Yesterday as I was waiting to be wheeled back for my procedure, I was trying to keep my mind off of things by playing games on my phone. The nurse who came by to insert my IV line looked down and asked what I was playing. At the time it was spades, and we got into a long conversation about games on the phone and how much time we wasted on them.
I could not help but think about that term “wasted time” as they wheeled me back to have the procedure that would only confirm what we already knew. For me, wasted time is time that is meaningless, producing nothing, and isolated from relationships, community, and, most importantly, God. That is definitely true of the time I spend on my stupid games on my phone. But why is it so attractive to waste time?
Now, there is a distinction between wasted time and restorative time. They are similar, but very different, because in restorative time, there is a discipline and purpose. While nothing may seem to be accomplished, often much is, because the intention is to ultimately be more focused or productive or even have a moment to reconnect to our deeper purpose.
Throughout the Bible, there is a theme that we see from Genesis through Revelations, and that is an understanding that God calls us to live an intentional life. The book “Life Together” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is an example of an intentional life. I love the book, and think it is something every Christian should read at some point, although it sets an impossible standard. However, even in the high standards that it sets there is much we can learn, like asking the question why do we do what we do, and more importantly, how is it that what we are doing is glorifying to God?
For me, the redevelopment of my childhood ailments has brought back memories of having to ask what was important. When you are well and everything comes easily to you, it is easy to go with the flow, even to waste time, because, well, there is a lot of time to waste. But when things are not going well and you are staring at your own mortality, you begin to realize how important every moment is and cherish it. For me today, it is more than just making every moment matter; it is about living with the intentionality of following God, but also with the grace to find my way back when I fail.
When living this intentional life, we no longer have wasted time, because everything we do we do with God, and those times when we fail at our intentionality, we can always find the grace to make things right once again.
This week’s lectionary reading is one of the most fascinating passages in the book of Genesis, maybe even one of the most important passages for our modern world. It is the story of Isaac and Ishmael, brothers who would never get to know each other. This story is not something often preached about, because the ramifications of the story challenge many modern Christian understandings.
What happens when families destroy themselves? This is something that could've been very real for Abraham and his family. Now, today we would look at something like what happens in this passage, and many moral and other red flags may arise. But in the time of Abraham, it was common practice for a family to have an indentured servant or slave. It was also common practice for a man to have relations with a slave. This had a couple purposes, the least of which was the importance of procreating by any means possible.
Books have been written about this passage, and I could write on and on about its many different aspects. But I won't bore you with all of those details. Today I want to focus on one of the most important aspects of this passage, and that's the blessing given to Ishmael.
The blessing that Ishmael is given is interesting in that it is a complete parallel with the blessing that is given to Isaac. One of the things lost in the translation from Hebrew to English is the way that the Hebrew writers make parallels between passages. With these parallels, they suggest sameness or difference, so you know how exactly how to read the given message. The fact that the Hebrew writers make a complete parallel suggests that the blessing which Ishmael is given is exactly the same as that given to Isaac.
The ramifications of this are powerful. It suggests that there is more than one way to God, and that there are multiple chosen peoples. In today’s context, not only do Muslims consider themselves to be descendants of Ishmael, fully blessed by God, but that blessing is a reminder that they worship the exact same God that we worship.
Think how big a difference that makes in terms of how we interact with people of the Islamic religion. If we see each other as enemies, then we will always belittle and berate each other, but if we see each other as brothers and sisters in faith, then we approach it very differently. Instead of moving to the extremes and holding our ground for being right, we are called to listen, talk and build relationships. Not to convince each other that our way is the way, but to learn each faith’s unique witness to God, so that we can better understand God and grow in our faith in new ways.
If there's one thing we have learned in the Bible, it's that God is always surprising us. Every time that we think we have the answer, we find something new, something challenging. This passage is challenging because it addresses a fundamental issue for many Christians who cite the passage in the New Testament where Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
The problem again is that the Greek, in which the New Testament was written, does not always translate clearly into English. In fact, many scholars say a more appropriate translation of Jesus’ statement is to say, “I am your way, your truth, and your life.” Is this the writer remembering the story of Ishmael? Some scholars make that suggestion. Regardless, it presents an important principle that the reformers remind us about: God is bigger than any of us can ever imagine, and so we are to humble ourselves in our faith, and accept that there are multiple ways to God that are blessed by God. Thus, we are called to be in relationship with each other, and not to judge.
As we take time this summer to plan for next year, I am going to write some articles on evangelism. Today’s is on judgment and welcome.
I was listening to a billionaire give a talk about homelessness a few years back. It was interesting, because unlike so many wealthy people, he did not tout his hard work, family connections, skills, or intellect. He started his speech by saying that the real difference between the rich and poor was that some people are lucky in life, and others are not. He said that the problem with poverty in our country is that we judge people as lesser because they have less stuff, and thus, we treat them that way! It was an interesting perspective, and probably right to the point.
For me, I think that one of the greatest problems in our society is the issue of judgment. Judgment, by definition, is concluding something, typically based on the information that is presented. This is part of our basic survival skills as human beings. Thus, it is ingrained in our psyche and part of who we are as people. But the problem, at the end of the day, is that the judgment that we make about others is always coming from our own understanding and not theirs. Because of this, we often jump to conclusions about people or situations that aren't true, because what we really know about someone or something is limited. It is funny. People always talk about the importance of first impressions, and they are important, but in my life, I cannot tell you the number of times where my first impression changed as I really got to know individuals or understand situations.
This means that as people of faith, we must start from a place that is counter to own instincts, and keep judgment in check. This is hard, because we are so trained to judge people by taking into account what they look like, what they sound like, and how they act. But when we judge people, a huge barrier comes up between you and the other person, because before you even talk to them, you have created your own expectations about who they are.
When we accept somebody first, we start from a place that recognizes that they are individuals in need of acceptance, and that is it! At that level, we make one very important connection, because we, too, are individuals in need of acceptance. Once we've accepted each other, we can get to know each other on a much deeper level without the barriers of judgment getting in the way. This means that instead of seeing somebody who is different, or somebody who we think might be exactly like us, we can really get to know them and hear them for who they are and how they see themselves, and then we can have a real relationship with them.
Once we have a relationship with them, then we can grow together as people of faith. This is essential for a growing healthy congregation. Dare I say, it’s even more important than the pastor! Because it is through sharing faith with one another where we begin to see the full scope of who God is in this world. This also means that as we come to understand the vastness of God, we are can be a more vital witness to God in the community!
Think about how much of a difference this makes in our work to evangelize to our community. Of those who do not come to church or have been turned off by church, when you listen to their stories, it is often because the first thing they have encountered is judgment. Being greeted by somebody thinking that they know all about you before getting to know you is not welcoming. Rather, it is extremely unwelcoming, because it communicates that you are not important as an individual, but are only important in the way they see you. This is blatant when the judgment expressed is derogatory, but it also happens when we try to be accepting and inadvertently assume a different reality for a person than what they know. So, in conclusion, when we do evangelism in this community, we must start with seeing everybody as a child of God, and accept them just for that.
What is the Trinity? This was the first question that my theology teacher in seminary asked. As she went around the room, she patiently listened to all the definitions. We should have known something was up, based on the smirk on her face, but as we got to the last person, she thanked us for sharing and began to explain why we were all wrong!
Of course, she had done this before, and as she later told us, it was predictable, because the teaching of the Trinity is so hard! As Ted Peters points out in his book GOD-the World’s Future, the issue has to do with us trying to fit God into a logical construct. As Peters writes, “The mystery of the Trinity is how God can be both one and three at the same time.” This puts emphasis on the number, not the function, and as Peters rightly highlights, focuses the debate and direction on the arithmetic. God is not a mathematical formula. This explanation, while giving a quick answer for some, misses a real understanding and mystery of the Trinity. The mystery is not how can three be one, but rather how can God be ever-present in our world.
Calvin describes the basic understanding of the Trinity thusly: “When we profess to believe in one God, by the name God is understood the one simple essence, comprehending three persons or hypostases; and, accordingly, whenever the name of God is used indefinitely, the Son and Spirit, not less than the Father, is meant. But when the Son is joined with the Father, relation comes into view, and so we distinguish between the Persons.”
In other words, when we speak of God, we are speaking of the essence, the unchanging core that all three persons exhibit. No person of the Trinity is less than the other, and whether we speak of the Spirit, the Son, or God the Father, we are speaking of the same God. But we also understand that each has a distinct hypostasis or individual person; for instance, Jesus being human and the Spirit being breath.
This is the hard part, because it is hard for us to have a parallel understanding of God. As our human logical desires go, we want it to be one simple answer, an answer that conforms to our own self-identity. Just think, it would be virtually impossible for us to separate our essence from our person. But here again, this is where the “mystery” of the Trinity comes in, because once again we are called upon to accept that God is not us, and to see the ever-presence of God in this world.
What was interesting in that class, there was one individual who was from an non-Presbyterian tradition who answered, “The Trinity does not really matter because it is not biblical.” While many theologians, Calvin included, do not find it an “essential” doctrine of faith, it is biblically laid out, both implicitly through Paul’s letters, and explicitly through the “Great Commission” in Matthew 28:19: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
So as we celebrate Trinity Sunday this week, we lift up the fullness of God, celebrating the mystery of the Trinity, and growing in the struggles we all have to understand a God that is not always fully comprehensible.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen