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Archive for August, 2011

Since my last post I have survived a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that was felt as far north as Boston, and felt the gusting fury of Hurricane Irene, which ripped up a half dozen ancient oaks on my street and left most of the city without power. 

I don’t mean to be dramatic, but as I stood in my study last Tuesday watching the light fixtures swing back and forth, as I felt the floor shaking beneath my feet and the wall trembling behind me, I remembered the prayer I used to say in Washington, DC, in those days just after 9/11: “Lord, if this is my day to die, let me do it with faith and courage.”

It wasn’t so bad during the hurricane, but at one point I looked out the window and watched as a giant tree toppled toward my side of the street, missing my daughter’s car by inches.  It made me gulp, and think about how vulnerable we are, how quickly the flame of our fragile lives can be snuffed out.  I survived the storm, but according to this morning’s newspaper at least 20 people didn’t.  What were they thinking in those last seconds of earthly life?

When the earthquake came it took me a full fifteen seconds to figure out what it was.  At first I thought someone was pushing a heavy cart across the floor above me, but as the rumble grew deeper and the building began to shake I knew that couldn’t be it.  When I saw the light fixture begin to swing back and forth I thought, “This is an earthquake!” and at first all I felt was wonder.  I’d never been in an earthquake before (“So this is what it’s like!”).  But then I realized that the floor above me could fall on top of me, crush me and kill me, and that’s when I began to pray. 

It seems to be my instinct, in such “moments of mortality,” to make my peace with God, to make sure that things are OK between us in case I should find myself suddenly standing before him.  But then, in the next second, my mind reaches out toward the people I love, toward friends and family, making sure that things are OK between us in case I should die before I have a chance to say “I’m sorry.” 

Is this why Jesus said that the greatest commandment is to love God and others?  Did he know better than most of us just how fragile life is, how quickly it can end, and how important it is to tend and nurture our most important relationships?  Because an earthquake could come, a tree could fall, and you might not have time in that “moment of mortality” to make your peace with God or say you’re sorry to others. 

Maybe that’s why it felt so right to go to church yesterday morning, after the storm—to spend some time with God and others—to make my peace and say my prayers and hug some people who are dear to me and who need to know it.  If those moments of mortality serve no other purpose they serve that one: they help us remember what matters most.  And for that, among other things, I am grateful.

It’s going to be a beautiful day today.  The forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and a high of 83 degrees. 

If I’m not careful, I’ll forget everything I learned.

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When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea (Matthew 14:23-25).

When I was a boy we used to visit my grandmother’s home in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.  She lived in a house on a hill with a big front porch and a breathtaking view of GrandfatherMountain.  At the bottom of the hill was a clear, mountain stream that rushed over smooth, round rocks, and it was there, in one of the still pools at the side of the stream, that I first saw something walk on water.  It was a bug, a “water strider” to be exact, but as I watched it make its way across the pool my eyes grew wide with wonder.  How did it do that?

My brother Scott explained:  “Surface tension,” he said.  Something about the way the water molecules held together.  If you were small enough and light enough, like that bug, the surface of the water would behave like a sheet of Saran Wrap; you could just walk from one side to the other.  I was fascinated.  I filed that information away in my brain so that someday, when someone asked me how bugs could walk on water, I could lift my chin just the way Scott had, put on one of my most knowledgeable looks, and say “surface tension.”

On the surface, there is some tension between what we read in this passage from Matthew 14 and what we see in the world around us.  Matthew says that Jesus walked on water, and that—for a little while at least—Peter did too.  I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a man walk on water.  I saw my cousin water-ski barefoot once, but that’s not the same thing.  That’s called hydroplaning, when something is moving so fast that it skims across the surface of the water.  It seems to defy gravity in the same way an airplane lifts off the runway and into the sky by skimming on a cushion of air.  But if that airplane came to a sudden stop it would drop from the sky, and if that boat had come to a sudden stop my cousin would have sunk like a stone.

This is what observation has taught us, this is what experience has taught us, but this story from Matthew 14 wants to teach us something else, and on the surface at least is seems to want to teach us that once upon a time a man did walk on water.  For some people that’s a problem.  Although they won’t usually admit it (especially not in church) there are some sincere Christians who have a hard time believing that things really happened the way Matthew says they did.  Luke may have been one of them.  Although you find versions of this story in Mark and John you do not find it in the Gospel of Luke.  Is it because Luke, the beloved physician, the thoughtful scientist, just couldn’t believe it?  There’s really no way to know that, but we do know this: that, for whatever reason, he left this story out of the gospel he was writing in the same way some people leave it out of the gospel they are reading.  They turn the page and skip over it; their rational minds just can’t accept it.

They gag on a story too big to swallow.

I once heard someone say that Baptists are people who get together to argue about who believes the Bible more.  If that’s true, then this would be one of those stories they would argue about.  Someone would jab his finger into someone else’s chest and ask, “Do you believe the Bible is true?” Yes.  “All of it?”  Yes.  “Even that part about Jesus walking on water?”  Yes.  “Do you believe that he did it physically, literally?”  Um…maybe.  “Aha!  An unbeliever!”  Do you see how quickly we might divide ourselves into those who are able to believe everything in the Bible is literally true and those who have some doubts?  “Here,” we would say: “if you believe the sun stood still as it says in Joshua 10:13 sit on this side of the church.  If you’re not sure, sit over there.  If you believe a fish swallowed a man as it says in Jonah 1:17 sit up front, and if you don’t then sit at the back.  If you believe Jesus walked on water as it says in Matthew 14:25 then sit in the balcony, a little closer to heaven, and if you don’t then sit down here, a little closer to the other place.”

We could do that.  In fact some Baptists have done that—made belief in the literal truth of Scripture a test of fellowship.  But let me ask you: what purpose does it serve other than making some people feel superior and others feel inferior—second-class citizens because, for whatever reason, they are unable to suspend their disbelief?  I don’t mean that they are unwilling to believe, I mean that they are unable!  Suppose we asked everyone who could lift a hundred pounds over their heads to sit on one side of the room and everyone who couldn’t to sit on the other.  What would it prove except that some people are physically stronger than others?  Why do we try to separate ourselves on the basis of whose faith is the strongest?  And for that matter is an ability to believe the unbelievable the same thing as faith?  I know people who believe that Elvis is still alive.  Does that mean their faith is strong?  Or does it only mean that some people will believe anything?

Rather than arguing about who believes the Bible more or dividing ourselves into the weak and the strong let me suggest another way.  When I talk about the Bible I like to say that it is the Word of God for the people of God, and that it is authoritative in all matters of faith and practice.  To put it simply, the Bible tells us what to believe and how to behave.  But even before that the Bible is the Word of God.  It is how God talks to us.  Therefore the appropriate question to ask when looking at a passage like this is not,

Did it actually happen this way? but,

What on earth is God trying to say? 

What does it mean to say something like Jesus walked on water, and in this story what does it mean to say that Peter did, too?  Let’s take a closer look…

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This is just one of the things we discussed at Preacher Camp: the whole question of biblical authority and what to do with difficult passages of Scripture.  If you’d like to read the sermon in its entirety (“Surface Tension,” preached at First Baptist, Richmond, on August 10, 2008), you can just click HERE.

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For six years now I’ve been getting together with a group of colleagues so we can plan our preaching for the year.  It was Amy Butler’s idea.  When I was at First Baptist, DC, she was at Calvary Baptist, just a few blocks away.  We would get together at Starbucks on Monday mornings with a few other preachers to talk about what we were going to do the following Sunday and one day she said, “You know what we ought to do?  We ought to do this for the whole year!”

And so we sent out some invitations, and a few months later six of us spent several days at a big house in the mountains of West Virginia, looking over the lectionary texts for the following year.

Each of us had an assignment.  I was supposed to bring some good ideas for preaching through those Sundays after Christmas and before Ash Wednesday.  Others in our group had the seasons of Lent, Easter, Advent, and that long stretch of Sundays after Pentecost, often called “Ordinary Time,” which we divided into two parts.

We talked about a lot of things in those days.  We talked about our lives and churches and ministry, but we also ended the week with a pretty good sense of what we would be preaching in the year ahead, and that felt good.

We’ve been doing it ever since.

Last year we had the idea to do it in the summer instead of the fall, and to bring our families along.  We got the use of a big house on Lake James in North Carolina, and Russ Dean brought his ski boat.  So, we planned our preaching each morning and then, each afternoon (sometimes after naps), we went down to the dock for swimming and sunbathing, skiing and tubing.   In the evenings we would sometimes share our favorite sermons with each other.  One night we sat on the front porch telling the stories of how we met our spouses.  Another night we ended up in a free-spirited dance party in the living room.  The kids loved that.  And so did the grownups.

On the last night we gathered around the campfire to sing songs and make S’mores and it really did feel like we had been at camp for a week.  We all felt a little closer to God and a little closer to each other.  Plus, I had some idea of what I will be preaching each Sunday from now through Advent 2012.

You don’t have many weeks like that in a year, and when you have one you just want to thank somebody for it.  So, thanks to the family who loaned us their lake house, and thanks to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which gave us some funding for the event, and thanks be to God for colleagues who have become such close friends: for Russ Dean, and Amy Butler, and Don Flowers, and Dorisanne Cooper, and John Ballenger, and for our time together at…

…Preacher Camp.

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Busy Summer!

I realize that I haven’t posted anything on this blog in weeks, and I apologize, but it’s been a busy summer. 

I went to the Baptist World Alliance gathering in Kuala Lumpur because I’m a member of the Peace Commission.  I met Baptists from all over the world, had lunch with people from Papua New Guinea, Jamaica, and Germany, listened to testimonies from people in conflict-ridden Myanmar and Nagaland, and also learned ten strategies for peacemaking.  It was an exhausting but exhilarating meeting.

I followed that with five days in Indonesia, staying with Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel on the beautiful island of Bali.  I preached on that Sunday morning to a congregation of expatriates, many of them from the US and Australia.  I learned that Christians represent less than one percent of the population of Bali; most of the people are Balinese Hindu.  Everywhere I went I saw women putting out little offerings to appease the gods, or to ward off the evil spirits.  The faint smell of incense was everywhere.  I got to rest some while I was there, and tried to use those days as spiritual retreat.  I read Harvey Cox’s The Future of Faith and Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs.  I sat on the front porch of my little guest house and wrote pages and pages in my journal.  I looked up at a sky full of homemade kites (a strange and wonderful tradition there during the breezy season), and closed my eyes in gratitude.

I was home for a little more than a week after that, working hard to catch up on everything, and then it was off to Colorado for a backpacking trip.  For thirty years now I’ve taken a week off to hike with my brother-in-law, Chuck, in some of the most beautiful places in America.  Lately our old college friend Joe has been joining us and this year Joe brought his son Ethan.  We spent most of a week hiking on the Colorado Trail at altitudes of 10,000 feet and above, where the air is thin and (in these summer months) refreshingly cool. 

I got back just in time to preach on Sunday morning and then it was off to Canada with my daughter Catherine for a long-promised road trip.  We looked at four prospective graduate schools while we were there, but we also saw a sunset over Lake Erie, bought hot dogs from a street vendor in Toronto, camped on the shores of Lake Ontario, and spent the better part of two days in the old city of Montreal where French is the official language but you can get by (thankfully) in English.  We got home on Friday night, giving me a full day to get things together before Sunday, but I still felt a little car-lagged and disoriented, not sure if I was in Kuala Lumpur, or Colorado, or Quebec.  The people at First Baptist were gracious as ever, making me glad that I got to come home to them.

Here’s hoping that life will return to a simpler, slower pace, and the memories of an exciting and busy summer will remain.

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