

Seeking and Standing

Isaiah 55:6-9 and Philippians 1:21-30

Introduction
Different cultures have different “folk heroes” who show up in varied stories. In parts of India there is Ananse, a clever one. Baba Yaga, in Russian folklore, is kind of scary. In Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East, it’s common to tell folk stories about a guy named Nusreddin, who Is just your average guy, beset with life’s problems. Sometimes Nusreddin is the hero of the story, sometimes he’s the one who gets tricked. Long before I knew that he was a character of wider I was amused by stories about him that showed up in a book I used to teach English at Cheng Kung University.

In one Nusreddin story, that is probably found in a lot of cultures, he returns home after dark, and in the darkness in front of his house he drops the key to the front door. A while later a friend passes by and finds Nusreddin searching for the key across the street under the single light that is there. While helping look for the key, and not finding it, the friend asks, “exactly where did you drop the key?” Nusreddin answers, “Over there, by my front door.” In surprise, the friend responds, “then why are we looking for it here?” to which Nusreddin answers quite plainly, “It’s so dark over there that we can never hope to find anything. That’s why we’re looking here, where there’s light.”

In life, we’re all seeking things. Our chances of finding them often depend on whether we’re standing in the right places or not.

For example, Last year I began following an online course in English Grammar which is free at a web-site called Khan Academy. After listening to a video, students are invited to ask questions about the topic. An “Introduction to Grammar” video begins the course, and many young students post the following question, “How do I become a great speaker of English?” I like to answer questions like this, and often will type, “You’re looking in the wrong place. Find a free online class in Speaking English.” Then I give people a link to a list of 25 free online English speaking courses.
I The Lord is Near (Isaiah 55:6-9)
Last week I heard a radio interview with the pastor of a Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles where most of the members are Mexican. He told how the members of his parish are responding to the recent earthquake in Mexico. He said that they are asking him to say WHY God would send such a destruction to a Catholic Country. They noted how in the past month floods and storms have hit parts of the United States where lots of Mexican and other Latin American Catholics reside, and have also devastated islands in the Caribbean Sea where the majority populations are also Spanish-speaking Catholic people. But before these Christians let their pastor respond, he said, they give their own answer. The End of the World is near. In fact, according to them, it was supposed to happen on September 23rd. Today is the 24th, and, sisters & brothers, We’re still here.

The biblical book of Isaiah, from which we read a few verses this afternoon, doesn’t indicate a day for the end of the world, but it does urge us to seek the Lord. We are to seek, NOT like Nusreddin who looked for his keys “where it was convenient”, or like young students wanting to learn something in the wrong classroom. We are told to seek while the Lord is near.

I guess that for this writer, he EITHER thought that at the time he was putting these words down it was a special season in the history of humankind, one in which the Lord was nearer than usual, OR he believed that the Lord was always near (which fits with Taiwanese folk religion in which there’s an expression, “lift your eyes three feet, the gods are everywhere!).

But whatever the writer of Isaiah may have been thinking about the time, he set some conditions for greater success. There are things that those of us who seek the Lord, who want to get answers, can do to increase the chance that we’ll be able to hear God’s response. The first is that those of us whose “spiritual ears” are blocked by wickedness should leave that way of life. The second is that those of us whose lives are pointed in directions different from those in which God communicates are to align ourselves with God’s direction. “Turn to the Lord, our God.”

That can be scary, though. To many of us, it might feel like walking past the police station when you know there is a warrant out for your arrest! But we’re told not to fear, because of the nature of God, who is merciful and forgiving.

Even then, though, we’re not guaranteed that we’ll understand whatever answer comes. God’s thoughts are not like ours, God’s ways are different from ours. I’m glad I’m YOUR pastor, not the guy with the Mexicans in his church, demanding an answer for why there have been storms and earthquakes where their friends and families reside. I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t indicate the end of the world, but I doubt that answer would satisfy anyone who is worried.

Transition

St Paul, who wrote the letter to the Philippians from which we read 10 verses this afternoon, was looking for “the best life”.
II Paul’s Search and Standing
St. Paul’s search inquiry went something like this: “Given that I’m with Christ whether here of in Heaven: and Given that I’m in jail now: What’s the best place to be?”
The question of living or dying is common. Many people whose lives have become difficult choose to end theirs. The 10th highest cause of death in the world is suicide. In the year 2015, all around the world, there were 828,000 suicides. More than 75% of those suicides happened in “The developing world.” Here in Taiwan, there are about 10 suicides every day.

It’s important to see the difference, though, because Paul isn’t debating suicide in these verses, he’s certain of his eternal destination and is not in a hurry to get there, just seems to be pondering the joy of eternity over against the joy of continuing to be useful to someone in his own “here and now”.

When we read the verses, the picture on the screen was of someone in jail. That’s because when Paul wrote this letter, he was in jail. He was like a political prisoner, held there not for anything he had “done” but for what he had “believed”, and for the inconvenience that his belief had caused the governing authorities where he lived.
Whatever he may have been seeking, he knew where he stood. Being in Jail in Rome, he was already half way to where he wanted to go, Spain. So, if he were to be released, he might go East for a short visit to his friends in Philippi, but his destination was west of Rome, in Spain.

Transition

He knew what he wanted and where he was.
Do you know what you want? Do you know where you are? Do you have the smallest idea why you can’t hear what God may be telling you about your search or your situation? Both places from which we read in the Bible today speak to us in our current situations.
III OUR Seeking and Standing

If, indeed, God is near… if the writer of Isaiah had it right when he wrote…, then accessing guidance for our lives as we go about seeking the next step is not a long distance phone call. We may need to adjust our lives in order to be able to hear more clearly, and that may mean making changes that we’d rather not, but it’s all possible.

I grew up in a culture where as young people we were warned at church of the dangers of smoking cigarettes and drinking beer. But I noted that next to the door between the parking lot and the church there was a place for people to put out their cigarettes before coming inside. Apparently it was permissible to smoke if you were someone’s mother or father, (both of MY parents smoked, a LOT) but not if you were one of the kids.

At church the youth group leaders were eager to keep kids from drinking beer. I heard that message quite loudly and frequently. At home, however, my parents, whom I never saw drunk, consumed many cans of beer every week. Had I been at church and heard Isaiah’s instruction about “the wicked person changing his way”, I would have thought of tobacco and beer. If the same verse were read at home, it would have sounded more like, “obey your parents.”

St. Paul wrote to the Phillipian Christians about his and their “standing place”. He was not scolding them, but encouraging them to “stand firm with one common purpose”, which was the gospel of Christ. They were of live as the gospel requires (but he mentioned nothing of tobacco or alcohol). According to what St Paul wrote, living as the gospel requires is about being courageous, about believing in God, and of serving Christ even though you may suffer in the process.

Conclusion
One of my graduate school professors, a Japanese man, asked me why I was taking advanced training in education. I responded that based on past experience in Taiwan, I was preparing to return here in missionary service. He responded with a story of his youth in university in Japan. He had become interested in Christianity because of the lives of his Christian classmates, so attended a few meetings with them. Thinking to go on to the next step, he made an appointment to speak privately with the foreign woman who was the group’s spiritual advisor. After a few nice exchanges to open up the conversation, she told him that if he really wanted to be a Christian he had to promise never to smoke, drink, or engage in any of the other “worldly” habits of Japanese youth in the 1950s. He said he would think about it, and never went back.

Sisters and brothers, there are many people in this world, perhaps even some of us here in this room, who are seeking a place to stand in relation to God who is eternal and everywhere, who promises us such joy that someone as “spiritual” as St. Paul even contemplated that he’d had enough of the troubles here and would like to “be with Christ”.

Nothing in what we read today was about alcohol, tobacco, sexuality, sex, use of ‘bad language’ or stuff like that. When any of us wants to draw near to God, it is a matter of taking advantage of the nearness that is already ours. When any of us here wants to “stand with God”, it is a matter of standing with each other.

Turning to the Lord, as we read in Isaiah, is a matter of turning to each other in love, acceptance, courage and mutual support. In the week to come, if and when you feel a need for more “God” in your life, spend some time with another believing friend in mutual encouragement and enjoyment. You’ll be ‘oriented’ in the direction you need.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN

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