Posts Tagged ‘salvation’

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Praying Together

 Pray then in this way… Matthew 6:9a

Earlier this year I spent several days with a group of Benedictine monks south of Boston. I was allowed to join them during parts of their daily schedule, including the five daily worship services. One part of most worship services was what they consider praying together, which in this case was chanting the Psalms. They sat in two groups facing each other and chanted passages from the Psalms, sometimes one side at a time, other times in unison.

For the most part, I was taught that prayer was a solitary activity – me and God. Certainly, there were prayers before meals and bedtime where one person would pray on behalf of those present at the table or bedside. In church, the pastor would pray on behalf of the entire congregation. Those were community prayers, but it was still one person doing the praying while the others sat in silence. The exception was The Lord’s Prayer, which was recited in unison as a community. With those exceptions, I considered prayer a solitary activity.

It is interesting that the prayer Jesus instructed his disciples to pray was a community prayer. The language is distinctly communal:

Our Father;

Give us this day our daily bread;

Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us;

            Lead us not into temptation;

Deliver us from evil.

I have tried praying this prayer in an individual way, i.e., My Father; give me this day, etc., but it feels wrong and selfish. Perhaps that is because I learned it as a communal prayer; or perhaps the prayer loses its power when removed from its communal context. It is also interesting that three verses before giving his disciples The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus says, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:6). The latter prayer process is a distinctly solitary activity.

I suspect Jesus’ message is that both individual and community prayers are important. Nor should this surprise anyone.The community aspect of prayer, however, is the one I find most challenging. Actually, it is my ego that finds community prayer most challenging. My ego self desires a special relationship with God – one that sets me apart from others as a unique creation in God’s eyes. And there is biblical evidence for that very uniqueness (see Psalm 139). What trips me up is that everyone is a unique creation of God, loved and known for their individual traits by our doting, divine Parent. Wouldn’t that make any individual, i.e., me, less special? Although my ego is bruised at the thought, I believe we are all precious beyond belief in God’s eyes.

In his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his crucifixion (John 17), Jesus prays that we, as in all of us, might be one with him just as he is one with God. There is an unmistakeable communal inclusiveness to his words. In Paul’s letters, he describes us as the body of Christ (see Romans 12), identifying individuals as various parts of the one body. Again, this is not welcome news to the ego self who is more than willing to forego the salvation of many others in order to assure salvation for itself and those it deems worthy.

As I age and the more I read, the more convinced I become that salvation is communal. In other words, we become one with God together – as one body – or we do not become one with God at all, except perhaps in brief awakenings. This is why healing the sick and easing suffering and feeding the hungry and including the outcast – the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry – are so vitally important for us to continue today. As we awaken to our oneness, we understand that we cannot be well until others are well. And so praying together should be an important part of our prayer practice. It is an affirmation of our unity.

Personally, I recite the Lord’s Prayer as a regular part of my daily devotions. When I do, however, I try to assume the posture of being one part of a large body praying for and with the entire community of my brothers and sisters. No doubt, there are countless others across the globe and through the ages praying it with me.

Jesus gave us a new commandment, to love one another. Praying together is one way for us to fulfil that commandment.

This is the 21st in the series of Life Notes titled, Praying With One Eye Open.

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How Did I Miss That?

Part 32: Salvation is Communal

 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. Romans 12:4

One thing I despised about college was group assignments. The instructor would assign several students a task and, together, they had to complete and present the assignment as a team. Every member received the same grade, regardless of how much or little he or she contributed to the final product. Being fiercely independent, I wanted to succeed or fail alone and did not want my grade to be dependent on others.

My father was in the Army Air Force during World War II, and although he was not a part of the D Day invasion of France, I reflect on that action as if he were. The Normandy invasion was needed in order to break the German stronghold along the English Channel so the Allies could liberate France and, eventually, the rest of Europe. The problem was the concrete, machine-gun bunkers lined along the Channel. The Allies knew it would take a concentration of sustained force to break open a line in the German defenses so troops could enter and drive the Nazis out of France. They also knew many lives would be lost. Of the 24,000 men landing on Normandy that morning, nearly half were killed or wounded. There were similar numbers of German casualties. It was a bloodbath on all sides. Many individual lives were required to join together to accomplish a single goal. Thousands of those individuals – sons, brothers, and fathers – willingly served as bullet recipients so those behind them could eventually destroy and advance beyond the machine-gun bunkers.

The Bible seldom speaks of individual salvation. Salvation – the freeing and advancing to higher levels of existence – is communal in that its attainment is for the benefit of a group. The Hebrew people were saved, collectively, from their oppression in Egypt. Noah’s extended family was saved from the great flood. Organizations succeed when its members move together in the same direction. Marriages flourish when the union prospers both partners. Individual effort is required, but to accomplish great things requires many individuals working together toward a common goal.

Paul, in a number of his letters, describes believers as a single body, with each member having a specific function. All members work together and are necessary for the good of the body. Jesus’ comment that there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another (John 15:13) is an expression of the willing subjugation of individual interests for the sake of something greater. Appearances aside, we are all members of a single body.

I sometimes act as if I were self-made person, that whatever I have achieved has been by my effort alone. It is a self-deception of enormous proportion. When we fail to acknowledge others for what we accomplish together, when we believe our personal objectives outweigh those of the larger community, we may be prone to believe we can attain salvation alone. Could my right hand separate itself from my body and prosper? What sort of salvation do we think we will attain, a paradise of one? That sounds more like solitary confinement. No, life is a group project, a family undertaking, one body with all its parts working in harmony. In spite of what we may choose to believe, we sink or swim, pass or fail, together. We will succeed when our personal goals, desires, and actions are in accord with those of the greater family to which we belong. Too often we ask, “What do I need to do to get to heaven?” instead of focusing on what is required to manifest heaven on earth – not just for me, but also for everyone, and not just for some distant future, but also for today.

Salvation is communal. How did I miss that?

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Giving Thanks by Giving 

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. James 2:14-17

This past Sunday, I sat through two equally disturbing sermons given by the pastors of my church. The sermons were not troubling because of weak delivery of the messages, however. The sermons got under my skin because they revealed aspects of my being that I prefer not to acknowledge. The theme was judgment, as described by Jesus near the end of the 25th chapter of Matthew. In verses 31 to 45, Jesus describes the identification process by which those who enter eternal life will be separated from those who will enter eternal punishment. The factor distinguishing one group from the other is how they treat and care for the least privileged in society.

At least by biblical standards, I am a selfish person and a stingy passer-along of my blessings. I have been known to pat myself on the back for being a good person, which is to say I do not commit a lot of sins overtly. Sins of commission – those sins directly committed – are not where I fall so short by Judeo-Christian standards. Sins of omission – the good I am capable of doing, but fail to do – well, that is an entirely different matter.

Like many of you reading this Life Note, I will sit down at a table overflowing with an abundance of wonderful food today, and in the presence of family and friends, I will eat myself into a long, luxurious, Thanksgiving nap. Meanwhile, Pastor Tom told us that about 13 people in the world die of starvation every minute. Later today, I will consume more food in one meal than some people eat in a month. And in the time it takes me to eat my way to desert, another 400 or so of my neighbors will starve to death.

My purpose is not to ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving with an extra helping of guilt-casserole, however. The point is to remember the critical needs around us, even in this country, and even in our town. Yes, it is appropriate to celebrate and be thankful for the rich blessings we have been given. Is it sufficient, however, to simply give thanks, eat ourselves silly, and then go to sleep? Maybe this year we will commit to doing something more to show our gratitude, perhaps by sharing from our abundance for others who lack. Pick up an extra turkey and give it to a food kitchen. Help prepare and serve a meal at a homeless shelter. Visit a nursing home. Donate. Most of us have so much more food, clothing, money, time, and other resources than we need. There are many places where our excess is accepted and passed along to those less fortunate. That is giving thanks by giving away. This year, all year, let us not forget the giving part of Thanksgiving.

Enjoy a blessed Thanksgiving; and then give to a world that needs your leftovers.

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Life Notes—November 21, 2013 

  “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, not repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.” Psalm 103:8-12

My daughter and I had a ritual at bedtime. It involved me showing how much I loved her. I would begin by holding my thumb and forefinger about an inch apart asking, “Do I love you this much?” She would say, “No, daddy, you love me more than that.” The exercise would continue through several iterations, until I would have my hands spread as far apart as they would go, and I would ask, “Do I love you this much?”  She would giggle and respond, “Yes, daddy, that is how much you love me!” My daughter would not settle for anything less than the maximum amount of love her father could give. No child should have to settle for less.

Some people and churches seem to believe in a very small God. A church in the town I grew up in is obsessed with homosexuality. Their entire ministry revolves around what they believe to be God’s hatred of gays. There is no love or grace in their message. Their small group of members, largely from one family, manages to garner national attention to their vulgar and offensive ministry. Whoever their God is, I do not believe in that God.

I am aware of other churches who believe only a handful of God’s people will enter the kingdom of heaven when they die. Their requirements to be among the elect vary between churches, but their God only accepts certain people. I know some passages in the Bible imply only a few go to heaven. However, taken in the context of the Bible as a whole, and Jesus’ ministry of love and grace for all, I believe those passages are wrongly interpreted. I do not believe in their God of limited acceptance, either.

When God came to earth as a human, in the person of Jesus, God chose to associate with sinners and to criticize the church leaders. Jesus devoted his ministry to the lost and broken, he taught the seekers and doubters, and he forgave the sins of all who asked. Jesus manifested an enormous God, one with enough love for all of us. God is my heavenly parent, and I need a God who loves me more than I will ever need. That is the God I believe in. The others are too small.

Tom will be preaching downtown where Life worship is at 10:00 in Brady Hall and traditional worship is at 8:30 and 11:00 in the sanctuary. Mitch is preaching at the west campus where contemporary worship is at 9:00 and 11:00.

Come home to church this Sunday. Come to know the greatness of God.

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

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Life Notes—November 7, 2013 

  “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9

Lately, a series of commercials has been showing that display the odd superstitions of sports fans. Perhaps you have seen one. A group of fans line up the labels of their beer bottles at a key moment in the game. A young man claims his “lucky” seat for the game. Another refrains from washing his favorite jersey as long as his team continues to win. The key line of the commercial is “It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.” 

Recently I visited with a friend about religion. He expressed doubt that he could ever accept certain religious beliefs. Our conversation led to a discussion about Christianity. Those unfamiliar with Christian beliefs and traditions must look with skepticism on some of our beliefs and practices. We pray to an unseen God. We believe a baby was born to a virgin mother to save the world. We celebrate the martyr’s death and resurrection of our Savior. We worship a God who chose to come to earth as a homeless wanderer to associate with sinners. Much of what we accept as Christians must seem very strange to non-Christians. How many people turn away because a well-intentioned Christian spoke “Christian-ese” to someone who did not grow up with it? Can we expect a seeker to be comfortable with the way-to-life-in-Christ we have spent years coming to know? I was raised a Christian and have heard the stories and practiced the traditions since I was born.

Even so, I understand how some of my core beliefs may seem as weird to an outsider as the importance of watching a football game from my lucky chair, wearing a dirty jersey with the label of my favorite beverage facing the television. Much as I long to have others experience the life-changing love and grace of Jesus Christ, I know that sort of relationship takes time to develop. I know if I am to lead another to a relationship with Christ, I must be patient and persistent. Further, I must live a life they will want to emulate. Finally, I know Christ must be experienced to become real. Just as we cannot experience love or beauty through the words of others, so we cannot talk others into a relationship with Jesus. The superstitious among us should be prepared to defend the positive impact of our rituals on the outcome of a game. Likewise, Christians should be prepared to defend the positive impact of their beliefs; to be able to articulate the hope and freedom we find in Christ. Jesus calls us to be different, not weird.

Come home to church this Sunday. After all, it’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

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Life Notes—March 28, 2013 

“For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many.  Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.”  Romans 5:15b,18

Irony abounds in our world, in both familiar and commonly-accepted ways.  For example:

*The most bone-chilling cold often occurs in the early spring.

*75° air is warm, but 75° water is cold.

*The cheapest items often become the most expensive over time.

There are many ironic “truths” that have been immortalized as clichés:

*The darkest hour is right before the dawn.

*No pain, no gain.

*There is no such thing as a free lunch.

While we accept the everyday ironies around us, sometimes as Christians we find it difficult to embrace the ironies of our faith.  In various parts of the Bible we are told the last will be first; that to save your life you must lose it; it is the merciful who will receive mercy; that faith the size of a mustard seed will move mountains.  And perhaps the granddaddy of all ironies is that to free us from our slavery to sin, Jesus had to die.  And as proof we have been freed from death in our sin, Jesus was resurrected from the grave.  In Paul’s letters it is written that we inherited a legacy of sin through the disobedience of Adam and Eve—the original sin—which is perpetuated from generation to generation in the flesh.  It is sin that separates us from God.  The animal sacrifices of old were to atone for the limited sins of the faithful, but it would take a sacrifice of divine proportion to atone for the original and inherently sinful nature of all humanity for all time.  It would require a Savior.  Enter Jesus.

So this Easter as we celebrate the crucifixion, death and resurrection of God-made-man, instead of puzzling over the irony of death leading to life, can we simply embrace the miracle and accept God’s gift of new life?   It is not a question of earning God’s amazing grace, because we have not and can not.  We who were once dead in our sin have been freed and, with him, are alive!  He is risen!  We may not know how, but we know…

This Sunday is Easter and the service times for some services are different.  Tom preaches downtown where Life worship will begin at 9:30 in Brady Hall and traditional worship will be at 8:00 and 11:00.  Mitch is preaching at the west campus where worship will be at7:00, 9:00 and 11:00. The sermon is “Wrap Your Arms Around Something Good for Easter,” based on John 21:15-19.

Come home to church this Sunday.  The Holy iRony: in His death, we are made alive…

Greg Hildenbrand, Life Music Coordinator

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