Friday, March 05, 2010

World on Fire

And Where is the Church?

I subscribe to Lane Denson’s “Out of Nowhere,” a sorta daily distribution. He used to have a website where you could read them all, but I can’t find any such webpage anymore. So you’ll have to trust me.

[Photo courtesy of this site]

His essay today was a reflection on the readings for the upcoming 3rd Sunday in Lent. The Hebrew scripture is the story of Moses and the burning bush, and that is the focus of Lane’s reflection. In one powerful moment, he writes:
The church today seems often to find itself in a vocational wilderness, wondering just what is its ministry and to whom, waiting for a burning bush when the whole world is on fire.
I spend much time reading church-related items, liturgical, pastoral, and political. And Lane’s words strike home.

He reminds me of discussions that seem to be all around The Episcopal Church about our mission, attendance, status, and future. Discussions abound. But I think Lane is right: We are waiting for a burning bush while the whole world is on fire.

The world is hurting. People are suffering and dying in places like Haiti. People are suffering more spiritually than physically all over the world. I’m sure there are ways that “the world is on fire” even in my community. What am I doing to help those people?

Too many of us – as individuals, and in our church communities – seem to be looking around for a sign in a burning bush. Meanwhile, the world is on fire. And God calls us to walk into that conflagration … just like others have done before me. But I don’t know what that means for me. Increasingly, I am not content merely to write a check for ERD’s work in Haiti or to a local food pantry. But I don’t know what it would mean for me to walk into the fire. What would it mean for me to race into that fire instead of attending to the burning bush? What would it mean to you?

I don’t know the answer. I’m in a kind of discernment.

Since I can’t find Lane’s meditation on the Web, I’m posting the whole piece here.

= = =

Lent 3C Exodus 3.1-15

When the late poet and wordsmith John Ciardi was asked, “What are human beings?” he answered: “We are what we do with our attention.”

Time and space have always been mysterious and vast, but in the past when they were thought to be absolute, one could go about life and living confident that things would stay put. The quantum physicists, however, have taught us now that everything is in motion — everything. Our attention, then, may be as close as we can come to having anything like a fixed point of reference.

We’ve just now attended to the story that “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro,” as he’d done every day for years (Ex 3.1). Then suddenly, this ordinary day which began with his usual chore of protecting sheep from wolves, ended with a startling new commission to free his people from slavery, another kind of sheep from another kind of wolves.

So what happened? “He looked,” the story says, that’s what happened. Moses turned his head to pay attention, and history turned with him. Moses’s attention was something God needed to get, but Moses’s attention was his alone to give. It was only “when the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see” that “God called to him out of the bush” (Ex 3.4). The bush was burning, and that got Moses's attention, but it's the call, not the sudden blaze that puzzles us so, that in this story, matters.

God called not with an explanation for the interruption or the arson, but with a reminder not only of who was calling, but perhaps more importantly, with a reminder of who was being called and with a reminder of a past that Moses had conveniently forgot. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

Why had Moses forgot? Because he had been brought up as an Egyptian prince in the household of the Pharaoh, the very tyrant who had enslaved the Hebrews, the people of God’s covenant, the people who were Moses’s true kin. Had God begun with an explanation of all this, Moses would probably have started an argument, and it would have led to the Mother of all Seminars. Instead, “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Ex 3.4-6).

Had Hollywood casting got better informed about the role of Moses, they might have realized at this point in the story that instead of Charleston Heston, they’d have been better off with Mel Brooks.

God does not begin with an explanation, but with a call to attention, for once again, our attention is something God needs to get, but our attention is ours alone to give. Ask the Holy Spirit when she tries to forgive you next time.

Like this bend in Moses’s history, Jesus’s wilderness bend in his -- his understanding of himself and his work -- proved to be the furnace of his transformation. It protected him from becoming a victim of society and disillusioned him from any notions of a false self. In the face of the temptations, he affirmed God as the only source and substance of his identity. In John Ciardi’s words, Jesus was what he did with his attention, and he made God the sole point of reference for his universe and thus for ours and our salvation.

The church today seems often to find itself in a vocational wilderness, wondering just what is its ministry and to whom, waiting for a burning bush when the whole world is on fire. It seems to make a total commitment to the world’s values instead of its state and condition. It struggles for relevancy, it yearns after authority, and it is bewildered why the world simply doesn’t seem to notice.

Many ask, I hope with sincere piety, “What would Jesus do?” but just as many don’t seem to pay attention to what it was that Jesus — and Moses — did and how it was that they refused to seek the answer to that question in the world’s terms.


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