Heart to Heart

Psalm 103:8-13 and Matthew 18:21-35

Introduction

Twenty years ago a friend in Kaohsiung told me about an event that happened in the approach to his wedding. Though he was a quite modern late-20th century Christian man, educated and professional, he was from a rather traditional family in Pingtung County. Whether he and his wife arranged their own “match” or not, he never said, only that when it was settled that they were to be married, his mother took out the family account books going back several years and began to count how many times she and her husband had attended wedding feasts, how much they had given, and how much they could expect to receive in return in cash gifts at their son’s wedding. Then she started budgeting for the marriage.

There’s nothing wrong with that approach. Evidently that’s how it was done in the 1970s in Pingtung, and it was helpful, in a way. But the “calculating” of a wedding according to “we gave this much, so they’ll give back this much” somehow takes away from the joy of the entire arrangement.

Transition

When I entered theological studies, I had assumed my own background to have been in language and literature. Soon after I began a classmate in a “systematic theology” course asked a theological question that came from his having calculated something. Before responding,  the professor asked, “What did you study before you came here?”  The student answered that he’d been trained in engineering. After which the professor turned to all of us and said, “the people who have the hardest time with theology are engineers.” Of course, that made me feel pretty good. I shouldn’t have. My background was not in literature, even in the least, but in grammar and linguistics; just as confining as anyone’s in science, engineering or business. These pursuits are not anti-faith, or anti-theology, they’re just so “systematic” that they get in the way of the things that Christian faith is about.

I: Calculating our way through life

Some people seem to go through all of life with a calculator in their hands, if not in their heads. There’s a character in George Elliot’s novel, “The Mill on the Floss” who, though having been raised in a very Christian home, as an adult woman has decided that the way she would win her salvation was to demonstrate to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates that she had preserved and increased the the money given to her by her parents upon her marriage and in her will distributed to her blood relations (children, nephews, nieces, etc.) in exact proportions as dictated by her social class. For her, if she had incurred a loss of capital or miscalculated the distribution, she would be be bound for hell.

In the New Testament verses we read today, we met Peter, who got used by all four gospel writers as an illustration of “the guy who got it wrong but Jesus loved him anyway.”  Matthew 18 has a lot about forgiveness in it, and the verses just ahead of these  addressed the topic, too. The writer of Matthew put this story next, and in it shows us the “calculating way of life” as it applies to forgiveness. You count the times you forgive someone for something, and eventually you don’t have to forgive any more. In the character Peter we have the generosity of “forgive 7 times”, which sounds pretty good. But Jesus says, “stop counting”. Forgive 77 times (or 49 times, or 490 times).  What we’re being told here is the same as what we were shown in the verses we read from the psalm: God forgives, and keeps on forgiving. We are told to be like God.

II: Forgiving our way through life

To further illustrate the point that was being made about calculating forgiveness, the writer of Matthew put a parable that Jesus told next. In it we meet a debtor who was so far in the hole that the only thing he could ask for was mercy (something we do every week as part of our liturgy). The one who loaned him the money had all the power and every right to demand payment in full. He could even order that the debtor, his wife and his children be considered as property and sold to satisfy at least a small part of the debt. Later in the story we learn that there was also “debtor’s prison”, where someone could be sent until debts were repaid. But when the debtor begged for mercy, the master not only declined to sell or imprison him, but went on to forgive the debt entirely.

The debtor was expected to act like the one who had forgiven him.  That, it turns out, was too much to expect. Few of us, even those of us who believe in God, live up to “Godly” standards.  If the forgiven man had a calculator in his head, it was broken. He had been forgiven much, but there were still people who “owed” him, He showed no mercy. (Remember the psalm, where we read that God is abundant in mercy? This guy was really NOT Godlike.) He found someone who owed him something, and rather than forgiving like his own master had done, he was cruel. When news reached the master, the original debt-cancellation was cancelled, and punishment happened.

Jesus gives us two reasons to forgive people: 1) to make us better than we are, so that we can be a little bit like God; and 2) to avoid the punishment that we deserve for our own sin. I like the first reason. I WANT to be merciful and a little bit like God. But the trouble often is that I’m like the guy in the story, and I need to be threatened with bad consequences in order that I might do what is right. Maybe, like me, you need this lesson, too.

III: You’re better than that

It is a terrible thing when someone is murdered. That’s true about anybody. It’s even worse, though, when the dead person is a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. In ordinary situations, the friends of a murdered person want the killer caught and punished. When a police officer is murdered, those friends are often other police, who want the killer caught, have the power to go out and catch him (or her) and carry guns!

Some years ago a police chaplain told the story of a meeting with an officer. There had been an incident in which another police officer had been killed, and the killer had escaped. Those who were looking for him were angry and hurt. The officer meeting with the chaplain told of the anger and hatred that he carried as he went out looking for the escaped man. He talked about how he planned to take revenge for his friend’s death by not just capturing the man, but by what he would do to him.

After a day or two living with that kind of thinking, he “came to himself” and said, “I’m not a killer.” I’m a man who has promised to protect and serve the citizens of this city. He realized that the hatred and anger he had been carrying, along with the grief he felt about his friend’s death, was destroying his heart and his soul.  The story did not say that he “forgave his friend’s killer”, only that the killer was caught by other police and brought to justice through the legal system. But it does illustrate something, that a calculating offense and response is destructive. Someone said it is like drinking poison in the hope that it kills someone else, and it only serves to kill you.

Conclusion 

At the end of the Bible story we are given Jesus’ conclusion, that we should forgive “from the heart”, a place that doesn’t calculate, but loves.  After the terrible events of September 11, 2001, during which terrorists crashed planes and killed thousands, people in the West began learning about the ways that terrorist groups in the Middle East recruited suicide bombers. I remember much being made about one group’s promise that any young man who would blow himself up would be immediately received into heaven and given 72 virgins. Anybody who responded to THAT appeal was not working from his head or his heart, but from a piece of his body several centimeters lower.

What the Gospel stories and the psalm we read this afternoon say to us, what they call us to do, is to give up on calculations when it comes to life together. People are going to sin against us, we are to forgive them. If we can’t forgive, we’re warned of bad consequences which we don’t want. The goal before us is to be a little bit like God, who is merciful and loving, slow to become angry, and full of constant love. Whatever religion or non-religion any of us might follow, that is a goal worthy to be striven for. As imperfect as my own religion and those who follow it may be, I’d be happy to share with you some of what it has taught me about forgiveness and godliness.

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

Advertisements

Diff’rent Strokes for Diff’rent Folks

25 September 2017

My computing needs are rather modest: some communication; some word processing; some presentation-making; and some web search capacity.  I don’t need the newest most powerful machine to do my work at Tainan Theological College.  When I arrived in 2004 a hand-me-down previously used by the Secretary to the college president and then by a clerk in the general affairs office was dragged out of a storage closet for me.

Through the years I’ve moved up the feeding chain. The computer that I’ve used for the past 3 years had been in the office of an adjunct professor of history (with a Ph.D.) before it moved to me upon her departure. Among the things on the hard disk were several files related to the school’s history, and lots of old photographs. For the past few weeks it has been doing strange things, and it gave up the ghost on the 21st.  I told the school’s Information Technology guy, who promised to drop by on Friday morning.  Before he arrived, I  turned on the switch. 

Arriving at my door, he glanced at the screen, noticed that something was happening, and announced that there was no problem. I told him that the same thing had happened for over an hour the previous afternoon, so he actually touched the keyboard and tried a few things. He then announced that the hard disk had evidently failed, and unplugged all the wires.  He asked if I wanted the data that were stored in the disk, of if I was willing to just let it all go.  I asked for data recovery, and with a big smile he carried the whole box out the door. 

Two weeks ago I had sat with the research assistant at the college’s archives during a dinner. I mentioned the historical files on my computer, and she promised to bring up a thumb drive to transfer them to her office. She never followed up.  At a meeting in Taipei on the 23rd I discovered that I was sitting directly in front of her, so during a break I mentioned the computer failure and consequent loss of her files. She was surprised that two weeks had elapsed between our conversations, but her only response was, “time flies.” An hour later she tapped me on the shoulder and mentioned that she had talked with the Information Technology guy. She relayed the information that “we must pray about that computer.” This did not make me feel confident.

This morning, the following Monday, I phoned to ask after my computer. I was not told anything about having to pray. In fact, I was told that the experts where he had taken the hard disk had already restored most of the data, and that all should be well by the afternoon. In trying to sort things out, I’m surmising that he spoke to the woman from the archives in HER spiritual idiom, and to me in MINE.  Either that, or between Saturday morning and Monday morning the Holy Spirit has intervened in and interfered with my hard disk in such a way that by Monday further prayer was not required.

I’m looking forward seeing that old computer again, “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven.”  I dislike the laptop that I’ve been consigned to use.

When a Sister or Brother Sins Against You

Matthew 18:15-17

Introduction

It’s likely that among people here who like cars there are different opinions about what would be the best car to own, or what is the best car in the world. I grew up with the idea that the best car, at least the most expensive one, was the Rolls-Royce, built in England. When I first heard about these cars I only knew that it cost more to buy one of them than it had cost my parents to buy the house where I had grown up.

Eventually I read some of the history of the company and of Henry Royce, the engineer who built the first of them. He was a man obsessed with quality. In about 1904 he bought his first car, which was built in France. He had nothing against France, but was not satisfied with the car, so he took it apart and improved it, re-machining each part of the engine and gearbox so it would run smoothly and quietly. After that experience he began building cars of his own, and gave one to a friend who knew a fellow named Rolls, who SOLD high quality cars. The partnership was made, and Henry Royce’s strong and quiet cars were soon regarded as the best in the world.

Machine parts can be made to fit together exactly, so that everything runs smoothly. Unfortunately, people are not like that. We are all different, and are thrown together in families, communities, schools, workplaces and churches. It is pretty sure that, no matter in which of these settings, we will eventually come to offend each other in some way.

I: Be Prepared

A man who moved from the UK to America some years ago told a story of culture shock. He was a professional, and had established himself in the city where he was to work. Soon afterward he was visited by a salesperson who was promoting life insurance. Instead of addressing him as “Mr. Briscoe”(proper in Britain), the salesman began using his first name, “Stuart”. If that wasn’t bad enough, he even shortened it and called him “Stu”. As Mr. Briscoe continued the story he spoke of another surprise. The man wanted to sell life insurance, and his appeal was that it would protect the family “if” something happened to you.  The “something” was that Mr. Briscoe could die. The problem was that Mr. Briscoe didn’t think of death as an “if” but as a “when”.

The gospel reading we had today begins “If your brother sins against you.”  That sent me somewhere I rarely go… to my Greek New Testament. The beginning word of the verse there can be translated, “if”, but it can also mean “when”.

We are not car parts. We are human beings. To suggest that we need life insurance for “if” we die, is weird, because we all WILL die. To suggest, as the translators here have done, that someone sinning against us is an “if” is ridiculous. Being sinned against, in fact, sinning against someone, is not an “if”, it’s a “when.”

Lord Baden-Powell, the British war hero who is credited with starting the Boy Scout movement worldwide, had a motto, “Be Prepared.” Jesus’ words to us today from the Gospel take that motto and fill it out. When a brother sins against you, here’s what you should be prepared for.

Our natural responses for when we are sinned against run in the direction of taking revenge or crying out loudly. We either want to make things “even”, or we want to let everybody else know what a terrible person the sinner is. Another natural reaction is to deal with things quietly by just ceasing to have any involvement with the sinner. In Taiwanese it’s common to be advised regarding a sinner, “M-chhap-i.”

The relationship has already been damaged by the sin, it may have even been broken. When we have been sinned against by a brother (or a sister), and there has been no confession and forgiveness, something exists between us that does not build a healthy relationship.

Jesus doesn’t allow for “hit back” or “tell the world” or “m-chhap-i.” We hear that we are to approach the offender and show the fault. Don’t post it on Facebook. Don’t “hit him back”, and don’t cut off contact. Don’t even ask your friends to pray for you as you arrange the meeting. Don’t even TELL your other friends and classmates. Go to the one who has sinned against you and have a private talk. Simply put, “if he listens to you, you have won your brother back.”

Among all the “holy and impractical” things that Jesus told people, this one seems to be particularly difficult. When we’ve been hurt, when someone has sinned against us, we typically want either sympathy (from other people) or revenge (against the sinner). If nothing else, we want the offender to be publicly shamed and even punished.

II: If he or she doesn’t listen, Jesus asks us to be prepared for that, too.

A guy I knew when I lived in Kaohsiung felt bad about not having succeeded in life. One way he dealt with his own failures was to criticize people who had done well. But when people took offense at his criticisms, he would often say, “I was only joking.” You’ve probably known people who deal with sins they commit against other people by saying, “It was no big thing.” Without apologizing for the sins they have done, they compare their actions to some giant offense, and say that they are relatively innocent.  “Yes, I borrowed 100 Taiwan dollars from you and didn’t pay you back, but I didn’t rob a bank!”  The one that really drives me crazy is the “non-apology apology.”  “I’m sorry if you were offended.”  Those words never admit a sin at all, they only say that you were offended, and your being offended is a sad thing, so this person is sorry. It admits no wrong.

When on our first approach to someone who has sinned against us we get no resolution to the situation, Jesus gives us a second-stage response. Bring a friend or two to sit with you and talk things out. Don’t bring a crowd, don’t bring a lawyer, you’re not seeking justice or revenge, but reconciliation. The aim is to re-gain your brother (or sister). You don’t want to lose a relationship.

Do we really have to do that? After all, in the mobile 21st century world we live in, we can just wait, and eventually one or the other of us will move away. Maybe Jesus’\ teaching here, which came a couple of thousand years ago when people lived in villages or small towns, and nobody traveled too much, are no longer necessary. But we still need these instructions, and we can still use them, because even if and when we move away from each other, we want to do so on good terms, not as the result of broken relationships.

III: Some people don’t want to admit they have sinned, & will never apologize.

Every week in church here we “tell God about our lives” and every week we “remind each other that we are forgiven”. These are not just words, and they’re not just about our relationships with other people in this room. They are about our relationships to all other people and to God. We do these things every week because we sin against people every week, if not every day. Confession and pardon helps maintain relationships.

It’s possible that some people, even those who have been approached privately and then again by a small number of people about an offense, will not admit that they were wrong. For some people, it’s a psychological thing, for others a cultural thing, and for others it may be religious. Though they know that without some form of reconciliation the relationship cannot be healed, they are unwilling to reconcile. If something has gone this far, it is no longer about the original sin, whatever that may have been, it is about the inability to admit error, or the fear of being less than perfect. A person who cannot confess, ask for and accept forgiveness, and live on in a repaired relationship is one who has separated himself or herself out. And such separation is sad. It’s not that he or she has been pushed out, but he or she has withdrawn.

Conclusion

About a week ago in Australia, an anti-Muslim white person approached a Mosque carrying a pig head. He believed that by putting the pig head between the bars of the gate of the mosque, he would make great trouble for the Muslims who pray there. He got a couple of surprises.  First, though Muslims do not eat pork, they do not regard it as poison. A pig head at the mosque was inappropriate, but not a desecration. The second surprise was even greater. The people praying at the Mosque didn’t jump back or fight back, they invited the man in for a meal and a chat.

People who sin against us, classmates, lovers, sisters, brothers, friends and acquaintances, do so naturally. “you can’t not do it”. After all, we’re people, not machine parts.

In the verses we read today, Jesus gives us ways to deal with those occasions. We need to see them from both sides… when we are sinned against, and when we are the sinners.  If you take this to heart, be prepared, some day, to make some visits. If you take it even more to heart, be prepared, some day, to receive some visitors. Let’s all hope that the visits are the first stage ones, the private ones, and we can be reconciled.

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

So Far Stories from August and September

August 10th Char Returns!

The first passenger flight to land in Taipei on the 10th bore Char home from Michigan. I went to meet her, going up the night before and staying at a hotel. Had to make sure I had my alarm with me, because I had to rise before dawn to get to the airport. All went well and she came smoothly through immigration and customs. Because the bullet train south wouldn’t leave for another 90 minutes, we found breakfast at the airport, then took a taxi to the station. We were home before 9AM. Things move so well now, that Taiwan is more convenient than living almost anywhere else!

August 13th Dragon Fruit!

My last fundraising sermon for the Taiwan Church Publishing House was given at a church about half way to the northern end of this land. Driving took 90 minutes and the church was friendly and welcoming. Their pastors (a married couple) had departed the day before to visit Europe with a group touring sites connected to the Reformation.

I attempted a spontaneous children’s sermon, but because the kids at that church are not accustomed to being called to the front, it flopped. I should not be spontaneous in church. (I think I ought to write that sentence 100 times to let the lesson sink in.)

After church, while I was shaking hands, a farmer gave me a bag of “red dragon fruit”, which is about as big as a grapefruit, but soft and seedy inside. It was far more fruit than the two of us could consume before it would go bad, so we gave a lot away and turned the rest into fruit shakes with mangoes, bananas or other “flavorful” fruits to overcome its blandness. Made it through the last one just as it started to spoil.

August 19th Anniversary… 37 years plus one month!

Char and I were wedded on July 19th, but this year missed celebrating our anniversary together because the Pacific Ocean stood between us. We delayed things for a month, and went to a very nice restaurant just around the corner from the place where we got to know each other, in 1976, right here in Tainan. Good food, good conversation, and wonderful memories.

August 22nd You Saved Me!

In May the college president, Dr. Wong, asked me to look at some things written by Si Wen-pei, a junior faculty member who is in Scotland working towards a PhD in systematic theology. Wen-pei’s work showed a need for “tightening up” and clarifying of sentences. Instead of rewriting her stuff right in her paragraphs, I wrote alternate paragraphs for her, and put them in a different color. That would help her look at her own work and mine side by side, and hopefully make her own decisions about what to use.

The writing was for her dissertation proposal, and we worked on things (by e-mail) for about a month. I could see her thinking and planning getting better, but her ability at writing in English not keeping pace.

Late in June she presented the plan for approval, and passed. In August she returned to Taiwan to see family and gather materials. She stopped for a visit, and spent an hour with me. We talked about lots of things, but what was most gratifying to me was her statement, “you saved me.” I guess she was closer to the edge than she had appeared to be.

August 27th Making Connections

In January I inherited leadership of the International Small Group at Dongning Presbyterian Church. I should have asked more before accepting the position, because the woman who presented me with the choice had no authority in the matter, she just didn’t want to do it herself. Since then I’ve led the group at its monthly get-togethers. In the past we did “travelogue” things. I was told it was supposed to be more about faith development. So I’ve been using different ways to study ourselves into Bible stories. On the 27th I had a list of stories, and a bunch of pictures I’d downloaded and printed out. The pictures were on a table. We would read a story, then take some time to choose a picture that “spoke to us” regarding something in the story. After selecting, we each said a word or two about how that picture connected with our feelings about the story.

Was it Bible Study? Kind of. But it did allow people to see and say what THEY wanted, rather than just listening to a leader.

August 28th Taipei Day

In 1984 our friend Tim Fox arrived in Taiwan. He left for a few years in the 90s, but has been back for ALL of the past 20 years. He took his PhD at a local university and now teaches at another one. Tim was, and is, “Uncle Tim” to both Kate and Grant. We hadn’t seen him face to face for about a year, so took a day off, a morning train north, and spent the day with him. It was great. Since we’re leaving next year, and he’s not, we’ll have to find time for a few more visits.

September 3rd Chocolate Box in the Vent

When we went on home assignment for 6 months in 2016, a theological student had use of our car. After we got back he asked if he could use it for his weekend field education assignment, which is about 70 miles away. I said, “sure, but you’ll have to request it each time before Thursday noon so I can rearrange my weekend use of the thing.” On the 1st of the month he asked if he could have it all day Saturday and half-day Sunday. No problem. I did the grocery shopping on Friday night instead of Saturday morning. When he got back he asked for some help. He had some church youth with him in the car, and somebody’s little chocolate box got dropped down one of the air conditioner vents (the little things that direct the air this way and that bit the dust long ago, now there are just gaping holes in the dash board from which cool air emerges). The box still remains in there. We were unable to find or extract it.

September 4th Invite Deferred

The phone rang and a woman from an office at the Taipei 101 (Taiwan’s tallest building, and until recently the world’s tallest) invited me to be part of something in December. Ordinarily that kind of early invitation gets an acceptance, but the event will be on a Wednesday, the busiest day of my week. I gave her the name of a friend who lives nearer to Taipei and is a far more interesting person, and thought I was free.

September 6th Invite Accepted

Two days after passing on an invitation, the phone rang again. The guy whom I had nominated will not be in Taiwan in December, so the invitation came back. This time I figured that if it comes in writing, with particulars, I can take it to the college president and get “excused” for the day. So, on December 6 I’ll be at the Taipei 101 for some sort of ceremony. I hope it includes a meal!

September 4-7th Syllabi!

The beginning of the school year draws near. New student orientation is the 12-13th. Term opening worship the 14th, and the first day of classes the 18th. I noted that I didn’t have my course syllabi ready. In working through the papers, I discovered, as well, that one class which in my mind was scheduled for Thursdays is actually to be taught on Tuesdays.

Besides syllabi, I’m putting class materials into files which will be published as downloadable “open educational resources.” In that way, whether students come to class with stuff on their phones, on their computers or downloaded and printed out on paper is up to them. I taught a couple of classes this way a year ago, and really prefer it this way. Somehow theological education in this land needs to be wrenched out of the 18th century and into the 21st, lest it become TOTALLY IRRELEVANT!

Not So Soft and Tender

Exodus 3:1-15 and Matthew 16: 21-23

Introduction

People of different generations and different ages see the same things differently. I remember as a child watching television with my grandparents, who were older than television AND radio, and hearing them make noises about the unacceptable program that was on.

Church practices change, too. In my early 20s I was part of a youth choir that shared a program with another church. We were told ahead of time, though, that some people would leave before our part of the service began, because we were accompanied by guitars and drums, which they believed didn’t belong in church. Now many churches have drum sets right up front all the time, and nobody blinks an eye.

Even the ways Christians sing about Jesus change. Hillsong Church (a movement that began in Australia and has gone worldwide) sings with fire, passion and excitement about Jesus. But if you look at church music from a hundred years ago, you will find more about “Sweet Jesus”, and things like “Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling” (which can be found in our hymnbook at #340).

The sweetness we find in hymns like that is very real, but it is not at all present in the Old and New Testament readings we heard this afternoon. What we heard was neither soft nor tender.

I: When People are in Trouble (Exodus 3:1-15)

The Moses’ Story from Exodus is sacred to Muslims, Jews and Christians. At its heart is God’s statement of having seen how people were cruelly treated, having heard their cries for rescue, having known about their sufferings, having come down to make the rescue happen, and then sending someone (Moses) to the King of Egypt with the task of leading the people out. But God’s voice isn’t the only one in the story. Moses spoke, too, and tried to get out of doing what God commanded.

Stories get inside of us. When we read we compare ourselves to the characters and situations we meet. Of course, we prefer to find ourselves in the heroes or the victims, rarely to the mean or stupid or bad people. I’ve been reading novels lately. In some I find characters whom I admire or dislike. Most of the time, that’s about as far as I go, to like or dislike. But in one novel that I’ve put down half-way through I’ve met some characters who scare me. One is a teenage boy who is growing up without much guidance, and I fear he’ll meet a bad end. Another is the boy’s mother, who is chasing an ambition that seems to me to be sure to lead to failure. The third is the father, who is losing his mind to mental illness. I’m afraid for all of them, and fear even more comparing myself to any of them.

In the Moses story, there are 3 characters: God who speaks, Moses who listens and responds, and the people in Egypt, who are victims. We don’t want to compare ourselves to God (at least, not consciously). If you know what a great hero Moses becomes by the end of things, you don’t want to compare yourself to him, either. But in the weakness he shows in this story, we might find a little of ourselves. We know that there are big tasks for us out in the world, but we’re unwilling to take them on.

Moses was sent to speak to the King of Egypt, a shepherd talking to a rich and powerful guy. Moses was sent to tell the King, to his face, that God demanded something. If he had face book, perhaps he’d have preferred to “like” what God said, and leave it there. But evil demands stronger response than “clicking on “like”. Sometimes you’ve got to do the “prophet thing”, and talk to the king.

II: We’re in trouble now.

For us to consider what God did for some people long ago and far away is a nice Sunday School thing to do, but it leads doubting people, and should lead all of us, to ask, “OK, but what have you done for me lately?”

We are all living now, and we all have troubles, academic, romantic, financial, relational, religious, physical) now. To say that: “God sent Moses to lead oppressed people out of Egypt” is of little help when I have a thesis to finish or my mother is having surgery, or if my car is broken and I can’t afford to pay a mechanic.

People who believe in God sometimes say things like, “God is all-powerful” and “God is all-good.” And everyone, whether we believe in God or not, admits that “terrible things happen.”  These three statements just do not fit together.

Let’s say, for example, that a child has been murdered. That’s a terrible thing: for that child, for the society in which the child lived and died, and especially for the parents of that child. To “explain” the terrible thing by saying, “Evil exists because humans have freedom to decide. This freedom is a gift from God to us so that we could love God freely” is no comfort, in fact, it is harmful.

One system explains the problem by denying the existence of evil. It’s all in your mind, just think of things differently.  That’s a second failure.

A third failure says that evil happens because of something bad that either the child or the parents did in a previous life. It’s simply Cause and Effect. (There’s no need for any kind of god at all in that kind of system, merely a cosmic balance.)

There is No theoretical solution that works at all, not even Christianity. The best that Christian faith offers is to admit that we don’t know, and then point to the cross with Christ still hanging on it. Trust in the God who turned even THAT horror into good. Even the death of Christ on the cross is not beyond God’s ability to redeem. Then we turn back, in faith, to God who sees our crisis, hears our cries, knows that we suffer, and comes down to release us as we wait for deliverance. ………

III: Jesus and his friend, “the Satan”

Let’s look at Jesus for a minute. We read a few verses from Matthew in Indonesian AND in English today.

Jesus knew what was waiting for him before he went to Jerusalem. He knew that he would be arrested and put to death. He told his friends about it so that they wouldn’t be surprised. But they didn’t want to hear it. Like Moses by the bush, who didn’t want to hear God’s command, they tried to get out of it. Among them was Peter, the quick to speak good student. He dared to talk back to the teacher, the sweet, soft and tender preacher and healer, to whom NOTHING like that could ever happen.

Jesus response wasn’t sweet, soft OR tender. The response wasn’t even friendly or encouraging. Jesus told him to stand back and called him Satan, a word which means, “adversary”, one who opposes the will of God.

The writers of the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John arranged the materials that they used for their own theological purposes. The “historical order” of what happened before what may not be the same as where the writers put events. In this case, we might expect that after having called somebody “Satan”, that guy would no longer get any privileges, or maybe disappear from the story completely, kind of like how someone leaves one church and goes to another after a bad sermon. But as soon as the next chapter of Matthew we find Peter again in good graces with Jesus, who took him up the hill to see the transfiguration.

When we have been like Moses, someone who would rather that God chose someone else, or someone who would prefer to act with the click of a mouse on the “like” option than with some concrete action, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t like us any longer. And even when, like Peter in the gospel story, we straight out oppose God’s plan, that doesn’t mean that we are eternally damned. God’s people have been “wrong” about many things ever since there were people who belonged to God.

Conclusion

Last week a group of White Male Christian Leaders from some protestant churches in America issued a statement full of mis-applied bible verses and poor theology. That’s not unusual in church history. Christian leaders of any and all races and genders have often stated things poorly and incorrectly. This particular statement condemns some people whom God loves. God loves them, not because of their particular qualifications, but because they are people. The “Nashville Statement” says that God does not accept people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender or Queer. It’s wrong. God accepts everyone.

        I posted a response, AGAINST the Nashville statement, on in our church’s Face book group. I also posted it at the Tainan Bulletin Face book group. I debated with myself for a while before I posted anything in public. I could be wrong. But in the end I decided that I couldn’t be like Moses, who wanted someone else to do it. I had to risk being like Peter, who spoke out of turn. If anyone who sees my response and knows you are part of this church challenges you about it, feel free to say that you believe your pastor is wrong. What is important is to be honest with what you believe and with who you are.

Remember, that even though Moses didn’t want to do what he was commanded, God used him. Don’t forget that even though Peter was once called Satan, he became an important person in what God did 2000 years ago in the Mediterranean world.

Go, dare, act, and, “Just Do It.”

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

Knowing Who We Are; Living Accordingly

Isaiah 22:15-19 and Matthew 16:13-20

There’s a story told as a joke about a graduate student from America in Seoul Korea. She was surprised, because though she knew for certain that all the members of her thesis committee were in America, she thought she recognized one of them, a Korean professor, in a crowd at a concert, so she called out, “Dr. Kim.” And promptly, half of the people in the hall turned to look for who had called them. The student knew herself as a student of “Dr. Kim,” and of the people who turned their head knew himself or herself as “Dr. Kim.”

I: Knowing ourselves, we come to know God, and knowing God, we come to know ourselves

Beside the Korean case (whether it ever happened or not) there are many times when people mis-recognize others, or fail to recognize even friends and relatives. The British neurologist Oliver Sacks, who died two years ago this week, spent his career in the United States. He was known for writing best-selling case histories about his patients’ and his own disorders and experiences. Sacks suffered from Prosopagnosia, face blindness. He had written about it in other people, including an article entitled, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” Once, after people were noted that he had confused one of his brothers with the other, he had a discussion with family members and learned that several of them had the same problem. In very serious cases, a person may not recognize even her own face.

I: Knowing self, we come to know God. Knowing God, we can know ourselves.

The atmosphere of the 21st century in which we live and move can hardly be called “an age of faith.” People have legitimate doubts about what we are told. The term “Fake news” began to be a very real thing about a year ago. It continues to characterize things promoted by the president of the United States. His administration operates by what even his highest advisers barefacedly call, “alternative facts.”

So, for me or anyone else to claim that “in knowing ourselves we come to know God, and in knowing God we come to know ourselves,” is not just quaintly “old fashioned,” it’s likely to be doubted and even ridiculed. When, 2000 years ago, St. Paul, in Athens among skeptics, cited a Greek belief that, “we live and move and have our being in God”, he was generally accepted, even though his hearers differed on what they meant by God. Starting there, and until about the 18th century, the paradigm held. It was affirmed by Clement of Alexandria (an Egyptian who lived from 150 to 215 CE); picked up by St. Augustine (an African) in the 5th Century; repeated by St Thomas Aquinas (an Italian) in the 13th and by John Calvin (French) in the 16th. Even the mathematician and philosopher Renee Descartes, (also French) in the 17th century paralleled the language of these who had gone before him. But that proves nothing. All of those guys lived in a different religious and philosophical world than us.

I’m not here to prove or to disprove their views, but what they said is behind a lot of what I’d like us to consider. We’ll use the story we just read in Matthew 16 .

II: Knowing Christ helps us to know who we are in this world

When Jesus went around the region of his hometown in Galilee, made trips South to Jerusalem, North to Tyre, or passed through Samaria, disciples followed him. He was their teacher, and they were his students. Mainly they were ordinary uneducated people. Jesus would preach to crowds and occasionally give special lessons for these disciples. The story we read today could be seen as Jesus teaching by “flipped classroom” methodology. He started not by TELLING them anything or by asking them to REPEAT BACK to him something that he had already taught, but by asking, “What do you know?” What he wanted to know was, “based on your own research and learning from the people of this area, who am I?”The answers given were a list of what the character Captain Renault, in the 1942 film Casablanca, would have called, “the usual suspects,” John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, some other prophet…”

The next question was, “what do YOU think?” to which the answer was given very affirmatively by Simon Peter, his “eager to please and quick to answer” student. (We don’t like guys like that, maybe that’s why I didn’t have a lot of friends in middle school). “You are the Messiah. The Son of the Living God.” In this response, Peter showed what he believed about who Jesus was. If his answer represents the group’s opinion, then it shows that these guys had decided who Jesus was. They knew him to be something more than just a wandering teacher. They knew themselves to be something other than wandering students of a wandering man. They had come to an understanding of themselves as the friends of the Son of God.

III: There are dangers if we fail to recognize who we are regarding the divine

A lot in Asia operates by relationship. Taiwan is no different than other places, but a LOT in Taiwan is different from how it used to be. My friend John, who left Taiwan 26 years ago, told me this story. In 1990 he was helping a church get started in Kaohsiung. One evening he got a phone call from the pastor he worked for to meet him at a police station. The son of someone in the neighborhood had been arrested for something and was being held at the station. The neighbor asked the pastor to sit with her, and the pastor asked John to come along. Other people who had been detained by the police were there, too. At that time, Taiwan was transitioning from a government where ethnicity mattered to a more inclusive one. The soldiers and officials who had fled China with the ROC government in the late 1940s were no longer in charge at the local level. One other man who had been taken in by the police that evening seemed not to understand the change. Every few minutes he would approach the police sergeant at the desk (who was Taiwanese) and in strongly accented Mainland Mandarin would mention the name of some powerful person whom he knew. The sergeant would nod and tell him to return to his seat. Ten or twenty years earlier, that man’s acquaintance with powerful Mainlanders might have made a difference. But times had changed.

If the story we read from Matthew indicates that Jesus’ disciples understood themselves to be friends of “the Son of the Living God,” you can imagine that, should they be arrested, they might inform the desk sergeant about their “relationship to power”. People have done that throughout history. Get close to power, whether you have any or not, and you start to act as if you are above the rules.

In the verses we read from Isaiah this afternoon, the prophet points a finger at a guy, Shebna, who held a job of public trust high up in the royal government. He should have been serving BOTH the king AND the people. BUT, during a time of national crisis, he was occupied with building an elaborate tomb for himself. In that context, in those times, it was the job of a prophet to call out misuse of office. Because the incident got written down in the Bible, so we still have it today, otherwise Shebna would be forgotten. Officials in governments, business and churches who fail to understand their responsibilities to the people must be called out.

Two months ago, Cardinal George Pell, an Australian priest and close adviser to Pope Francis, had to step down and return home from Rome to face charges relating to sexual offenses several decades ago. He also stands accused of covering up sexual offenses of priests he supervised in more recent years. In Isaiah’s day, the prophets were part of the religious structure, in the 21st Century, the prophets seem to be journalists and police.

Shebna used his “relationship to power” to benefit himself and his family. Last week I saw a video clip of abuse in the other direction. It was about “child preachers,  kids who proclaim God’s word. The kid in the program looked like he was about 11 years old. His preaching was basically shouting Bible verses. When someone asked him to explain or interpret the verse, he seemed confused, and could only reply with a verse about shouting. Eventually his father, to protect his son (something I admire) intervened and said that a true preacher NEVER interprets. Telling the Bible verses straight is the only way to preach God’s word.

That young preacher and his father have fallen off of their relationship to the Son of the Living God in the opposite direction of Shebna and Cardinal Pell. They have come to know the words of the Bible so well that there is no meaning in them. They know the Bible so well that they have lost contact with themselves and with the Son of the Living God.

Conclusion

Did it ever occur to you that glasses don’t stay in place because they’re on your nose, but because the ear-pieces press inward on your head? Tension keeps things in place. It is similar with how our knowledge of ourselves helps us to know God, and our knowledge of God helps us to know ourselves. Neither comes first, they both come at the same time, and they hold things in tension.

Maintaining balance in conditions of tension takes work. Life is not for the lazy, though laziness won’t kill you, it might prevent you from living. Each of us, no matter what, if any, religion we hold, must define ourselves in terms of something that greater than ourselves, even if that is “humanity” or “the cosmos”. For Christians, the defining point is Christ. If and when Christians make the “Peter Confession” we say to ourselves that we have a friend in a high place, but seeing the difference between who that is, and who we are, we adjust our understandings so that we live in humble relation and submission.

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

Made for Togetherness

Psalm 133 & Matthew 15:21-28

Introduction

(On the table, there are separate piles of Legos,Duplos, Bristle Blocks, and a basket.)

Children’s toys often come in sets of several small pieces for children to put together into shapes that they like. A box of Legos, for example, may include hundreds of small pieces which can be assembled in many different ways. Other kinds of toys exist, too, like these, called “bristle blocks” and these called “duplos”. But it can be impossible for a child to put two different kinds of blocks together. Bristle blocks just don’t fit with Legos.  Sometimes, if you’re careful, you can get Legos to work with Duplos, but it takes practice.

Playing with toys like this, children leave individual pieces scattered all over a room. Parents of little kids are often rather tired at the end of a day, and after the children are in bed, cleanup still needs to happen. But sorting things out into individual sets and assembling them is usually more trouble than it’s worth. So a basket becomes the container for everything. They don’t necessarily “fit” together, but they all go in there. For a tired parent, that means the job is done.

(Sweep the toys into the basket together)

Sorting things out neatly can often be tiring. Parents of young children get tired, graduate students get tired, and even Jesus got tired.

We read several verses from Matthew 15 today. They formed a single story, but were put, by the author of Matthew’s gospel, at the end of a series of three stories that together help us to see and understand the final story, Jesus, and ourselves better.

I: People who made Jesus tired

The first story begins at Matthew15:1. It’s 9 verses long, and in it we find Jesus in a conversation, even in an argument, with good, faithful, religious people. The subject, on its surface, was about washing hands. There was a particular way to do so before eating, and it had nothing to do with sanitation or germs. The custom had come from the ancestors, and had become a religious and cultural rule. These good, faithful religious people respected Jesus as a good, faithful and religious teacher, but they had a problem with his students, who didn’t properly wash their hands before eating.

Traditions or Teachings of the Ancestors can get passed along stupidly. There’s a story of a mother and young daughter in America, preparing a ham (a pig leg) for a meal. After unwrapping the meat, the mother cut off each end before putting it into a large pan for cooking. The daughter asked her “why did you cut off the ends?” The mother said, “I think that makes it taste better. I learned it from my mother.” After the meat was cooking she phoned her mother and asked, “Why did you teach me to cut the ends off of the ham before cooking it?” Her mother said, “I learned it from my mother.” The next time they went to visit the mother’s mother, they asked, “Why do we cut the ends off of a ham before we cook it?”  The old lady said, “I don’t know why YOU do it, but I didn’t have a big enough pan.”

Wherever the custom of how to wash hands before eating came from, the faithful, good, religious people who were making trouble for Jesus had made that practice (and other things like it) more important than they really were. Jesus had heard enough of their criticism of his students (and, this being Asia, of himself) and he fought back. He called them hypocrites (which means people who falsely claim to be good.)

That was the first story. Then the second one started.

There was a crowd around them, so he turned to them (the crowd may have been good people, but likely included some who were neither very faithful nor very religious) and told them that they could eat whatever they wanted.

When a third group, Jesus’ friends and students arrived, their concern was political. Jesus had hurt the feelings of the religious people. The students thought that the feelings of some were more important than the freedom of all. That prompted Peter, one of the students, to demand an explanation, after which Jesus demonstrated that he was tired of good, faithful religious people AND of his own disciples. .

So, Jesus took a vacation. He went to the edge of his people’s territory, where, hopefully, nobody would know him. No good faithful religious people would criticize him, and he could get away from his students for a while.

II: Work follows us into and onto vacation. It followed Jesus, too

In the 21st century many of us carry smart phones and have Line accounts. In that way, anyone can contact us at any time. I have a colleague at work. She was at Sinlau Hospital once last year, helping an international student on a medical matter. While she was there, her sister contacted her and said, “Our mother is also seeing a doctor at Sinlau Hospital today. You should find her and see if she needs help.” The sister was in America, but because of the “location” thing in Line, she knew where both mother and little sister were at that moment, and was able to assign extra work.

Jesus didn’t have a smart phone, but some work (and some of his students) followed him onto his vacation. A woman recognized him and asked for a favor. Her daughter was in terrible condition and needed the healer.

Jesus was tired. Jesus was “away from” work. Jesus didn’t even answer her. Some disciples who had accompanied him were embarrassed. This woman’s actions were drawing attention that they didn’t want. They asked him to send her away.

(Reach into the basket and start sorting one color of  Lego /Duplo / bristle block from another.  Leave them in the separated piles on the table top.)

So Jesus started to do that. He did that by saying that his work was just with “this kind” and not with the other. (indicate one pile of toys as different from another) She didn’t stop. Then he talked about fairness, and called her a dog (which is not a compliment in any culture). But she still didn’t stop.

Here’s where we see the art of the author of Matthew’s Gospel. Reaching back to something from the first story in the chapter, he uses the example of the faithful, good, religious people who didn’t want what Jesus had to offer. Into the Canaanite woman’s mouth, he puts the statement, “If they don’t want it, can’t I have some?” She accepted Jesus’ characterization of being a dog, and then claimed the dog’s rights to what the children don’t want.

And in the end, Jesus, recognizing what is important, what he was talking about in the first two stories of the chapter, that faith in God is more important than the artificial distinctions that people make between races and religions, gives her what she has requested.

But we’ve still got a problem. He called her a dog. And we all know that you should not call people names.

III What you SHOULD call people (Psalm 133)

While he was still in Galilee, Jesus had hurt the feelings of some good, faithful religious OPPRESSORS. In this last story, he has name-called a woman in need who came to him for help. He showed disrespect to her because she was not from “his people.” He should not have done that. But, by the end of the story, Jesus had learned from her. He had learned something that he probably had first learned as a child, but had forgotten. He was reminded of what he, and we, are to call each other. We read it in the Psalm today.

35 years ago, when my wife and I began to learn Taiwanese, someone introduced a young woman to us. She was the graduate of a 2 year college and worked in some sort of a company, but she liked to speak English.  She invited us to her family’s home for a dinner one time. Her parents asked us what we were doing in Taiwan, and we mentioned our connection to the Christian church. When she heard this, she smiled, because she had experienced some Christian classmates in her college. They were from a small group that was very intimate and very evangelistic. She mentioned nothing about their faith, only that she liked the way they cared about each other, and that they called each other “brother” and “sister”.

That’s what we read in the psalm today, “how good it is when God’s People live together in harmony! The words in our simplified English bibles were, “God’s people”. The Chinese is more accurate to the original language, “brothers”. The point is that we should call each other by terms of family… brother, sister, and such. We are not divided.

When Jesus went on vacation, it seems that he took a vacation from this understanding, too. He met a foreign woman and called her a dog. This woman, accepting his term, taught him something. She was not from his country or ethnic roup, but she was a person of faith, not divided off.

 (Sweep the separated toys back into the basket and stir them up.)

We are made to be together. Just as all of these toys are made from plastic, we are all made of flesh and blood, and, as we read in the psalm, it is good when we live together in harmony.

Conclusion

The last verse of the psalm tells us why. God has created all of us, not just for this time in Tainan or for this time between our birth and death. God has made us for life forevermore, and it will be together.

For now, it is our task to begin to learn how to live together in harmony. Let’s do that, in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. AMEN

Just Do It 13 August 2017

Just Do It! (In Obedience we overcome Inertia ) I Kings 19:8-18 and Romans 10:5-15

 

INTRODUCTION

We all learn at different speeds, but in classrooms, things often move at only one speed. Some students can’t “keep up” and others get bored.  A man who taught one of my children in elementary school had a method for this. When he set students to doing their own work, he allowed them to move at their own speed. For those who finished earlier, he had other things that they could do in the classroom.  One of those things was the “Take-apart” station, where he had some simple tools and some things that were already broken (old clocks, computer keyboards, small machines and broken toys) for them to explore.

I never had a teacher like that. Maybe that’s why I like to take apart words. Students who are forced to learn English from me spend a lot of time looking at little parts of words. This week, it’s your turn. The word is “inertia”, which means “the condition of being without action”. “in” means “without”  “ert” is related to action, and “ia” means “a condition”.  If we’re talking about physics, it means that something which is not moving, will just stay there, and something which IS moving will continue exactly as it is going unless something stops it. There will be NO change.

We met “inertia” this afternoon in the story about Elijah that we read in the Old Testament. As I read that story, I saw into my own being without action. I found more and different stuff in the New Testament reading. When I overcame my inertia this week and wrote this, I learned some things that might help us all.

I The Fear Freeze

Though there’s no book of Elijah in the Bible, there’s certainly a lot about him. He was so important to the people of Jesus’ time that when he was hanging on the cross and cried out in his native language, Aramaic, some of the people thought he was praying to Elijah. He is so important in Jewish religion today that during the high holy days each spring a chair at the banquet table is left open for him. At the miracle of the transfiguration, when Jesus face shone like the sun, two historical figures appeared with him, Moses (who represented the law) and Elijah (who represented the prophets).

Elijah was indeed a brave man. He confronted kings and queens, military leaders and priests of rival religions. And Elijah never lost. But in this story, we met him while he was running away in fear. He could do nothing while he was frozen by fear that he would be hurt. We met him running away, and listened to him while he was hiding in a cave.  When the voice of God spoke to him and asked him, “Why are you here?”, he sorrowfully responded that he was hiding. As the story goes, God called him out and showed him the power at God’s command, yet, when asked again why he was there, the same sorrow filled reasons were given. He had learned nothing!

Do we act like that sometimes? I know that I have. Something has made me afraid of a coming confrontation, or of a possible failure, or of some sort of trouble, so we “hide from” whatever it is, and, like Elijah, revert to childhood practices and complain.

“I don’t want to go home, because my parents are unhappy with how I’ve been spending my time and money.” “I don’t want to go to class, because the teacher will scold me for poor attendance.” “I don’t want to write the thesis, because one of the committee members is an expert on my topic.” “Nobody likes me. I don’t have to take those risks.”

Elijah was REALLY stuck. Even after he saw the power of God demonstrated in wind, earthquake and fire, he didn’t change his complaint. He was frozen by fear.  But fear isn’t the only thing that has ever stopped somebody.

II The Further Training Ploy (Romans 10)

We read some stuff from the New Testament this afternoon that I usually avoid. It’s in the Bible and it’s good stuff, but I have a hard time figuring out what it means.

I have a friend who lived in Taiwan for about 20 years but returned to America a while back. This guy LOVED Bible readings like the one we did this afternoon. He enjoyed going in there, figuring out the historical situation in which they were written, comparing line to line, and basically “untangling” the knots that he found. But as I listened to him explain the chapters, paragraphs and verses of Romans, I was always left more and more confused. I concluded that I couldn’t really understand what is written there unless I went to the Bible college where he had studied, found the teachers who had taught him, and sat in their classes. After which I might know enough to figure these things out. Basically, I’ve decided that if I’m going to understand Romans like my friend does, I’ve got to go back to school.

So earlier this summer I started, and dropped, an online class in Bible interpretation by a guy who took a completely different approach from my friend.  That teacher, Dr. Walter Russell, is only a couple of years older than me. He has learned a lot about history and culture and holds a very high view of the authority of every word found in the Bible. He explains and interprets it by comparing words here to words there. He always uses the best academic, theological and linguistic tools. I started the class because I wanted to learn those tools and how to use them. I dropped out because I wasn’t learning the tools and their use so much as I was learning Dr. Russell’s conclusions that he arrived at through use of the tools. I concluded that if I’m going to understand Romans like Dr. Russell, I’ll have to go to the school where he teaches and learn his conclusions.

How many of us use “I need to get some more education first” to stop us from doing what needs to be done. There’s nothing wrong with further education. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get better trained or to get a higher degree. Our problem sometimes is that we put off any action on ANYTHING until we have the degree in one specific thing. However, we can do something, which is to “get whatever we can reach now”, and hope for more, later.

At the end of both the Old Testament and the New Testament verses that we read this afternoon the conclusion was similar, and it’s illustrated by the symbol on the front of today’s bulletin and on the screen behind me.  When that symbol is used in advertizing, it often has a slogan with it, the slogan that is the sermon title today, “Just Do It.”

III Just Doing it

Elijah was afraid of the Queen of Israel. He was afraid that her police would find and arrest him, and that she would have him killed. In his fear, he stopped acting as a grown person and began to act like a child. In the story, God confronted Elijah with a demonstration of power, an assignment of duties, and a command to “Just do it”. The stories of Elijah continue for several more chapters of 1st Kings and into 2nd Kings, where he goes up to heaven in a whirlwind. He did what he was told to do, and left behind for us the story of “fear freeze” and its cure.

St. Paul, who wrote Romans, was dealing with questions and problems in chapter 10 which do not necessarily connect to us. They had more to do with the situation of the church in Rome at the time he was writing, situations and conditions of churches and ethnic groups. For that reason, and because I’m not half clever enough to even start at it, I’m not going to try to untangle or explain Romans 10:5-13 this afternoon. I will, however, “get what I can reach”.  Verses 14 & 15 call the original readers, and call us today, to become messengers, telling about the help we have received through the good news that has been shared with us. We don’t have to be able to explain verses 5-13, or ANY verses. We don’t need to go to Bible college or theological school, because our message is simply this, “faith in God has helped me.”

CONCLUSION

Like Elijah, we may be hiding in a cave. Afraid of what might happen if someone notices us. It doesn’t matter how much power God shows in the world and to us, or how much personal word we receive from God, we are afraid and we hide. Or maybe you’re like me, sure that you need more training before you can speak or act, and knowing that you don’t have the time to get the training now, you put off speaking or acting until an indefinite time in the future, when you’ll understand better.

Sometimes, however, the time comes to do something, and to do it now, no matter what the risks might be. There’s a situation that I have to address this afternoon, something that makes me sad to be an American. People advocating race hatred and white supremacy have demonstrated against people of color and people of other-than-Christian religious faith, positions that are in line with the ideology of America’s current president. I do not ask the members of Tainan International Community Church to do anything about this, because you are not Americans, as I am. This is my duty, and I have to “just do it”, and do it today. I absolutely refute the white supremacy ideology of the American men and women who demonstrated for their opinion on Friday, August 12th, in America. I denounce them and their leaders, and I oppose the president whose rhetoric has stirred up their putrid and hateful actions.

You have other missions to “just do”. I encourage you to find them, and to follow God’s instruction and encouragement in them. Both Bible readings we heard this afternoon tell us the same thing. There’s nothing to fear out there. we have sufficient backup power and background to get moving. Our “inertia” has been overcome by the power of God, who, once we are moving, will guide us further, energize us, and carry us through, even as far as a whirlwind to take us to heaven if that’s what’s needed.

Sisters and brothers, “Just Do It.”  we have the training you need, stop delaying.

We’re ready enough. GO

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

A Couple of Interesting Weeks

July 16  Giving Something Away

After church on the morning of July 16th, in a conversation with friends, I grabbed a page of my sermon manuscript and wrote a note on the back of it for them. I was asked, “Won’t you need that later?”  I assured them that it was all saved somewhere on a computer, so it was OK to give the page away as a scrap of paper.  That overconfidence came back to bite me two weeks later.  More below.  

 

July 17-22  Blur

Though it is summer break, and I had no lessons to prepare, the week was the kind of busy time that clergy with two sermons and several other classes sometimes have.  I was “on deck” for one worship service (without sermon) and two workshops for the annual convention of the Taiwan Missionary Fellowship, had a small group to lead at Dongning Church, and two weeks of worship services (with sermons) for Tainan International Community Church on July 23 and 30 to prepare. Office time went by in a blur.  

 

July 17-26  Mansfield Park

For recreational reading I borrowed a volume that contains all of the novels by Jane Austen. First read Sense and Sensibility, and enjoyed it enough to skip to Mansfield Park, which was a bit too slowly paced for my taste, but I finished it.  I started “Emma”, but put it down in preference for catching up with all the New Yorker magazines that had piled up since the beginning of the month.

 

July 23  Dongning Church

I was in the translation booth in the morning. Pretty standard stuff. Then led the international small group afterwards.  In past years, the group had mainly allowed international students from Tainan Theological College who worshipped at Dongning a place to share about their homelands with people from Taiwan. But when there were no more international students, it became a place where members of Dongning who had gone overseas to show their vacation slides.  When I was appointed to lead it, I was told that it was to be about faith development, so we began on a different tack.  

 

So far we’ve had a couple of months when we did a game like “Jeopardy” on TV, where people got the Answers from the things we often use in church liturgically (the Lord’s prayer, the creed, the 10 commandments and the New Commandment) and had to come up with the questions.  There was a lot of laughter as we worked out how to do it.  In June we began using different Bible study techniques.  The first one was to imagine our way into the context of a Bible story. In July we did “draw pictures”.  To keep anybody from having to hold up and explain their own picture, after people had all drawn their contributions they were folded up and put into a bag, from which people drew them out at random and showed the beautiful picture they found.  The verses were about the church.  Curiously, even when the verse said, “you are the salt of the earth”, people tended to draw pictures of buildings with crosses on them.  

 

July 24  Preparations and Promotions

It was a hot and sweaty morning. I mainly spent it cleaning and packing, because I was to be away for most of the week, and wanted the folks staying in the house to take care of the cat to be comfortable.  I also put a box and several bags of books into the trunk of the car for a sale table I had planned for the lobby at the Taiwan Missionary Fellowship convention.

 

The books had been purchased new with the idea that international students might buy them, but 3 years ago the book allowance was handed out at the beginning of each semester in cash, so nobody bought books.  The stuff on my sale shelf has just been getting older and older. So, I cut prices by half.   Probably only sold 30 or 40 books during the week, but that is a bunch fewer books to dispose of next year when we depart.

 

July 26 Morning Worship

At the Taiwan Missionary Fellowship, morning worship is mainly about singing songs punctuated by a few Bible verses and spontaneous prayers. Sometimes the songs are contemporary choruses, and other times tired old hymns (not that hymns are tired and old, but the ones chosen for the group to sing are often both). I volunteered to lead worship one morning and was assigned Wednesday. I chose “new” hymns (from the 90s) and added one of my own (to an old tune). Arranged things liturgically, and enjoyed leading. No preaching, just meaningful worship and meaningful lyrics.  I don’t know if anyone else noticed, or even enjoyed, but nobody complained.

 

July 26  Disability Discourse

Last December I attended a 3-day consultation on Disability Discourse sponsored by the World Council of Churches. It taught me that, being temporarily abled myself, I need to listen to people living with disabilities. So I offered a workshop on the topic at the Taiwan Missionary Fellowship.  I don’t know what people may have been expecting, but what they got was opportunity to talk about their own experiences of living with and around the issues of Disability in Taiwan. About 20 people attended. Many spoke. All I did was moderate, and from time to time ask another question.  

 

July 28  What are YOU reading, and why should WE read it?

Only 5 people attended the workshop on reading and books. It was a good talk. We might have spontaneously had the same meeting without a time and a place, but having both of those got some together who might have missed it otherwise. One guy who attended is really into comic books!  You never know what to expect when missionaries gather.  

 

July 29 Slip and Stretch

I was home from my week away at 11PM on Friday night. The house was dusty, but other than the floors that doesn’t bother me. I decided that beyond laundry I’d just vacuum and mop. I had the downstairs finished and carried the mop bucket carefully up the stairs to do the floors there. When I went back down for the mop, stepping on the damp floor my foot slid out from under me and I took a tumble, pulling a hamstring on the way.  The next day I had to preach at two churches, so I imagined being called “Pastor Gimpy”.  Whether anyone thought of me like that or not, it’s who I was.

 

July 29  Out Back

I was assigned to preach at a church in Pingtung on the 30th to do fundraising for the Taiwan Church Publishing House.  Because I was gone the week before, all of my communication with the church was by FAX and mail.  I received no responses, so on the 29th I phoned the mobile phone number on the letter I’d received from the publishing house. When speaking to the pastor who answered, I learned quite quickly that I’d called the wrong guy. He had no current connection with that church and was quite firm that he was now at the church “out back”.  Since there’s a town in Tainan by that name, I assumed that sometime in the past he had left Pingtung and was now at the church in “out back”.  I was wrong.

 

I got to the church early enough, and in sorting through my sermon manuscript I discovered the lack of the page I’d given away 2 weeks previously.  I found a room and set about recreating what was missing.  When I finished I met a man passing out bulletins, but they were a different color from the one I’d already received. I learned from him that he was from the church that met “out back”, a group that had split from the church “in front” that I was to address. No history was given.

 

Eventually I learned that the church had split a year ago, and the group that left was still meeting on the premises in a room at the back of the facility until they could move out to their own place.  It makes you want to cry.

 

July 29-31 Natural Disasters

A typhoon came through on the night of the 29th, It was headed for central Taiwan but turned northward and landed on the Northeast coast. But the rain from it flooded low lying parts of south Taiwan.  Then, on the morning of the 30th there was an earthquake in Tainan (4-points, but nobody hurt) followed by another typhoon (a mild one) that came through that night. The 31st was a day off because it was raining too hard in the morning for anybody to go to school or work.  Cleanup will start in August.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑