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What's the Meaning of This?

. Posted in Pastor's Blog

As one of our adult classes is learning as they view and discuss Vanderbilt biblical scholar Amy Jill Levine’s lectures on Old Testament stories, the Bible is chock-full with myth and metaphor.  

We were reminded of this in last Sunday’s gospel lesson from John 3 that told of a religious leader adept at concrete thinking but who had a hard time understanding what Jesus meant when he spoke of being born from above and of the wind blowing where it wills. In the coming weeks we will hear about a Samaritan woman (John 4) who struggles with what Jesus is talking about when he offers her “living water” (John 4), and religious leaders who can’t get their heads around what Jesus is saying when he tells them that because they think they can see they are blind (John 9). Huh?

We can never fully grasp the awesomeness of God, and the realities of the spiritual life cannot be reduced to a few slogans. So it is that writers of scripture, as well as people of faith to this day, use myth and metaphor to paint a picture of truth too deep and too expansive to be described in a neatly worded definition or explanation.

The beautiful thing about myth and metaphor is that they open things up, inviting us to question and to wonder. What does it mean to be born from above? What is this living water that Jesus offers? When are we blind and when do we really see? Such questions cannot be easily answered and dismissed as we move on to other concerns. They invite us to be open to the mystery that is at the heart of the universe and at the heart of who we are. They invite us to think and pray, to ponder and discuss, and finally to enter into the reality that is God with us and calling us.

Our faith is so rich and deep and wondrous. It’s a shame that literalists and fundamentalists try to reduce it to something that often turns out to be bland and shallow and legalistic—bullet points that can be slapped up on a Power Point presentation. But ours is a faith that continually reminds us that we “know only in part” (1 Cor. 13:9), and invites us (often through myth and metaphor) to be open to our wondrous God and these wondrous lives of ours in this wondrous world that come to us as both gift and challenge.

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Looking Forward to Lent

. Posted in Pastor's Blog

Recently I was reminded of the story J.R.R. Tolkien told of the time he was correcting student essays. Amidst the pile of papers he came to a blank page. For some reason he did not move on. As he stared at it for a few moments, a revelation came. He wrote on that blank page: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” And of course that is how he began his book, The Hobbit, which led to his The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

If not for that blank page, perhaps Tolkien’s revelation would not have come. Who can say? One thing is clear, we all need blank pages or spaces in which the Holy Spirit can be revealed and new inspiration for living can come.

Most of our lives are full. As one of you shared with me recently, “Life feels faster and busier than in the past… I feel a bit like a rat on a wheel—all busy and getting nowhere.” And this comment came from a person who is not a parent of young children. Then again, I’m not a parent of young children either, and sometimes I have similar feelings.

But none of us wants to be a rat. We want to be human beings, fully present to what gives us a life worth sharing with others. But for that we need spaces to breathe and to be open to what is holy and true. In such spaces, God speaks. The Holy Spirit inspires. And we come alive again.

My hope and prayer for us is that Lent will be the occasion (even the excuse) for setting aside such spaces in our lives—whether it be during a Wednesday night prayer and communion service; Sunday worship; or a quiet time carved out of each day simply to be still and present to God as we pray, listen to music, take a walk, or otherwise find some space uncluttered by busyness and worry. Lord knows, we need it!

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Lenten Reflections on a Confederate General

. Posted in Pastor's Blog

I imagine all of us are familiar with the controversy swirling in our area over the renaming of Memphis parks that previously honored (or at least commemorated) those who fought on the side of the confederacy during the Civil War. One of these parks near the UT medical district was named for the confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. At the heart of the park is the statue of General Forrest mounted on his trusty steed with the confident look of a man watching his troops about to claim victory over the enemy.

As an article in Sunday’s The Commercial Appeal observed, students of history are still not sure about many of the facts of Nathan Bedford Forrest’s life. But this they do know: he was a slave trader in Memphis before the war, a brilliant military tactician during the war, and one of the founding members of the Ku Klux Klan after the war. Oh, and something else…in his later years, Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Cumberland Presbyterian.

Also, according to one historian, in his later years Forrest mellowed some. He may even have had a change of heart. As one contributor to the CA article noted, “Forrest disavowed the Klan’s racial hatred and actually advocated for ‘social as well as political advancement for blacks.’”

Even so, the Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Memphis park celebrates the earlier incarnation of the man—the former slave trader who fought (albeit brilliantly) to maintain the practice of buying, selling, and owning human beings. Certainly he was shaped by his times, as, in one way or another, we all are. But the Nathan Bedford Forrest that is most remembered, and that the Ku Klux Klan celebrates to this day, is one whose legacy should not be celebrated in this or any other community.

That said, I am intrigued by evidence that Forrest did have a change of heart as the result of a conversion experience near the time he came into the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. During this season of Lent, in which repentance and renewal in the way of Jesus is the focus, we are reminded that our earlier incarnations don’t have to be the last word. We are not bound to the mistakes and sins of our pasts. There is grace and the Spirit inviting us on a new adventure of faith no matter what our age.

Many of us will recall another former slave trader named John Newton who had a major course correction in the middle of his life, inspiring the words we often sing: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, Was blind, but now I see.”

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Holy Week Is Our Story

. Posted in Pastor's Blog

Dudley Condron shared earlier this week that he was looking forward to Holy Week, even though at this point in his life it seems like it rolls around every three or four months. I know the feeling. Maybe it’s my age (probably is) but it does seem the seasons that define our lives together as people of faith come around at a faster pace than they once did. The same with Sundays. For many of us preachers Sundays seem to come every four days.

I suppose the seasons and festivals of the Christian year, including Holy Week, have sort of a “here we go again” quality to them, at least for some. And this is not all bad. Certainly the notion of religious ritual has taken a beating in this time when so many people find it preferable to be “spiritual” but not “religious.” But many of us can testify to the fact that going through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and the times in between year after year, decade after decade, has given a rhythm to our lives in which we are repeatedly connected to the most important truths about our faith. And our lives have been shaped and changed because of it.

The fact is that the seasons of the Christian year are not just religious observances that connect us to the past. They speak to the depths of who we are now. They serve as a mirror not only to our religion but also to our souls.

Holy Week in particular speaks of what it means to die to our egos—to step out in faith to be the people we are called to be, trusting that God will see us through. Holy Week opens us once again to the reality of darkness in our world and in our lives, and invites us to know that the transforming and resurrecting presence of God is there.

Holy Week is not just a remembering of what once happened and is now passed. It is a re-membering of ourselves and our community of faith in the present reality of God’s self- giving love in Jesus alive in us, and seeking to be alive through us.

Pray that Holy Week may indeed be holy for us.

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Lent - Confronting the Craziness, Getting Back to What Matters

. Posted in Pastor's Blog

What comes to mind when you think of Lent? 40 days? Spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting? The cross? Or even a cross shaped in ashes on your forehead? Lent has to do with all these things, and more.

For a lot of us, Lent is an opportunity to get back on track. It’s a seasonal prompting that it is time to confront the out-of-whack, craziness of our lives, and get back to what really matters.

Biblical calls to “repent” and “return to the Lord” that greet us from the get-go in Lent and are echoed through the season resonate with what many of us are sensing in the depths of our hearts: It’s time to get back to what gives us life. It’s time to reconnect to the wellsprings of joy for us. It’s time to repent from ways that make us ashamed of ourselves and hard for others to be around, and return to the One who makes of us more loving and compassionate people.

So let’s not waste a good season. It’s time for the craziness to end and life to begin again. As the apostle Paul would put it, it’s time to die to all that drags us down (i.e., sin) and come alive to God (Romans 6:11).

It won’t be easy. But we’ll be helping each other along the Lenten way. We’ll be worshiping and sharing our lives together in studies and small groups. We’ll be encouraging one another to take time alone and in families to pray and experiment with new disciplines. And we’ll be seeking to follow Jesus to people who are sick, homeless, and in need.

So, join us. It’s time for the craziness to end and life to begin! And Lent is the perfect time for this to happen.

- WW

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