Thursday, February 20, 2014

What's Your Praise Name?

I was thinking this evening and remembered (who knows why) the Ndebele custom of praise names. No research here, so I may have the details wrong; but I think it works something like this.

I have a surname, but the Ndebele people have "isibongo", literally a "thank name". Your name may be Sibanda (a name combining lion and courage), so when someone thanks you they use your name: "eSibanda!" One can then add praise names referring to your ancestors. "ESibanda! Son of the great fighter! Son of the one who saved the village!"

A good time to use the thank name + praise names is when thanking your children. They learn who they come from, what their parents where known for, what qualities they can make their own.

So I wonder what praise names I could have used when my sons were young to tell them who they come from. Vaughn walks in and hands me the coffee I asked for. "EClimenhaga! From the one who remembers! From the church genealogist!" My father's memory is a constant source of wonder and delight for his family. I asked once for memories of Bishop Steigerwald, a missionary from the 1920s when Dad was a small boy. Dad promptly told me of a Christmas party when he was four or five years old, and his encounter with the big man (big in every sense) who was like a grandfather to the missionary children. Remembering something from 90 years ago! The one who remembers.

Grandfather had a similar ability to remember things, showed often by his command of the genealogies of the families in the Brethren in Christ Church. The church genealogist.

I could bring in Slagenweit grandparents also. "From the one who works hard": Grandfather S was a dairy farmer who held on to his farm during the years of the depression. "From the joker": PapPap was a consummate joker--once he backed me (a frightened four-year old) into a corner pretending to be a bear, until I pointed my finger at him and said, "Bang!" He fell over and played dead.

Mothers and Grandmothers could have their own names: What would one call the person who held the family together and helped each of us become our very best?

Now I need to think of the praise names for Lois' family--Mother (Engle) and Dad Heise; their parents; back three or four generations. A way to pass on to our sons who we are and what we value. Of course, our sons are grown. So I'll have to start with the next generation. Meanwhile I can practice: "Son of the Artist." (Memories of Grandma Climenhaga pursuing art among people who thought that art was simply worldly.)

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

In Praise of Bucket Lists

The past two Sundays I said that we--and everything about us--must die in order to be raised from the dead. I included this statement:
Our society presses the idea that we should be the centre of our lives and that we should set our dreams and goals and tick every item we can off our bucket list. Don’t you believe it! In the end, anything that puts self at the centre is too small to give real fulfillment, to give eternal life! Jesus is the resurrection and the life, not just for our bodies destined to die one day, but for our hopes and our dreams. We give ourselves to him and say with Martha: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.And you mean it for everything! Everything that you are and want to do you tie up together and give it to Jesus. That is a real and difficult death, we don’t like giving up control so completely; but only in that death can Jesus become the resurrection and the life for you and for me.

Trouble is, someone might hear this and think that I'm saying dreams are bad. You shouldn't even have a bucket list! So here are some basic values in a bucket list.
1. We can't live without dreams. Or at least, we can't live joyfully without dreams. Life without something to live for is empty and soul-destroying. So dream on!
2. God is not in the business of destroying our dreams. Sometimes we think that the way you know what God wants you to do is by thinking of what you don't want to do. That's just perverse. God is not some old man sitting somewhere above us just waiting for us to enjoy ourselves so he can say, "Stop it!" Who do you think put the best dreams in you? So dream on!
3. Dreams are no good if they never lead to anything. Remember Langston Hughes' poem:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
So dream on, and realize your dreams!

dreams that fulfill only our own dreams are too small, too weak for the weight of eternity. We are, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, destined for the glory of the children of God! So our dreams need to be as big as God.

And only God can give dreams that big. That's what I was getting at last week. Not running down the bucket list, not saying dreams are bad; but making sure that we act on dreams that God gives us. So if your dream is to climb Table Mountain (something I have actually done), that's too small. But listen to God's heart for the world and dream God's dreams and then live them.

Dream on!

Monday, February 10, 2014

I Am ... the Resurrection and the Life

16 February 2014
Karlstad Resurrection

John 11:17-27
Jesus Comforts the Sisters of Lazarus
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

This morning I want to preach from the passage in which Jesus calls himself “the resurrection and the life”—an appropriate text given the name of the church here in Karlstad. I am preaching on this text as part of a series that we are having at Steinbach Mennonite, my home church. There are seven passages in John’s gospel when Jesus refers to himself beginning with the words, “I am”.

The central passage is found in John 8, in which the Jews are disputing with Jesus. They recognize that he is claiming to be greater than Abraham, even to be equal with God. Then comes the key passage:
57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!” 58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!”
The Jews understood clearly. Jesus was recalling the words that Moses received—and spoke—in Exodus 3:
13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 

God is the Great “I Am”, and when Jesus says, “Before Abraham was born, I am”, he was proclaiming his own divinity clearly. These are the kinds of words that only a madman could speak. But Jesus was clearly sane: His teaching and his actions show clearly that he was a good, even a great man, and clearly not a madman. The Jews (John’s term for those who opposed Jesus) said that he was a liar, motivated by Satan. But again his life and teaching shows clearly that he was a good man; clearly not a liar. The only option left is that he was telling the truth. When he identified himself with God, he spoke simply that which is true.

John then uses this central saying of Jesus to structure various other parts of Jesus’ teaching. Jesus says:
·         I am the bread of life (6:35).
·         I am the light of the world (8:12).
·         I am the gate (10:9).
·         I am the good shepherd (10:11).
·         I am the resurrection and the life (11:25).
·         I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:6).
·         I am the true vine (15:1).
So this morning we look at the saying, “I am the resurrection and the life.” We will not come close to exhausting what Jesus says here, but just begin the process of considering what he means.

The Text

John 11 begins across the Jordan River, where Jesus had gone for some quiet reflection after the tumult in Jerusalem in chapter 10. Word comes to him that his friend Lazarus (brother to Mary and Martha) is near death at his home in Bethany. Jesus and his disciples are about 20 miles, maybe a day’s walk, away; but they stay there for two more days, then finally Jesus sets off for Bethany.

The disciples are afraid, because Bethany is next door to Jerusalem, where the people were trying to stone Jesus in chapter 10, but they decide to go with him.

When they arrive at Lazarus’ home, Martha goes out to meet Jesus. We heard the exchange read earlier: He’s dead, but you could have saved  him—He will rise again—Yes, at the end—I am the resurrection and the life…Do you believe this?—“Yes Lord, I believe…” Notice that Martha is the first of the disciples (the Twelve plus those gathered around the Twelve) to say this. Soon after, Peter makes the same confession, but Martha was first!

Martha goes and calls Mary, and similar exchange takes place. But we see the bond that Mary and Jesus had (seen also in the other gospels) in his response to her grief:
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

That eloquent brief statement, “Jesus wept”, is worth its own sermon. We will not dwell on it this morning. Rather we note the action that follows. Jesus tells them to roll the stone from the mouth of the grave. Martha protests that the body has been decaying for four days and will stink, but Jesus persists. Someone rolls the stone away, and Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave and back to life. And “the dead man came out [still with the grave clothes wrapped around him].” 

So back to our statement: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

An Excursus on Dreams
One of the effects of getting older is that you remember some of the dreams you had when you were young. Recently I found an old cassette tape that I made and sent to my parents when I was in my early 20s. I had just gone to Rhodesia to work with our church for a three-year term, and I described some of the dreams I had for my life. I also found some letters from the same period, which also described my hopes and dreams.

I was thinking at that time of spending some time in New Zealand. It’s a beautiful country—a dream worth having! I also thought of moving to England or Wales to study Welsh mythology. I was reading stories from the Mabinogion, the basic book of Welsh mythology, and I could see doing graduate work in that area. In the actual event, I moved back to the States, to Indiana, and met Lois and got married and became the pastor of a church in Pennsylvania.

An idea that has gained currency in our society is that of “the bucket list”, based on the 2007 movie—things to do before you die (kick the bucket). The basic idea is that we should have dreams and wishes that we seek to fulfill, and it is important for us to realize as many of our dreams as possible in order to lead a fulfilled life. The idea is captured well in the slogan used by the Marines: “Be all that you can be.”

But getting older reminds me often that some of my dreams will never come to pass. There are some things—like doing a Ph D in Welsh mythology—that I need to let go. If I ever get to visit New Zealand, I will enjoy it; but I don’t want to make how fulfilled my life is depend on getting to the place where Lord of the Rings was filmed.

The Pattern Jesus Gives Us
Jesus actually gives us a different path to follow than crossing items off our bucket list. When Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life”, he is referring first of all to spiritual life—those who die physically need not die spiritually. If you die in Christ, you live forever with Christ. If you die outside of Christ, you experience eternal death outside the presence of God. (Such a difficult image: Outside the presence of Omnipresence!)

At one level we are talking about the need to believe in Jesus—believe in the sense of “accept” and “follow” and “trust”: What Martha and May do in their response to Jesus. But this pattern works at deeper levels as well. When you answer Jesus, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world,” you enter into eternal life. Then you can discover what that life means for everything you do.

You see, Jesus not only brings new life to us physically and spiritually, but he also brings new life to everything else about us. And in order for him to bring new life, everything has to die! Jesus could not raise Lazarus until Lazarus died. Jesus could not give Martha and Mary a new understanding of him and his life until their old understanding died. Everything about us must die in order for Jesus to raise it to new life. Everything! I said that I had dreams as a young man of what I would be. Those dreams had to die. Only then could God’s dreams come true in my life.

Dying and Rising
Luke records the way that Jesus says this in the Synoptic gospels:
23 Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self? (Luke 9)
Paul records the same idea when he says: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)

God wants to give us eternal life, but in order for us to receive it, everything about us—our dreams and desires and wishes and plans—must die and be re-born with his life, his will at the centre. Jesus can only raise something that dies. Resurrection requires death. 

An Example
My Uncle Arthur used to tell what this dying and rising looked like for him and my Aunt Arlene. They went to college at our church college in Upland, California way back in the 1930s. Arthur remembers when they first met. He and some of his friends had formed what they called “the woman-haters’ society”, because they were afraid that any young women they made friends with would not like them.

Then one day Arlene came into the dining hall and saw him across the room. She asked her friends who that young man was; they told her, “Don’t think about him. He’s a member of the woman-haters’ society.” Arlene liked the look of him, but she had a more pressing problem on her mind. She knew that God was calling her into mission work either in Africa or in India. She wanted to go to Africa, so she assumed (as we sometimes perversely do) that God would make her go to India. So she devised a test (which Arthur told me he does not recommend!) She prayed and asked God, “If you want me to go to Africa, have Arthur ask me for a date by Wednesday evening.”

Meanwhile Arthur had also noticed her and decided to suspend his membership in the woman haters’ society for a few days. So on Wednesday he watched as she got on the bus to go home. He knew where she would be waiting for the next bus, so he rode his bicycle over and stopped beside her. They talked for a bit, and then he asked her if he could walk her home from choir practice that evening (what passed for a date in those days). Arthur told me, “She just sat and stared at me. I thought, ‘Oh No! She doesn’t like me!’ She thought, ‘God just told me to go to Africa!’”

Behind this story there is a more important story. Arlene had put her own dreams and desires to death and determined to follow only what God wanted. When she did so, she had a dream in which Jesus appeared to her carrying a bundle. He told her, “Everything that will happen to you is in this bundle. When you don’t understand what is happening, remember, ‘It’s all in the bundle.’”

That basic commitment shaped her unusual way of deciding whether or not to go to Africa. Arthur had grown up in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and he also felt God’s call to return there. So they went to Africa. But as they went along in life, there were problems. Arlene became pregnant with their first child, but a contaminated ham served to them when they were on tour for the college led to a miscarriage. She was never able to conceive again, and she died childless. “But it’s all in the bundle.”

After 15 years in Rhodesia—15 satisfying and good years—they returned to Pennsylvania, and then to Wheaton, Illinois, where Arthur became the director of the NAE. But while he travelled, Arlene went into depression. Arthur made plans to change his job for her sake and move her back to family and friends, but she refused: “It’s all in the bundle.” Then when they turned 50 they moved back to California, close to the friends and church of their days at Upland, as Arthur became bishop of our church’s Pacific Conference. They looked forward to more joy and satisfaction.

Then Arlene was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. The disease moved quickly. Arlene would sit alone at night, coming to terms with the approach of her own death. If Arthur came out she said, “Arthur, you can’t do anything. You may as well go back to bed.” Then the week before she died they drove for one last time into the San Bernadino Mountains overlooking Upland, to where they used to go when they were dating. As they sat there, Arlene finally said, “You know, 52 is so young to die. But as I look back over my life, I wouldn’t change a thing!” You see: it’s all in God’s bundle!

Our society presses the idea that we should be the centre of our lives and that we should set our dreams and goals and tick every item we can off our bucket list. Don’t you believe it! In the end, anything that puts self at the centre is too small to give real fulfillment, to give eternal life! Jesus is the resurrection and the life, not just for our bodies destined to die one day, but for our hopes and our dreams. We give ourselves to him and say with Martha: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.

And you mean it for everything! Everything that you are and want to do you tie up together and give it to Jesus. That is a real and difficult death, we don’t like giving up control so completely; but only in that death can Jesus become the resurrection and the life for you and for me.