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Tag: Christian Formation

April 7, 2016

Hello again.

The First Presbyterian Pilgrims are comfortably settled in Jerusalem ,which will be our headquarters for the next several days.  On Wednesday morning, we took a tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.  It seems in Israel that the past is not really past. The thousands  of years of Jewish history  and traditions are reflected in a current consciousness. Certainly the not very distant Holocaust has had a major role in shaping the Israeli view of the world. The magnitude of the Holocaust horror is beyond words. An especially moving experience for us was the Children’s Memorial part of the museum dedicated to the 1.5 million children that perished at the hands of the Nazis.

After some time for reflection, we journeyed back further in time again. This time we had the opportunity to view archeological evidence of homes dating from the founding of Jerusalem some 3,000 years ago, or approximately the time of King David.

Jerusalem was built on high ground over hills – there is no major waterway that runs through it.  There was only one source of water, a spring, in ancient times. We climbed down deeply underground to see an ingenious tunnel system built by the Israelites during the time of King Hezekiah to safeguard the water supply in times of conflict.

As we approached the Temple Mount at the southwest corner of the old city, images of modern Jerusalem caught our eye. Muslim ladies, heads covered but with faces shown, waiting for a bus – young Israeli soldiers with guns slung patrolling some areas, young Orthodox Jews garbed in traditional black clothing running to appointments, a Roman Catholic monk, a group of American tourists looking, well, American, a lone horse looking oddly out of place, narrow streets looking impossible for our bus to get through. Jerusalem is a rich mix of many different sights and sounds.

Our last stop of the day was at the stairs of the Temple Mount where Jesus entered the temple to cleanse it of money changers and merchants. To have the experience of walking once more where Jesus once walked is to make His life on earth come alive within us. The same experience can be appreciated in the ruins of the nearby marketplace area where you can easily imagine the shops ringing the walkway and the crowds cheering  Jesus as He rode by.

My reflection is similar to yesterday. We all basically the same whether 3,000 years ago, whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. You can see it in the faces of the people we have met and in the faces of the people we see on the streets. Yes, the forces at work for evil and for good exist now as in the past all the way back to the creation. But good news is that God loves us all. We can rejoice in the basic truth that in the end, love will prevail. I believe that more now than ever.

 

Bill Stevenson

Greetings from the Holy Land.
Tuesday was a big day.


We made our way from the Sea of Galilee area down to Jerusalem following the  road to Jericho along the Jordan River Valley.  The same path that Jesus took those millennia past.  Just before leaving the Sea of Galilee we visited the recently discovered Magdala archeological site.  The area features a first century A.D. synagogue and marketplace that would have been visited by Jesus. To walk among the remnants of the marketplace and streets where Jesus would also have walked was an amazing historical and spiritual connection for all of us.
As one travels south past Mt Tabor, traditionally identified as the location for Christ’s Transfiguration and where we visited, the landscape changes dramatically from pleasant green rolling fields and wooded hilltops to a suddenly drier, much harsher environment. We entered the West Bank territory at a checkpoint and went to the location on the Jordan River where it is believed John the Baptist baptized Jesus. We immersed ourselves, or at least our lower extremities, in the cool (though surprisingly muddy) water and marveled.
The present and the past mingle freely in Israel. As we passed by Jericho and got closer to Jerusalem we could see some Bedouin shepherds with their flocks and a few camels as well.   It was quite a thrill to enter Jerusalem and then see the City of David for the first time.  We celebrated communion on the Mount of Olives as the sun set and closed in fellowship with “Amazing Grace.” It was a moment of serene comfort. After dinner we were very fortunate to have as our guest speaker the Rev. Kate Taber, a missionary with Presbyterian Church U.S.A. who spoke of the ongoing challenges of missionary work within a very complex cultural and political milieu. Kate expressed a message of hope despite the continual conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Her thoughts  reminded me that on this pilgrimage we have been seen in towns and country the remnants of ancient empires. We have heard the stories of wars, exile, captivity, slavery, cruelty.  Those empires of conquest by the sword – Assyrian, Greek, Roman, Crusader, Ottoman – are dust, the treasures all gone. They matter not. It is the message of Jesus of love and hope and mercy that endures yet here in this Holy Land and in this world and will do so forever. We can see it in the faces of the people here; we can feel it in ourselves.

Bill Stevenson

August 15, 2013

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

As Christians – and those who stand in the Reformed tradition – we have always had a bit of a struggle between the law and the gospel.  

If you need evidence of this tension, read one of Paul’s letters to any number of his churches – in Rome, Galatia, or Corinth.  For disciples of Jesus, salvation does not come from an adherence to the law but by the grace and glory of the cross.  

However, Jesus still has a high regard for the place of the law in the lives of those who are his disciples.  What are we to do with this apparent conundrum?  

John Calvin is of help here.  Calvin – one of the forefathers in our Reformed tradition – described three uses for the law for those whose identity and salvation are secured by the grace of Jesus Christ.

The first use of the law is to convict us of our sin.  Knowing the law – even if we cannot perfectly keep the law – reminds us of the fact that, as humans, we fall short.  It also reminds us of the utter dependence we have on God’s grace. 

The second use of the law is to restrain our passion.  God’s law, again, even if we cannot fully abide by it, curtails our tendency toward behavior that is driven purely by our desire for pleasure.  In this way, the law functions the way that civil law does in our society – it sets boundaries for our behavior that create order.

 Calvin’s third use of the law is to show us how to live.  Here is the connection to grace.  It is when we understand ourselves as redeemed by God’s grace that we are motivated – not out of fear, but out of gratitude – to walk in paths of righteousness. 

August 1, 2013

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Exodus 20:16

Speech is a sacred act. It has the power to create community, ignite imagination, break even the hardest of hearts. Speech can call people toward a common cause, change the will of a nation and leave us breathless. As a people of speech, the spoken word clarifies our proclamation and directs our hope. But speech is a two-edged sword. Just as it can protect and secure, it can cut deep into the heart and tear bonds beyond mending. It can steal reputations, leave scars, inspire goodness and hope, convince hate and declare war.

  A lie is most dangerous form of speech in that it can create a world that is simply not true. It can stain the innocent with guilt, frame the generous with suspicion, turn the curious into ‘The ignorant,’ and the faithful into ‘A heretic.’ A lie cuts bonds of community because it is no more than a bi-product of one’s individual, self-serving agenda.

Have you ever been hurt by a false witness? Is silence the same as not telling the truth?

July 25, 2013

You shall not steal.
Exodus 20:15

Consistent with scripture that warns against false balances, charging interest and unfair taxes, this commandment was to help maintain justice by maintaining equity over the common property of the clan – the water well, the grazing land and the herds of cattle and sheep. They believed that the land belonged to God and, at most, they were merely stewards or managers of that land, which was theirs in trust for the welfare of the whole clan. To deprive anyone of what they were due from God was, therefore, a direct sin against God.

Today, it is hard to imagine common anything. The fences that once “made good neighbors” have grown into walls that designate what is “mine” from what is “yours.” We work hard, earn money and (with that) the right to purchase and protect our private property.

So what can this commandment say to us beyond what our civil law has since made perfectly clear?

July 17, 2013

You shall not commit adultery. Exodus 20:14

We’ve gotten ridiculously good as humans at making excuses for certain kinds of harmful behaviors, and often tend to believe that if it makes us happy, then it can’t really be all that bad.  But the Ten Commandments remind us that our lives are meant to be about something greater than our own happiness.  And when the pursuit of our own happiness infects and impacts relationships, then we are going against God’s will for creation.

The prohibition against adultery calls us to a level of commitment that is not always easy, but that has at its heart an understanding of the depth of God’s love for creation.  It is a reminder that sometimes in a relationship things get difficult, and that there are powerful temptations in this world.  But it tells us that there is something greater than our own wants, desires and feelings.  True commitment calls us to transcend our base desires and live in faithful covenant with another, no matter what.  For many people, this is an extraordinarily difficult thing.

But this is not simply a prohibition. This commandment, while clear in what we are not to do, also has a positive side, which points to God’s very real, very loving concern for healthy relationships in all our lives. How we interact with others in relationship is not, ultimately, a private matter. It is a community matter.

 

July 12, 2013

You shall not murder.

As Christians, we have the tools to proclaim a different word to the world’s violence and killing. We have been given scripture that describes the Source of all life and our calling to honor that same gift of life in everyone.

We have the tools of confession and reconciliation that equip us to extend life to others.

We have the cross that proclaims that life is greater than death but does that absolve us of honoring life on earth?

We have the church to tell each other (and the world) what it means to be made “in the image of God,” but do we proclaim this (in word or deed) beyond the sanctuary into a violent and broken world?

It doesn’t seem to be enough to say that we’ve never murdered anyone. It seems that our unique calling as “God’s chosen, holy and beloved” is to honor, bless and enlarge life. Maybe more than what it prohibits, this commandment’s power is in what it proclaims: “life is worth struggling for.”

What do you think? What causes people to murder? How can you respond to where death exists?

July 10, 2013

“You shall not murder.”

The Hebrew word that we translate as “murder” is ratsah. It refers only to criminal acts of killing often committed as revenge or a form of retributive justice. Using the term ratsah, the sixth commandment prohibits taking the law into one’s own hands and prevents that which threatens the sanctity and security of a community. Read more deeply, the sixth commandment speaks to more than just the one pulling the trigger.

As scholars continue to debate the essence of the commandment, one such Rabbi had his own interpretation, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matt. 5:21-22).

Jesus is opening this commandment beyond its face value to uncover the role that you and I play in facing the violence that condemns us all. He is standing in the Jewish tradition that says that because life is a gift from God, each individual’s life is not only sacred but also connected to all other life. Jesus is turning all of the reasons we might have for one “deserving” death back on our own role and responsibility to that individual, to the community and to God for nurturing, preserving and encouraging life in all its forms.

But today is a different world. Sixty percent of all war deaths have occurred in the twentieth century. We have been startled in the twenty-first century by killing fields of the Twin Towers, high schools, elementary schools, movie theaters, marathons (and that is just in the United States). Social scientists and psychologists will tell us that we have become more desensitized to the killing out of gross familiarity and self-preservation. It is simply too familiar to startle us anymore and too much to handle if it did.

While this is understandable, does it numb us to the “image of God” in each perpetrator and victim? Does it absolve us of any responsibility in these killings? How does the sixth commandment speak to us?     

July 4, 2013

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12) 

Aside from the kind of sentimentality we see plastered on the front of Hallmark cards at the commercially manufactured holidays of Mother’s and Father’s Days, the commandment to love our parents is rooted in something deep within our faith tradition: the relationship that God has to creation and the relationship that Jesus has to God the Father.

It is common to think of God as our Father. We follow Jesus’ lead in that regard (Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…). We also find maternal language for God. Our own “Brief Statement of Faith” borrows maternal language for God found in Isaiah when it reads: Like a mother who will not forsake her nursing child…God is faithful still. Put simply, to honor our parents is a way to honor our God.

So what does honor mean? Before entering the stage of life to which Mark Twain refers in his quote, most of us tend to look up to our parents. We may even put them on a pedestal. To be certain, honoring our parents is different than worshipping our parents. 

Best understood, honoring our parents leads us to an unyielding respect and appreciation.

Yet beyond the “what?” of this Commandment, there is the “why?” This is the only Commandment where God gives us a reason for following his law. We are to honor our parents “so that [our] days may be long in the land that the Lord [our] God is giving [us].” 

June 26, 2013

For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

 

The Israelites weren’t to rest because they were tired. They were to rest because they were human – humans who get distracted by busyness and forget that we are all children of God, created to delight in the presence of God. There is an old saying that, “Just as much as the Jews kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept the Jews.”

In the midst of a world that refuses to slow down, Noah benShea, a contemporary Jewish writer, compares our life of work to weaving a tapestry. Like a tapestry weaver, “we are working at it from the back, ‘in a blind.’” He says that the Sabbath allows us to step back and to
turn the tapestry over so we can see “the larger pattern of who we are, and [through that] the implication of our relationship to the world in which we do our work.”