This morning I sat down with a church member who is experiencing a call–
to Bible Study.
I don't know about you other pastors out there, but when I hear someone experiencing a call to Bible Study, I want to pay attention to it. We discussed what sort of program we might offer and when it could be and what might be the appropriate parameters and whether we had time for it at all, and then she showed me what she had been reading this morning.
Now I will admit to being an NRSV snob. Occasionally I'll look to see how Eugene Peterson approached a text in "The Message," and there are a few things I still love in the King James Version, but really, I'm an NRSV reader on most occasions. So when I saw her Bible and the letters on the front, NIV, I drew back ever-so-slightly.
But something wonderful happened.
She gave me fervor.
For the verse I would have read this way in the NRSV–Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord.–came out this way in the NIV:
Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.
And the seasons they go round and round And the painted ponies go up and down Were captive on the carousel of time We cant return, we can only look behind From where we came And go round and round and round In the circle game ~Joni Mitchell, "The Circle Game"
I love a Merry-Go-Round.
I've been on some very pretty ones. This morning I went searching for this picture of a toddler #1 Son riding an oversized jackrabbit on the Pullen Park Carousel, looking utterly delighted, sometime in October, 1988. The day stands out for the lion and the giraffe and, yes, The Bunny.
I remember my painted pony going up and down, on the merry-go-round at Virginia Beach, my father standing next to me, my safety assured no matter how fast we seemed to be going.
All our lives have these ups and downs, these spiral natures, these views to the right or left that look so familiar but that change as we change. We chase around and around the circle, because it is our nature, and we are like the rabbit with a simple goal in mind, whether it's survival or a carrot or a soft place to lie in the grass.
And we go around and around, in our families and in our churches or our jobs, and in our heads. I go around the same territory over and over, though the carousel may be moved, as the one in the picture was, thought it may grow shabbier and will certainly grow older, though it may need repairs along the way, I go around and around.
Your circle may vary.
Mine consists of a quest to be valuable, to prove that I exist for a reason, to do as much as I can to make myself believe it. Sometimes I forget that the carousel slows down and takes a rest, too.
I'm not preaching on Sunday, but I looked at the portion of Romans on the calendar for this week, and it reminded me of the circle game. We put our own gloss on the faith and works debate. We go up and down and around and around. If we have a taste for atonement theology, we like these words, and if we don't, well, we stick with the gospel this week.
As hard a time as I have sorting myself out, I know what I think about faith and works. I believe they both matter. I believe one informs the other. I believe certain practices do not guarantee anything, but that a lively faith calls us, or me anyway, to particular practices.
Which may vary.
And the very people who will tell you that "works righteousness" is somehow inadequate, that you run the risk of claiming that simply living a "good life" is enough when they are sure it is not, likely have their own set of practices and habits that they hold as dear as the first century believers held theirs when they began to bring strangers into their fold.
We do things just because we've done them that way before, because we've "always" done them that way.
As an Interim Minister, it's my job to ask "why?" And "Since when?" And to help people figure out whether they even know the answers to those questions, to ponder where God is in certain practices now, or what theology informed them in the first place.
And it feels a bit like a merry-go-round, because the answers can be confusing. We don't always know them, or we don't agree on what they are, or when this started or when that changed. Some questions cannot be answered at all, but that doesn't stop us from arguing about them, does it?
It's hard to get off the carousel. But the first step? Is to want to do it.
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law– indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:6-8)
My mind has been on my flesh ever since I made up my mind to go see the doctor last summer and have a long overdue "annual" physical. I had been focused on the inner life, or so I thought, certainly focused on my children and my church, not at all focused on this particular body of Christ's. I want to think I understand what Paul was getting at, that his reference to flesh meant something particular in his life or with regard to the community in Rome. I know he wrote thinking that time would soon end with the return of Christ.
I'm thinking about my body, yes, and the body that is the Earth, and the similarity between my bad use of my personal resources and humanity's bad use of the home God made for all of us. Paul's reasoning, or perhaps a certain brand of interpretation of Paul's reasoning, separates us from being earthed, enfleshed, incarnate, asks us to be what we are not and cannot be.
Yes, I have some problems with Paul, or with our tradition's understanding of him.
What was troubling him? Drinking, masturbation, fornication? Gluttony?
I've been a glutton, a careless eater of all things, hostile to my own flesh and to the world, feeding an angry furnace with the intention of quieting it instead.
Yes, thinking only of the carnal, the material, can get in the way of a relationship with God. But so can a lot of other things. None of them, however, can separate us from the love of God, really. Paul said so. And I believe it.
So, I work with my flesh, trying to wake up as much as possible to the reality of who I am and who God calls me to be. The other passages this week ask us to live, to breathe, to become unbound. They do not ask us to cut off our flesh but to animate it.
Let us, then, be not hostile to the human bodies we inhabit. Let us love them. Let us love them. God does. I believe that, too.