Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | February 12, 2014

Bill Nye, Ken Ham and the Apostle Paul: how we evaluate truth and modernism

Last week the big religion news, at least as far as the secular press is concerned, was the debate between Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” and Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum. Part theory and part theater, the debate was between a man who seems not to have enough appreciation for modern science in its varied forms, and one who seems not to have enough appreciation for modern Christianity in its varied forms.

Whether or not one believes in evolution, any cursory study shows that both science and theology themselves are constantly evolving.

I’m no scientist, but I have kept up a bit with science news over the last few decades, especially as it relates to origins of the universe. Big Bang, string theory, colliders—all look for categories and pathways to understand cosmology. Will scientists 100 years from now still cling to the exact same theories their predecessors now hold? Maybe, but I doubt it.

It’s the same with religion, a field in which I have a higher comfort level of understanding. Since we’re discussing Christianity’s view of ancient themes, we have to come to terms with the fact that those thoughts don’t often translate exactly into modern times. Galileo’s contemporaries in the church had to decide whether or not they could accept his findings that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe. Many decided they couldn’t. Today, one would find few people, even those with the most conservative views of biblical interpretation, who don’t believe this “modern” fact from the 17th century, despite the reality that a so-called literal reading of Genesis clearly says that the earth was created before the sun, moon and stars. You have to do a lot of creative theological and scientific choreography to make those two concepts (a “literal” reading of the Genesis poem and the astronomical evidence) dance together.

A clearer and more responsible biblical theology is to admit a few things up front.

• The books of the Bible were written in a particular time, for the people of that time. Ultra conservatives complain that scientists focus too much on modern thought, when they ought to be focused on ancient history and tradition. But it seems to me the worst kind of modernism insists that the ancients had us in mind when they spoke and wrote down their traditions. No, they were writing for their own communities, and perhaps for a generation or two down the line. They wouldn’t have cared a whit about writing something that today’s scientists could hang their hats on.

• Even if they had been interested in science, they were writing theology. Not the how of the origins of everything, but the how come. The beauty and depth of the writings come alive only when one reads the texts as they were intended: expressions of faith.

• Literalism isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. We should redefine biblical literalism to mean “reading each section of the Bible according to its particular genre of literature.” Since the opening chapters of Genesis were written in poetic form in their original Hebrew, we do far better to read them as such, rather than as God’s DIY manual for how to make a universe. Even in the most clunky English translation, the poetic movement finds its way through if we let it.

The Apostle Paul is not considered (by anyone) to be a bastion of 21st century thinking. Nevertheless, he was modern enough for his time. I thought of him last week and what he might say to the “followers of Nye” or the “disciples of Ham.” I think he would have told them to calm down, to listen with both grace and critique, and to remember that neither has all the answers.
For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each.

I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Let’s leave behind a false dichotomy between science and religion. It’s a creation itself. Moving into the future, we can allow science and religion to join hands and shed their perceived differences. A faith informed by science is a more rational endeavor, and a science informed by faith is a more moral enterprise.

Galileo himself said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” [Brainy Quotes]

And as the writer of Genesis imagined it, “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
© 2014, Melissa Bane Sevier © 2014, Melissa Bane Sevier

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 31, 2013

Enfleshed

The Word was made flesh, and lived among us, full of grace and truth.  [from John 1]

 

          When I was a little girl, and had learned to read, I became even more fascinated by the gifts under the Christmas tree—well, at least those with my name on the tag.  I would move the package under a lamp and try to press the paper flat against the box to see if I could read any words: “Barbie,” “horse,” “Monopoly.”  Or maybe something I hadn’t even asked for. 

          But even if I could read the words, it just increased my desire to get under the paper, inside the box.  Because, though the words themselves were delicious, they were really just teasers to whatever was inside.  They made me want to hold and touch and play with the actual thing the words described.  The word wasn’t enough.

          The Word was made flesh. 

          In John’s gospel, the Word was with God from the beginning, but it wasn’t enough.  It was the actual thing, the real person, who was needed.  The miracle of a human child, who was unable even to use words himself until he would learn to speak as most any child does, was the realness, the physicality, the essence of the thing.  That the eternal Word could be present in a human was beyond imagination.  Yet, there it was.

          What does it mean for us, who cannot touch the infant, smell his baby breath, see his fingers and toes, hear his cries?

          We look for the eternal Word made flesh among us, but we don’t have to look far.

          Yes, there are people who do really bad things in this world.  But there are also moments when we can point to some person or act and think:  There.  There it is.  That’s how we see eternity right here.

          Maybe it’s some random act of kindness.  Or the face of your most precious loved one.  Some deep goodness you see in a person you know or a stranger.

          We have each other.  The Word is made flesh anew each day, right here among us.

          And we glimpse grace and truth.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

 

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 20, 2013

The spirituality of Advent IV: standing in the background

Poor Joseph.  He doesn’t have much of a role in our Christmas pageants.  Sure, he’s Mary’s consort, but the shepherds and Magi and angels enjoy more of the limelight.  Joseph stands in the dimly lit background, trying to find a hotel room and ending up with the animals.  A comic failure that somehow works out okay in the end.

Joseph may be my favorite character in the Christmas drama, mostly because of his off-stage presumed struggles.  And, by “presumed,” I mean presumed by me.

He’s the non-parent, the step-parent, the shuttled-off-to-the-side surrogate daddy of the promised one.

If his role is minimal in legend, maybe it should be greater.  In such a patriarchal culture, Jesus and Mary needed a Joseph to keep the family safe and together.

What if Joseph had not assumed the role of father?  Would Jesus have perished in poverty, dependent upon a single mother with little to no earning power?  Would mother and son have survived a trip to Egypt to escape a despot?

This week, I’m remembering all those people who stand in the background but have huge roles in our lives.  From parents and relatives to teachers and friends.  From those who give material support to those who offer supporting words.  From those who work to end poverty, to the poor who struggle to lift up themselves and others in similar situations.

In the background?  Sure.  But smiling, hopeful, encouraging, loving.

The background is where people stand who have nothing to prove, but everything to give.

 

© Melissa Bane Sevier

© Melissa Bane Sevier

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 13, 2013

The spirituality of Advent III: God lifts us up

And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’
  [from Luke 1]

          Incarnation (God in human flesh) is seen in the smiles and good nature of this time of year, tasted in the special holiday foods many of us share, smelled in the hearth fires that symbolize warmth and love, felt in the handshakes and hugs of greeting, heard in the laughter of children.

Yes, we celebrate Christmas as a joyful holiday with gifts and with stories of a beautiful, healthy baby born in a sterile manger in the idyllic town of Bethlehem.  Nice, clean-smelling shepherds with nothing icky on the bottoms of their sandals came calling.  Jesus got an exciting trip into Egypt as a birthday gift.  This is the story we celebrate with our children, and that is as it should be.  We clean it up.

But we must remember, we grownups, that the story as retold and written had a very dark underside.  It is the whole story, not just the sanitized version, that makes the Christmas narrative an incredible witness to God’s love.

In Jesus, the Gospel writers tell us, God came to a world where there are lepers and the demon-possessed, blind and lame, a world of the homeless and underhoused, the hungry, the lonely, the sick and the dying.

This strange song Mary sings gives thanks for the God who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly; who fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty.  That’s the story Luke wants to tell:  God lifts up those who need it, and brings down those who are suppressing God’s kingdom of peace and justice.

We often romanticize the Christmas story of a baby born in a stable, and that’s okay.  But sometimes we need to put the reality back into it.  To remember that no parents ever wanted their infant to be laid in a feeding trough for animals.  No parents ever had dreams for their children of fleeing with them to another country in order to keep them from harm.

The story of incarnation, of God With Us, is glorious and tragic at once.

The glory is this:

That God With Us is connected in a physical, visceral, experiential, personal way to human difficulty, tragedy, and loss.

God comes to the dinner table where you are surrounded by family and friends.

God comes to you in the night when you can’t sleep for worry and stress and anxiety.

God comes to the family that has given their kids too much, and to the family that can’t afford a decent holiday meal, to the family in a big warm house, to the family in the street, to the family in scary places afraid to leave the house, to the family in Newtown who doesn’t know how they will get through the holidays this year.

God comes to those who are single, or who have no family, and to those who would rather not claim the family they have.

God comes.  To us.

Yes, this third week of Advent, let us remember that God lifts up the lowly.  And let us, in God’s name, stretch out a hand to lift up someone who needs it.

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | December 6, 2013

The spirituality of Advent, II

The wolf shall live with the lamb,

   the leopard shall lie down with the kid,

the calf and the lion and the fatling together,

   and a little child shall lead them.

 The cow and the bear shall graze,

   their young shall lie down together;

   and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,

   and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

 They will not hurt or destroy

   on all my holy mountain;

for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord

   as the waters cover the sea.

What is hope?

We talk about hope as though it is an easy thing to come by, but it’s usually not that simple, is it?

How can it be that a lamb will lie down safely with a wolf, the leopard with the baby goat, the calf with the lion?  What happens when the lamb and the kid and the calf get a dinner invitation from the wolf and the leopard and the lion?  Don’t you think they might worry about ulterior motives?

“Um, excuse me, Sir Lion.  I mean, I don’t want to seem rude or ungrateful for being invited to dine.  However, may I ask why you are smiling so broadly, and exactly who—I mean, what—is on tonight’s menu?”

That’s exactly what’s happening in so many places of the world right now.  Each side is afraid to trust the other when they are invited to the peace table.  They are afraid they are going to be eaten alive.

This can even be true in communities, families, schools.

All sides must have permission to hope.  The weak need to be able to hope they will not be consumed by the powerful.  The strong—and perhaps this is the more difficult type of hope—the strong need to be able to hope they do not need to consume another in order to prosper.

Isaiah told his people that they needed to give themselves permission to dream of peace, permission to hope for a better time.

What do you need to have permission to hope for this Christmas?

Hope that a torn up family could be reconciled?  That you could survive Christmas with an empty place at the table?  That the problem which plagues you so terribly right now could be a memory by this time next year?  That you might enter a new year with more joy?

Listen to Isaiah.  As Advent continues, the message intensifies.  Give yourself permission to listen, to hope, to lean toward a different and better tomorrow.

© 2013, Melissa Bane Sevier

© 2013, Melissa Bane Sevier

© 2013, Melissa Bane Sevier, all rights reserved

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | November 27, 2013

The spirituality of Advent

God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.  [from Isaiah 2]

 

Our congregation is just finishing up a bicentennial year.  One of the things we’ve done is to celebrate and remember different eras of the last 200 years.  Some people commented that so much of U.S. history is marked by significant wars—something they already knew but just don’t think about very often.

When Isaiah says that nations will beat their swords into plowshares, what’s your reaction?  A skeptical “yeah, right” seems most reasonable.  We have, like Isaiah, lived to see horror on battlefields and in cities, and stubborn anger in every nation and group.  Is cynicism the only legitimate reaction to calls for peace?

Maybe.

But as we enter Advent, it’s appropriate to turn our hearts to the spirit of peace.

Advent is a time of both waiting and preparation.

Waiting is what we do, when it comes to peace.  Waiting to hear the outcome of peace talks.  Waiting for Syria to behave better.  Waiting for Egypt to settle internal differences.  Waiting for our own elected officials to get along.

What about preparation, though?  How do we prepare for peace?

By walking in the way of peace ourselves.  Which isn’t easy.

Spirituality in Advent—peace in Advent—takes many forms.  It may be deciding to let go of anxiety in the face of too much to do.  Or determining to speak kindly to your family or neighbor, or starting to let go of an old hurt.  It may mean praying for someone who annoys you or refusing to repeat (or share on Facebook) a mean comment.  Peace could be looking into the face of an antagonist and seeing your own countenance reflected there.  Maybe peace for you is deciding to spend a day volunteering instead of shopping, or choosing to donate to a cause that will advance justice, instead of buying that sweater you don’t really need.

In these next weeks, as our hearts turn toward Bethlehem, may peace be our meditation, our goal, our way of being.  The swords of anger and agitation in our own hearts are slowly remolded into plowshares of kindness and mercy.  Then, our reaction to Isaiah’s words can also be remolded, from “yeah, right” into “may it be so.”

Advent 1

Advent 1

 

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | July 25, 2013

Probing the mystery of prayer

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray… And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” [from Luke 11]

 

Our questions about prayer are real and difficult.

Here we have both a parable and images about prayer—maybe Jesus’ response to some of those ancient questions.

The parable is a story of contrasts; the images are more direct and endearing.

The parable tells of an unlikable guy.  His help is needed and he initially refuses.  Finally, he reluctantly relents, granting the request of the neighbor.  He is not a blindingly beautiful model of God’s love, but that is exactly the point.  If even a grumpy neighbor who doesn’t want to help you is moved by your repeated request, how much more is the God of love ready to hear when you pray?

Jesus next turns to his hearers, asking them to imagine their responses to the pleas of their own children.  These are not kids asking for ice cream cones or bicycles; these are pleas for eggs and fish, basic food staples.  If your children were hungry, would you not move heaven and earth to feed them?  How much more is God listening when you pray?

The mystery that surrounds prayer does not go away with Jesus’ teachings on the subject; in some ways they confuse us even more.  Is he saying that we ought to bug God until we get what we want?  If that’s true, why are those things still sometimes (often?) denied us?  And if God wants to give us good things, then why are our prayers for health and wholeness not always answered?  Does that mean God is not powerful over certain things at certain times?  Or that God doesn’t care?

Jesus doesn’t give us the answers that all faithful people want to know about prayer, but he does provide us with a footing, elementary in its way, to give us a place to stand and contemplate the mystery.  The example, parable, and images all point us to a God who listens.  So, we begin there.

We begin with the mystery of a listening God.

Jesus simply points us to God and encourages us to pray, because God is there.  So we lean into the mystery of prayer.  Some who have explored the mystery find they do well in the quiet moments of being alone and contemplating God.  Some try to still all their thoughts so they will be receptive to God’s heart.  Others find the mystery best explored in the company of others.  And even when they’re not in the physical presence of others, many find strength through the knowledge that friends are praying for the same decent cause.  How many times did Jesus pray together with the disciples?  And at the end, in the garden, when his hard fought prayers go unanswered, he chides them for not being able to stay awake and pray with him.  He deeply desires their company, their community, their support, he wants them to be praying alongside him.

Every Sunday, at the time our congregation calls “Joys and Concerns,” the congregation raises up the names of those who are sick, grieving, or troubled, those who have something to celebrate, or events of our community and world.  As these situations are named by various persons, their voices sometimes crack with emotion.  Together the congregation reacts with sympathy or joy, and the mystery of communal prayer is, at least for a moment, a bit clearer.

We lean on each other, listen to each other, listen together for God.  I don’t mean to make light of the questions about prayer.  None of us can explain it, but on our good days we remember that Jesus also trusted in the mystery, and pointed us to a God who listens.

 

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2001

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2001

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

 

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | June 19, 2013

Longings

As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.   My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God?  [from Psalm 42]

What does it mean to have a thirsty soul, to experience longing?

Maybe you know it as a feeling of restlessness.

A passion.  But no place to put it.

A sense that something important is missing.  Or that something has been lost and you don’t remember where you put it or what happened to it.  Maybe it just drifted away from you on a raft, on that sea of everything.

It’s a common human experience.  Who doesn’t yearn for something more?

Hundreds, thousands of experiences make us who we are, and they can feed or distract from our souls’ longings.

Traffic and homework, annoyances and trivialities, deep losses and grave mistakes.  As we learn to deal, to cope, we grow.  And perhaps some of our longings are fulfilled.

Beauty and peace, love and happiness, joy and hope.  It’s the noticing, the paying attention to all the life-affirming moments that increase our humanity and the humanity of those around us.  Longing with a thirsty soul means, in part, that we allow the soul to focus on the good things.

We can choose to go thru life unthinking, almost by remote control.  Or we can choose to reflect, to be amazed, moved, heartened.

Where are the places you can focus your spiritual longings?  Where are the places you can focus on peace, on hope, on God, on the voices of your own heart?

Not an escape from your real life, but a deepening of it, a diving directly into its soul.

We long for God; we seek the good.  We are constantly searching, watching, looking.  And just on the other side of our seeking, good is there, waiting to be found.  Waiting to flow from God into our soul, fulfilling those longings.

 

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 9, 2013

Freedom

One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities.  [from Acts 16]

It is hard to read a story about a girl in slavery without thinking of the three young women in Cleveland who were just freed after years of horrible captivity by a depraved man and his two brothers.

Though we find it impossible to imagine what they’ve been through, the heart of every decent person breaks at hearing just a few details of their story, and of those who rescued them.  We all want the best for them as they try to put their lives back together.  They will need every resource they can get.

Stories like this make us wonder:  how many other people are there in similar situations?  Held against their will by a stranger or by someone they should be able to trust (a parent, spouse, lover)?  Caught up in human trafficking?

Or how about those who are simply fearful to speak their minds because they live with a controlling person?  Who are unable to live their own lives because someone else tells them how it must be lived?

What of those who live in places where their civil liberties and basic human freedoms are denied by those with political power?  Or who are wrongly imprisoned?  Or people who are afraid to observe their own religion?  Or those who are reluctant to walk down the street or to send their children to school because of violence?

When frightening stories make the news, they sometimes rock our world, because we just can’t imagine how one person can commit such evil against another.

The girl in the biblical story was set free from her internal prison, and she was no longer a pawn her “masters” could use.

Like Paul and the others, it’s our task to set the captives free, both from their internal and external prisons.

We have to keep our eyes open, and be ready to act.© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

 

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

Posted by: Melissa Bane Sevier | May 1, 2013

Going and coming

I’ve been doing some worship planning for the summer, and working with some themes of spirituality, discernment, and especially prayer.  Then I came back to this week’s lectionary gospel reading.  It’s again from the section of John that takes place at the last supper—a discourse from Jesus that is 5 chapters long!  The writer has collected all these sayings that he considers to be vitally important to a church that will live on after Jesus has gone, including this:

          Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ [from John 14]

These words hit me:  “I am going away, and I am coming to you.”

As I’ve been pondering our inner, personal spiritual lives, it occurs to me that this is exactly our experience of God.  The going and the coming.

Often, we are overjoyed at the coming of God in a bright spring day in Kentucky, in a meal eaten with a loved one, in a sense of peace.

Perhaps just as often we are confused and dismayed by the going of God.  What happened to God’s presence when the diagnosis came, or the loved one has gone, or the joy has gone out of living, or we watch the news about one more horrible act or tragic accident?

I think John wants the Jesus followers to know that, even in our sense of the grave absence of God, there is still the possibility of inner peace.

Peace may be found in presence, in the coming of God.  But it may also be found in absence, in God’s going.

It may be found in waiting, hoping, longing, desire.  It may even be found in anxiety, fear, and loss.

Peace is found in the faith that going is not the final act of a Christ who has promised to come to us yet again.© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013

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