Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Freedom From and Freedom For

When prisoners are set free, they often are gleeful and grateful, but directionless. They experience a freedom from prison, from the cage, from the bars behind which they were punished. This is what prisoners desire and for which they live, but once that freedom from the prison is a reality, then what? Sadly, many return to previous patterns of behavior. This is one of the reasons there is a high level of recidivism. The same happens for those who suffer from addictions and begin recovery, there is a relief followed by the temptations that too frequently lead to relapse. There is a perception focused on living without the addictive substance, not a focus on living in the liberty that comes without the addiction. Likewise, at the end of WW2 in Europe, those liberated from the prison camps of the Nazis wandered the roads and towns not knowing what to do, where to go. They were free from, but not free for...
“Freedom for” is purpose and identity and direction. “Freedom for” is meaning in a world bereft of meaning, in a world made up of insignificant meanings, insignificant purposes, insignificant aims and goals.
“Freedom from” is the cross. We are free from the sin and its punishment.  We are free from darkness and death and despair and hopelessness. We are free from separation from God.
“Freedom for” is the resurrection.  We are free for joy and gratitude and purpose. We are free for love and loving. We are free for living in God’s presence. Therefore we are free for living sacrificially for others.
Freedom from must always be married to freedom for, otherwise it is temporary and fleeting. And freedom for must be married to freedom from, otherwise it is planted in shallow soil and becomes frustrated by the apparent failures to liberate others, neglecting that there are still many crosses in the world.

© 2018 Stephen Carl

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Psalm 119 is unique and well-known for a variety of reasons and a great deal has been written on it. Verse 105 has become a contemporary song that is sung by many: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Additionally, Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible (good to know for trivia questions). It is 176 verses long and contains 22 stanzas with eight verses each. Not only that, it is an acrostic psalm. As an acrostic Psalm each of the 22 stanzas is written so that each of the eight verses contained in a particular stanza begins with the assigned letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Some acrostic poems spell out a word when the first letter of each section is taken in order. The acrostic of Psalm 119 isn’t a word, but is simply the Hebrew alphabet in order. That’s an accomplishment on its own—have you ever tried to write something that develops by using the alphabet? Add to that the challenge of several sentences in each section beginning with the same letter. With some letters in English that would be easy—others less so (Q? Z? Y?). The added wonder of Psalm 119 is that the content is remarkably thematic. It would be one thing to write something that emphasizes a particular subject, but quite another to write it so that it is also acrostic.
The amazing thing about Psalm 119 is that the acrostic nature of it is supportive of the theme. In other words, the acrostic tool isn’t only a gimmick or novelty, but it undergirds the message conveyed in the Psalm. The theme of Psalm 119 is God’s word and the marvelous gift it is to those who know it. In Psalm 119, God’s word is described as law, word, statute, ordinance, precept, decree, and promise. The idea is that God’s word leads us, guides us, provides a path for us to follow, gives us the necessary resources to navigate life in a way that blesses. The contrast of life without God’s word, God’s law, God’s decrees, is like trying to cook a delicious casserole without a recipe, or for an orchestra to play a symphony while all the instruments play in different keys. In other words, in Psalm 119 there’s a connection between the theme, this idea, and the use of acrostic.
By way of explanation, how do children learn to read? First by learning the alphabet. The alphabet is the basic foundation of learning how to read and reading is essential to learning. Psalm 119 is saying that learning and knowing and understanding God’s word is the ABC’s of the good life, the life God created us for and intends for us to enjoy.
Additionally, that it is acrostic makes it easier to remember, easier to memorize and then eventually to know it by heart.
That’s essentially the best way to know God’s word—by heart. And it is ultimately the goal too. Think of the things you know by heart, they’re things that naturally arise from within us. Consider talking. How many of us think about each word before we say it? Yes, it might be wise to do so—especially in certain situations where the use of precise words is valuable and can potentially prevent terrible misunderstandings. What I’m pointing to, however, is that in most cases we are able to construct sentences and speak them without cognitively reflecting on each word and the construction of our sentences.  When someone learns a foreign language it requires a great deal of memorization. At first, the new language is learned through translation. Eventually, with time and use, the new language begins to sink deeply into one’s thinking and it requires less translation and less thought to use.
Apply that experience to knowing God’s word so well that it rises from within one’s heart without a conscious effort.  Psalm 119 is a step on the grand staircase to that space of grace to which the Psalmist points as the destination of gratitude and glory. 

© 2018 Stephen Carl

Friday, February 24, 2017

Fred Rogers (aka Mr. Rogers), a man who inspired millions of children through his PBS television program "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood", once said, “The space between my mouth and a child’s ear is holy ground.” That certainly raises the bar on how adults speak with children!
Holy Ground—those are also the words of God to Moses when he stood before the bush that burned, but was not consumed by fire: remove your sandals, for the ground upon which you stand is holy. 
Holy Ground. 
Sacred Space. 
A Place Set Apart. 
What makes a place holy?  Or a particular time sacred?  For me, the answer to these questions is: God’s grace.  But God does so through the heart we bring and the words we choose to hear and share. God's grace redeems me and causes my heart and head to shift into a posture of gratitude and humility, and my eyes see that everything shines with God's touch. 
In our media-saturated, information-soaked, twittered world, words are flung around casually, carelessly, hurtfully, insensitively.  Words are powerful and yet we sometimes overuse them or misuse them so much that they lose their power.  Words are sometimes like weapons used to cut another down and diminish the sacredness God instills, but they can also be used to reveal holy space, to convey love and blessing, to share Good News. 

A cliché we’ve all heard and perhaps used is “walk the talk”.  In other words match your actions with your words.  Perhaps it’s an impossibility—especially for those who are claimed by grace but are still weighed down by sin.  Yet it is something to which we should aspire.  No matter how difficult it may be we are to bridle our behaviors (and all those feelings that motivate us to act in critical, harsh, anti-redemptive ways) in order to rise to the life of the Word that was and is and is yet to be, the Word that transforms even hypocrites into the real estate of holy ground. 

I encourage you to let the space between your mouth and everyone else around you be holy ground.  We are stewards of our words.  We can use them carefully or carelessly.  And using words as weapons because others do so, is no excuse for those who confess to be reconciled by the One Who is The Word. 

© Stephen Carl

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Face to face is a loaded expression. It could be followed by details of a confrontation, or of deep intimacy, or a great deal in between those two. I was considering how many people I've been privileged to be face to face with in a way that never would happen if not for being a pastor. I have been face to face in counseling sessions, in worship, in weddings, in baptisms, in moments of heartache and grief, in moments of truth, in moments of confrontation, and moments of earnest hope.  I cannot begin to calculate the number of people I have been face to face with in ritual events, such as healing services or Ash Wednesday services or communion by intinction or in prayer at the side of their hospital bed. Though I have fallen far short, I have always tried to say the person's name and make eye contact. In a flash, in a micro-second, in a timeless moment, I have often felt a deep and mysterious connection--not just between myself and the other person, but also of another who brings us together. It's as if, without expertise or planning, we are taken to a place beyond our capacity to discover, and in that place the heart is laid bare. None of the garbage of our lives, for which we are ashamed and remain guarded, is there. It's not that it is undisclosed, it's more as if it simply doesn't exist.
It is a holy moment that occurs in spite of us. It is in such moments that I have looked into the eyes of people whom I know do not like me, who have been critical of me, who have hurt me, and I am forgiven of all the feelings I have had because of my own fears and insecurities and spiritual immaturity. It's a humbling experience to not feel the razor sharp indignation toward the other, but to experience the power of forgiveness in the most indescribable and incomprehensible way.
It is in such moments that I realize that being a pastor isn't mostly about having answers or being theologically astute or even being a leader. Instead it is about being a child who is loved and given the privilege of letting other children know they are loved too, but not in any way that we can earn or even understand. Rather, it is a love that frees us to explore the meaning of love, even in our messy, broken-down ways.

© 2016 Stephen Carl

Thursday, February 16, 2017

To speak ABOUT God is to aim a bottle rocket at the sun. It never comes close to leaving the earth's atmosphere, let alone the earth's gravity. Our words about God are weighted with the mass of misunderstanding and ego-centrism.  Besides, speaking about God is academic.  It addresses more of human conceptions of God, human constructions of God, than it does revelations of God.
Speaking about God is not speaking OF, let alone speaking TO, WITH or FOR God. As for speaking for God, one must be cautious since misspeaking for God is blasphemy; lying and portraying the lies as coming from God's lips.  Not a wise thing to put words or the misinterpretation of words into God's mouth.
To speak OF God requires first speaking WITH God.  To speak of God should flow from the rich river of fellowship one has with God, fully aware that God is GOD and we are creatures of God.  We are created in the image of God and we are loved, but let us not construe this into a chummy notion of a friendship, as if we are on equal terms.
The rich fellowship of being in relationship with God is beyond articulation since words will never explain or capture the truth of being in this relationship.  To even say "relationship with God" is to use a pale shadow to illustrate the bright sun.  This relationship and the One with Whom we have fellowship defines us.  To speak of God is to speak of meaning and the meaning-maker, to express joy and fulfillment and one's beginning and completion.

To believe and speak about God's disapproval is to step upon the sacred ground of judgment, ground upon which Jesus walked to the cross.  To point at anyone and say "sinner" is to elevate oneself above Christ the victor who came not to condemn the world, but to forgive.  Casting blame or judgment is to stand exposed to the brilliance of God's love and say that someone is beneath God's favor when God loves the world.  Who has such privilege and righteousness?
I do not and I know of no mere mortal who does.  For me, my debt to God exceeds any righteous work I can muster.  And it is my debt forgiven that fills me with humility and compassion.  Any judgmentalism that still stirs in my heart is enemy ground not yet surrendered though the war is over and the great defeat has occurred.

© 2017 Stephen Carl

Saturday, February 4, 2017

"The Church of Never Do That"

The members of "The Church of Never Do That"
Never speak in worship or allow idle chit chat
We've posted "The seven last words of church" on our door:
"We've never done it that way before"

The children who wiggle are thumped on the head
"You were told to sit still" the parents all said
Since church is an exercise of will o'er desire
Motivated by images of hell's burning fire.

The purpose of worship was long ago lost
On bottom line decisions of financial cost
So the people who come all dutifully obey
The tradition of praying the same prayer each time they pray

The praying is practiced with ne'er a mistake
A stutter would be tragic for heaven's sake!
And the order of worship has never changed
Since John Calvin approved how it's arranged

The ushers tuxedoed are stationed and trained
To keep out the coffee so the carpet's unstained
The hymns were written in catacombs long ago
And sung sans enthusiasm lest it become a big show

New music or clapping is never allowed
There's plenty of room since there's never a crowd
But the pews are assigned, so stuck in a rut
Each cushion is shaped like it's member's butt

The argument seems airtight for anyone who can see:
"If it was good enough for grandpa, it's good enough for me."
When the Bible is read with the Thees and the Thous
All feign engagement with deep furrowed brows

And the preaching is done with an emphasis on sins
All remain silent with no shouts or "Amens"
New people they want to sit in the pews
To hear their dull version of the Good News

But strangers are a terror, utterly feared
Especially the one with long hair and a beard
But just such a one came every week
To find the lost hearts, his kingdom they seek

Lost hearts aplenty he found in the nave
Hibernating spiritually like bears in a cave
So Sunday after Sunday he'd head down the street
To see who he'd find and who he would meet

Though meet them is really not what he would do
For their name, heart and hurts he already knew
Some members of "The Church of Never Do That"
Wanted what he offered but their courage was flat

Too worried to look religious, too worried to look weird
So they kept their hearts shut to the guy with the beard.
A meeting was called and a motion was made
Where a political ploy was skillfully played

To change church policy to eliminate...change
Since stability is preferred to the new and the strange
The vote was unanimous, well...minus one
That long-hair bearded guy some call God's Son

Some shouted "Democracy rules! There's nothing more to do"
Isn't that Gospel? Somewhere in Matthew?
You may be a member of "The Church of Never Do That"
If you'd defend your preferences in ecclesial combat

And use words like "my church" as if were true
That you atoned and ransomed it with your blood and sinew
The long hair bearded man still comes to that church
Expecting some may begin (heaven forbid!) a spiritual search

Beyond the traditions, the hymns, and their by-law
Where the deepest of hungers and the questions still gnaw
Perhaps they will look through the stained glass scene
Of Jesus declaring the leper was now clean

Where outside the window the world buzzes by
Too busy to slow down, too frightened to cry
The empty expressions and the desperate need
From the diet of death on which they all feed

If "The Church of Never Do That" opened wide
And the people in the pews ever ventured outside
They would find something amazing, too powerful to contain
The message so simple, so pure and so plain

The life and the blessing, the Good News and grace
The people inside forgot in their unchanging place
God never, no never said "Thou shalt not Change"
Nor never has God ever left us estranged

Except when we grip tightly our fear and our pride
Strangling and suffocating, our trust slowly died
Our concrete and mortar so carefully maintained
Our coffers and endowments are slowly being drained

To paint and repair, replace and update
We fret and we fight as we carry the freight
Of deception in believing that we're faithful and true
As we honor our ancestors from 1802.

The buildings we build are not the Church of the One
The church is the people who work till the work is all done
Telling each person regardless of race,
No matter their language or color of face

Showing them kindness and lifting them up
Sharing the bread and offering the cup
So change will happen no matter the rules
For doing the same thing forever is only for fools

Come be part of "The Church of Never the Same"
For it’s filled with the people given a new name
They're grateful and giddy and filled with good news
Going beyond the doors, stained glass and the pews.

They find its a mystery as they let go
When they love their neighbor they're filled with a glow
When the give up their treasures they are blessed and renewed
Something that never happens when we fight and we feud.

And the long-hair bearded man looks on with a smile
As cheeks are turned twice and we go the extra mile
For no one is judged, since that's losing the game
Only loved by the Church of Never the Same

© 2017 Stephen Carl

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

I am intrigued by and compelled to write about, try to illustrate or describe, something untouchable and undisclosed, something between or beneath that which is evident. This space or place or truth is just out of reach, but is still possible to grasp, not by our own power or effort, but as a whimsical gift. We brush against it at times and feel it nudge us, whisper to us in a breeze or the drama of colors and movement in a moment never to be repeated. Though it is very close to us, rarely do we see it or know it is there.
A challenge is that language is the way in which we experience life and consciousness. Without language, or the manner in which we explain and express our experience, we are unmoored and unable to know what we are experiencing, even who we are.
Language also, however, limits what we experience by its structure and word-boxes. Language is like a road that is at times well defined and solid, with curbs and guardrail and lines, wide with many lanes; at times it narrows and meanders through neighborhoods of homes that are filled with laughter and light and other neighborhoods with empty houses and broken windows, dark with danger and despair; then at times it is like a gravel or dirt road winding through a forest or off into the countryside or nearly disappearing in a dry and open landscape, perhaps becoming only a single trail threading its way into a wilderness until it fades away altogether and leaves the sojourner standing among a grove of tall trees, light shining through the branches, gentle breeze stirring the leaves, and a whisper of a voice that is strangely familiar as it echoes in the heart; or it leads us over sandy dunes where we hear breaking waves until we step upon the shore and look out over an ocean that stretches beyond the horizon. There we can go no further unless we strap together a few timbered words with poetic twine and let the currents carry us where we cannot know, into mists of imagination past islands of brief substance and then further, further, further to where no words, no boat, no vessel will carry us and we sink into the depths of the wordless from which words arise and into which words disappear and we breathe beneath the water where words cannot be spoken for they mean nothing and yet we now are known as we sought to know.

© 2016 Stephen Carl