Friday, October 20, 2006

An interesting coincidence?

This morning I got into an e-mail conversation with a friend of mine who says he doesn't believe in God. As I left work I was mulling over his latest message and thinking about what my response would be.

I had to run down to Carroll this afternoon to see someone at the hospital. Before I did, I decided to stop at the gas station. Even though I still had more than a quarter-tank left, I thought it would be good to fill up because of this run to Carroll and a trip I have to make up to Cherokee for a Lions meeting.

In my bag I had three five-dollar ethanol certificates that were going to expire in a few days. I started the gas pumping, and stood leaning against the side of the car, enjoying the warmish temperature and watching the numbers on the pump. The total price was inching closer to the $15 and I was getting ready to get out my billfold to pay for whatever the ethanol certificates didn't cover, but the pump shut off at exactly $15.00. I couldn't have done that if I'd tried!

A God sighting? Maybe, maybe not. But it was sort of interesting that it happened just at that moment.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Disciples DNA: People of the Chalice

(Through October, as we observe Heritage Month, I'm placing an insert in the bulletin each week describing some aspect of our church's history and identity. This is the first one, for October 1.)

From the very beginning of our church, Disciples have celebrated the Lord’s Supper together each Sunday. And from the very beginning the table has been open to all, no matter what church they belong to. “It is the Lord’s Table and, therefore, not the congregation’s prerogative to allow or disallow participation,” says Guin Stemmler in Disciples Mini-History. All are welcome at Christ’s Table.

But there’s more. In some churches, only ordained clergy are allowed to preside and pray at the Table; in others, no one but ordained clergy may even handle the elements. That’s not the case in the Christian Church. We believe this is a family table, and any member of the family—men, women, and youth—may preside, may serve, may pray at our Table. While there are good theological reasons for this, there are also practical benefits: in the early days of our church, out on the frontier where professional ministers were scarce, the fact that any Christian may preside at the Table meant that we didn’t have to wait for one of the few professionals to appear before we could share the Lord’s Supper together.

Rational people though Disciples are, our founder Alexander Campbell could still wax poetic about the Table. In 1852 he wrote:

Each disciple, in handing the symbols to his fellow-disciple, says, in effect, “You, my brother, once an alien, are now a citizen of heaven; once a stranger, are now brought home to the family of God. You have owned my Lord as your Lord, my people as your people. Under Jesus the Messiah we are one. Mutually embraced in the Everlasting arms, I embrace you in mine: thy sorrows shall be my sorrows, and thy joys my joys. Joint debtors to the favor of God and the love of Jesus, we shall jointly suffer with him, that we may jointly reign with him. Let us, then, renew our strength, remember our King, and hold fast to our boasted hope unshaken to the end.”

Over a century later Disciples pastor and musician David Edwards set those words to music in the beautiful communion hymn “When You Do This, Remember Me.”

Although there is nothing in the New Testament that specifically says Christians are to observe the Lord’s Supper each week, it does appear, according to Colbert Cartwright in People of the Chalice, that the observance was central in early Christian worship. Therefore Disciples, who had as one of their earliest goals the restoration of the New Testament church, place Communion as central in our own worship. Although Alexander Campbell refused to suggest any specific order for Christian worship—in keeping with an early Disciples motto, “Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent”—he did insist on the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, and that observance shapes and colors the entire worship service.

From the beginning, Disciples have also been committed to Christian unity. In his Declaration and Address, written in 1809 to explain the purpose of the new group he had started, Thomas Campbell said, “The church of Christ upon earth is essentially, intentionally, and constitutionally one.” Another founder, Barton Stone, expressed similar sentiments in the Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery. We understand that we are not the only Christians; and so it is with joy that we Disciples observe World Communion Sunday on the first Sunday in October each year, remembering that we join together with all Christians around the world when we gather at the Lord’s Table.

Why Does Disciples DNA Matter?

(My congregation is celebrating Heritage Month in October. This is my column from the church newsletter kicking it all off.)

Some years ago, the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) had before it a resolution that has caused trouble ever since. The resolution asked the Assembly to vote “yes” or “no” on the statement, “Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation.”

My memory fails me just exactly what happened (it’s been well over a decade ago), other than that the General Assembly did not pass this resolution. And since then, folks have tried to cause trouble in churches and other areas within the Christian Church by telling people, “Our denomination’s leaders don’t believe Jesus is the only way to salvation.” And people hear this, and they wonder, “Do we really want to be part of a denomination that doesn’t believe in Jesus?”

But here’s the problem: We aren’t part of a denomination that doesn’t believe in Jesus. The Design, which is sort of the constitution and by-laws of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), begins with this statement: “As members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), we confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world.” That’s a version of what we ask each person who presents him- or herself for baptism or for church membership to affirm. Of course we believe in Jesus!

What we don’t believe in is a denominational structure that allows decisions about what we believe, beyond the statement above, to be made for us by our leadership in Indianapolis, at General Assembly, or anywhere else. Had the resolution “Jesus Christ is not the only way to salvation” come before the General Assembly, it would have been voted down too!

There’s a reason why people can come to our churches and cause trouble by saying, “The General Assembly refused to say Jesus is the only way to salvation—therefore the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) doesn’t believe in Jesus—therefore if we do believe in Jesus we had better separate ourselves from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).” It’s because we’re not as familiar with our identity as Disciples as we should be. From the very beginning, Disciples have believed each Christian has the responsibility to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling” (see Philippians 2:12); therefore, we do not look to our leaders in the regional office or in Indianapolis or at General Assembly to tell us what we believe.

This is why I believe it’s important to spend some time this month rediscovering our heritage as Disciples. If folks in these churches where someone’s causing trouble over “what Disciples believe” knew what Disciples really believe, they’d be able to say, “No, that’s not who we are.”

But there’s more to it than that. A San Diego new church pastor who led a workshop at the Portland General Assembly said that if we could just get the word out about who Disciples are and what we believe, our churches would explode with growth. We are what the world is looking for. But how will they know that, if we don’t know it and therefore aren’t able to tell them?

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is unique, and uniquely qualified to reach the world we find ourselves in today. Let’s get in touch with who we are as a church this month, so we can live out our mission: “to be and to share the good news of Jesus Christ, witnessing, loving, and serving from our doorsteps to the ends of the earth.”


This is my column for next Tuesday's edition of our local newspaper.

When I was a child I lived a few blocks from a smelter operated by the Sherwin-Williams paint company. The school I attended was right across the street from the smelter, which ran day and night, removing from ore the minerals that give color to our paints. There was a smokestack that continuously poured foul-smelling, dark brown smoke into the air.

We lived west of the smelter, so we escaped the worst of the effects of that smoke. Nevertheless, it discolored and ruined the finish of the white car we owned for awhile, and on the occasions when the wind came out of the east that smoke would settle down over our school playground, burning our lungs as we breathed it in. Those who lived downwind had even worse effects: Some of the properties east and north of the smelter have had to have all the dirt in their yards removed, hauled off and replaced, because the constant onslaught of that smoke left poisons in the earth. People who lived there are unsure whether health problems they have experienced might have been caused by exposure to that pollution.

Finally new rules went into effect, and that smokestack was replaced with a new one fitted with a “scrubber” that removed most of the pollutants before they could find their way into the air. But the damage was already done.

We know a lot about the dangers of pollution nowadays, considerably more than the folks who built that smelter in Coffeyville did. We have taken many steps to reduce the pollution that finds its way into our air, water, and earth. But there is one form of pollution we have not reduced. That pollution is anger, and it is causing great harm to our world.

There is anger in public and private life. There is anger in city government, anger in Congress, anger in international relations. It’s anger that is causing Ku Klux Klan flyers to be placed on cars and in churches in our area. Anger seems to fuel most public discourse today, especially among the screaming heads on cable “news,” but also in press conferences held by our nation’s leaders. Tiny things set us off: a quote taken out of context from a papal address, the request to have a sign reading “God Bless America” removed from a California post office, a store clerk wishing us “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” traffic, someone else’s cell phone ringing at an inconvenient time, slow service at a restaurant, etc., etc., etc.

What’s going on? Why is there so much anger afoot in our world?

Part of it is fear. We find ourselves in a world we did not choose, a world where terrorism is more deadly than ever and we can’t seem to do anything about it, a world that is changing much faster than we can keep up with, a world where the optimism of the 20th century has given way to the sure and certain knowledge that we have not eradicated disease, hunger and poverty or ushered in world peace. We’re afraid because the world seems to be out of control.

Scientists tell us that when any creature—including humans—is threatened, the body produces chemicals that spur a “fight-or-flight” response. Fear and anger are both part of that response, and so are very closely related. This is, of course, normal and healthy if the threat is immediate and our response gets us out of the threatening situation. But when the threat is undefined and constant (or is being exploited and made to appear constant), fear and anger do not dissipate.

So what can be done about the pollution of anger? First of all, we need to strengthen our relationships with one another. Modern people too easily become isolated, and when we do not know our neighbors we are prone to fear them. We need to make the effort to get to know others: our neighbors, those who don’t look and act like us, those who are of a different faith from ours, immigrants and strangers in our midst. When we can think of people as neighbors and friends, not some nameless, faceless “other,” they’re not nearly as scary.

We also need to slow down. When we’re hurried, we’re stressed and less patient, and less likely to take a deep breath and count to ten when an irritant presents itself. A slower pace would reduce anger a great deal.

But above all, we need to turn to God. There is no need for fear when we trust in God—the One who brought order out of chaos at creation will not let chaos take over again. In the midst of the anger that pollutes our atmosphere, let us remember that God is God, so that anger and fear do not dominate our own lives and relationships.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

An old sermon

Someone asked me to post this old sermon (from September 21, 2003) so he could link to it from his own site. Although it's old, it is based on one of the lectionary readings for this week.

September 21, 2003
Blue Ribbons
Mark 9:30-37

Fair season is just about over, I think. Some of us have entered different things for judging—crafts, flowers, food, musical presentations, all sorts of things, in the friendly competition at the fair. Growing up, I used to go out to the fair at home and look at the exhibits. My grandmother always had something entered—usually some candy, or a cake, or something like that, and she usually got a blue ribbon.

One year I decided I’d like to enter something in the fair. So I thought, “What do I do pretty well?” In my family, it was my job to make the biscuits for breakfast on weekends. So I made a batch of baking-powder biscuits, using my grandmother’s recipe.

Well, my sister and I tended to be a little bit competitive—and she tended, as a younger sister, to want also to do whatever I might be doing. So she decided to make biscuits to enter in the fair too. Up until this point she’d shown no interest whatsoever in cooking anything, really. She got out the Betty Crocker cookbook and made a batch of buttermilk biscuits, the first biscuits she’d ever made in her life.

We took our respective batches of biscuits out to the fairgrounds, filled out the paperwork and paid our dollar entry fee. Then we went back after the judging to see how we’d done.

On my plate of light, tall, perfectly browned biscuits made from my grandmother’s recipe was pinned…a red ribbon. Second place. Which wouldn’t have been so bad, except that next to my biscuits sat Carrie’s plate of very-first-try, Betty Crocker Cookbook biscuits—proudly wearing a blue ribbon.

As they walked home, Jesus and his disciples had some time alone. Jesus had made sure of it, because there were some things he wanted to teach them. For the second time, he tried to explain to them what would be coming up for him—telling them about his betrayal, crucifixion, and resurrection.

But as before, it didn’t compute. They didn’t understand what he was saying, and they were afraid to ask him to explain. Maybe they were like we sometimes are when we’re in a class and don’t understand something—each of us is afraid we’re the only one who doesn’t get it, and don’t want to look stupid in front of everyone else, so we keep our mouths shut. What we don’t realize—what the disciples didn’t realize—was that no one understands, and if one of us would ask the question, all of us would benefit.

But the disciples didn’t do that. Instead, they talked among themselves about it. I wonder if their conversation might have sounded like this:

“Why does he keep saying that? He knows the Messiah won’t die—he’ll establish his kingdom here, throw out the Romans, and rule forever.”

“Beats me. Maybe he’s slipping.”

“Remember when he said this to us before,” Peter might say, “and I tried to help him understand what it really meant to be the Messiah—and he called me Satan! There’s no way I’d ask him about it again after that.”

“What if something does happen to him? I suppose one of us will have to take over as the leader, and keep this thing going.”

“Yeah, but which one?”

And then maybe they fell silent, imagining what it would be like on that last day, Jesus placing his hands on the chosen successor’s head—and, of course, each one thought it would be him who got the nod.

Then the conversation would resume.

“It sure couldn’t be Peter. He’s too much of a loose cannon, always speaking before he thinks.”
Peter might answer, “But I’m the only one who knew he was the Messiah without him telling us. And I’m one of the few he had up on the mountain with him that one day when Moses and Elijah showed up.”

And John might chime in, “Well, James and I were there too on that day. I bet he’d pick one of us.”

Then James might turn to his brother and say, “Well, it would have to be me, not you, because you’re too young to be in charge.”

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

“Am not!”

And maybe Judas would interrupt this argument before it turned physical, saying, “Well, you guys are all hicks from Galilee. I think Jesus would pick someone a little bit more sophisticated, someone who could relate better to people in Jerusalem.”

“So I suppose you think you’d get to be the leader, then, Judas,” Thomas might chime in. “You’re the only Judean. But why would Jesus think a Judean was better than someone from Galilee? Remember that he’s a Galilean too!”

Then Matthew might jump in. “I think he’d pick someone who’s financially secure, who maybe could support all of us. Running all over creation teaching people takes money, you know. And I’ve got more money than any of you.”

“Well,” Peter might say. “I think your past would probably come back to haunt you. There’s no way the Pharisees would listen to a former tax collector. As far as they’re concerned, you’re still a filthy collaborator.”

Now, I don’t know how long this argument might have gone on, with each of the twelve giving their reason why he should be the leader, and each one of them getting shot down by someone else, but you get the idea. Maybe it went on until they got home, as Jesus walked ahead of them a few paces, and they all figured he was lost in his own thoughts, or even in prayer, and probably—hopefully!—not listening to them. Because they must have known somewhere in their heart of hearts how ridiculous the argument was.

But no such luck. When they got home, Jesus asked, seemingly innocently, “What were you guys talking about?” I remember my mom asking similar innocent questions when I was a kid and doing something I shouldn’t have been doing—and knowing full well she knew the answer before she asked.

And the disciples probably looked very intently at their feet right then. But Jesus didn’t chew them out, like he had not too long before when they hadn’t been able to do anything for a father who brought his epileptic son for healing.

Any of us who’ve ever been teachers know about “teachable moments.” Those times when something happens and we throw out the lesson plans because we’ve just been presented an opportunity to teach something we hadn’t planned to teach. Jesus saw a teachable moment here. The disciples’ reaction when Jesus asked them what they were talking about told him they were ripe for being taught another way to think about greatness. So he sat down—as a rabbi would to teach.

He said, “You know, the world thinks about greatness the way you were doing on the road. Who’s the most qualified, most powerful, best at the stuff on the job description? Who has money, who has the right ethnic background, the best political savvy? But you guys have been around me long enough to know that’s not the way I see it, and that’s not the way my Father sees it.

“In the Kingdom of God, the one who is the greatest is the one who serves everyone else. In the kingdom of God, the ones given special honor are the weak, the broken, the insignificant, the powerless.”

And then, for the visual learners among them, he called a little child who happened to be walking through and took that child into his arms. Maybe he had the weun sit on his lap for a second. And he said, “If you welcome one like this in my name, you are welcoming me—and in welcoming me, you welcome God.” That’s true greatness, he said.

Some preachers are using this text to talk about how we treat children in this country. And that’s certainly a worthwhile conversation to have. But it’s not the whole point.

To understand Jesus’ point we need to know a little bit about what it meant to be a child in his day. Childhood wasn’t seen in those days as an ideal time of innocence, a time of play and wonder. Children weren’t seen as precious, but as necessary nuisances, to be fed and clothed and put up with until they were old enough to be of some use to the family. In a time when many kids didn’t survive even to age five, it just didn’t pay to get attached to them. They were weak, powerless; they had no say in what happened to them; they were completely at someone else’s mercy, completely dependent on someone else to provide for them.

So when Jesus said, “Be servant of all, welcoming all, even a child, and you will be great,” he was really saying, “True greatness is welcoming and serving the lowest of the low.”

We learned from Jesus—not just from his words but from the way he lived his life, the Son of God coming as a baby to an ordinary, poor family who lived in the sticks of Galilee, taking as his followers fishermen, tax collectors, sinners, broken people, poor people, even women and children; and eventually dying naked on a cross—that the way of the Kingdom is the way of service, of humility, of being prepared even to give up our lives for others who probably don’t even deserve to be served or welcomed like this.

The way of the Kingdom is to welcome and serve the lowest of the low. In serving these, we serve Christ, and in serving Christ we serve God.

Now, I think it’s easy to welcome and care for some children, at least—the ones who behave, who have manners, who are cute. But that’s not all Jesus meant. It’s not so easy to welcome and care for children who don’t look like us, who don’t know how to behave, who have issues, who aren't cute, who are obnoxious. But those are the ones we need especially to welcome.

And he might have set a child on his lap to teach them; but he wasn’t talking just about children. He was talking about anyone who has low status, is powerless, anyone with whom we’d rather not associate. He was telling his disciples—telling us—that how we treat these little ones, these poor ones, these weak ones, these invisible ones is how we treat him.

In a way, when we encounter one of these little ones who needs us to welcome and love them, we are encountering Jesus; we have a chance to welcome Jesus, to care for Jesus.

So the question for each of us is this: How will we treat Jesus when we meet him this week?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Another blog worth reading

Check out Ohio Presbyterian pastor Thom Shuman's most recent blog entry at We in the church talk a really good line about being welcoming to all, but what happens when the rubber meets the road?

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Real Biblical Values?

Perhaps you’ve seen the new Monday night program on TLC, Shalom in the Home. For many folks this is the first introduction to an Orthodox Jewish rabbi by the name of Shmuley Boteach. I had heard of him, but didn’t know a whole lot about him, and I haven’t watched the TLC show for one reason or another.

But Rabbi Shmuley also writes a regular column on the website Beliefnet, which he calls “Rebbe with a Cause.” The column that was there this past week began with his musings on The Da Vinci Code controversy and ended with his opinion that he can relate a great deal more to a Jesus who was human than he can to the way Jesus is often portrayed. (Christian theology says Jesus is fully human and fully divine; but since our minds don’t handle paradox well, we often find ourselves thinking about Jesus as more divine than human, or vice versa.)

Now, I don’t want to get into the whole controversy about The Da Vinci Code here; I have read the book (found it mildly entertaining, but definitely not a classic work of literature) but haven’t seen the movie, and I’m not really up on all the intricacies of folks’ objections to it. But in the middle of Rabbi Shmuley’s column he made a very interesting observation. He said that part of the appeal of the book and movie stems from a desire not only for a more human Jesus but also for more humane forms of religion.

He gave an example: Evidently one of the families he worked with on Shalom in the Home was a lesbian couple with children. Right after that another Orthodox rabbi said Rabbi Shmuley should not be allowed to read Torah at the synagogue as a result. (Lest we fall into the trap of shaking our heads at “those legalistic Jews,” Rabbi Shmuley pointed out that we Christians have not been totally innocent of similar charges either—and he’s right. He also pointed a finger at Muslims, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Rabbi Shmuley said, “Faith has become so harsh in our time, so inhuman, that hundreds of millions have turned to the New Age to accommodate their spiritual needs in utter rejection of organized religion…Many Christian evangelicals believe that the essence of Christianity is best captured in condemning gays.” (It’s my understanding that Orthodox Judaism isn’t exactly open and affirming toward gay and lesbian people, either, but his point is still valid.)

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, even though they admitted up front that it would not pass, the U.S. Senate devoted time, energy, and taxpayers’ money to debating a Constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage once and for all. (A certain element of the Senate seems to believe they need to raise this issue in an election year solely to energize their “base.”) On the cable “news” shows, the usual suspects appeared to explain that this ban is needed to “protect traditional marriage”—I have not yet figured out just exactly how my marriage or that of my parents or grandparents is truly in danger because there are two men or two women somewhere who also want to be married. God is brought into the conversation, and Christian values are appealed to.

I know there are a few passages in the Bible that seem to condemn homosexuality, and since they’re in the Bible we at least have to struggle with them. However, there are far, far, far more passages in the Bible that say a nation stands or falls not based on how stridently they denounce homosexuality but on how the most vulnerable in the society are treated. The Old Testament prophets, for instance, speak volumes about their people’s guilt before God—and their sin is not tolerance of gay people in their midst but “[trampling] on the poor” (Amos 5:11, and many other places in that book, for instance).

If we as a nation truly are committed to being a Godly nation, we’d spend a lot less time screaming at one another about gay marriage, and a whole lot more time treating one another—especially the poorest and most vulnerable among us—with care and compassion.

Far too often in this country religious faith is becoming a club with which to beat one another, instead of a means by which we are able to encounter the love and grace of God—most generally through the words and actions of one another. I agree with Rabbi Shmuley that it’s high time to put a stop to that, and perhaps to return to true Biblical values, such as love, grace, and faithfulness.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Family Values

The first year I was in college in Wichita, I had a friend, Tom, who was a piano performance major. When I learned that there was going to be a concert by a famous pianist in Tulsa, I asked Tom if he’d like to go down to see the concert, which was on a Sunday night.

Well, it just so happened that my dad’s restaurant was severely short-handed at the time, as a result of a couple of cashiers’ health and family problems, so I was driving from Wichita to Coffeyville every weekend to work there. So Tom drove down from Wichita Sunday morning, and met me at the cafeteria. The same day, we had a family birthday dinner at my aunt Sue’s house, before we went to the concert. Tom was welcomed to the table for Sue’s famous spaghetti.

That’s the way my family operates: if someone appeared at suppertime, whether it was a relative or one of our friends or someone my sister or I was dating, we set an extra place at the table and they joined us. The neighbor kids were in and out of our house and yard so much that one summer my mom tried to lay down the law about how much time they could spend there (it didn’t work). My grandparents, when I was little, lived in a neighborhood full of kids, and we’d play together all morning on Saturday, then Grandma would fix us a picnic lunch of cheese and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, which we’d eat on the picnic table in the backyard, washed down with Kool-Aid made by the mom of some of the neighbor kids. One of my high school boyfriends was beaten badly by his father one night, and he came to our house to be safe and get help.

When we hear politicians talking about “family,” oftentimes they use the term in an exclusive sense. “Family” means certain kinds of people, and not others (as if those others somehow sprang unaided into existence without parents, siblings, or other family members), and any who don’t fit the mold are defined out. I think, based on my own family, that they define the term much too narrowly. My family may not be terribly diverse ethnically or racially, but we’re still a pretty variegated lot.

My family includes couples who’ve been married for decades, divorced folks, people who haven’t ever gotten married. There are gay and lesbian people in my family. We have foster children, stepchildren, adopted children, and children who arrived in the “usual” way—and there are households where there aren’t any children at all. We are professional people, homemakers, teachers, bankers, tradesmen, management and union folks. Four generations of my family have had careers involving food. We live in cities and in rural areas. We are teetotalers, alcoholics, and everything in between. We have a variety of political, social and religious views. Yes, we sometimes get on one another’s nerves, sometimes we argue, but we’d lay down our lives for one another if need be, protect and defend one another in whatever way is called for. And the door’s always open to welcome relatives and friends alike, with grace and love and good things to eat. (Too many good things to eat, in a lot of cases.)

Often we hear church described as a family. If that’s the case, I hope we’re a family like mine.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Spring Training

Someone from the Midrash preaching e-list asked me to post my sermon for tomorrow so folks could link to it from his website. (for more information on Midrash, go to the website.)

February 12, 2005
Spring Training
1 Corinthians 9:24-27

Are you watching any of the Olympics?

In the time leading up to the opening ceremony on Friday, we’ve heard a great deal about some of the people who are going to be competing for the United States in Turin. One of the rising stars right now is the skier Bode Miller. He’s actually in trouble, mostly, because of some less-than-diplomatic comments he made about drug testing of athletes, and also because he said there were times he has skied impaired or hung over—which isn’t funny, even though he acted like it was during an interview on 60 Minutes, because skiing is a dangerous sport, and he could be seriously hurt skiing drunk.

Not one of the best examples for a young athlete to set—but you have to cut him maybe a little slack because of that one word: young. He actually reminds me a little of what Andre Agassi was like when he first appeared on the scene almost 20 years ago. I remember seeing him on David Letterman or the Tonight Show, I forget which, when he was about 22, talking about how he’d never, ever play at Wimbledon, because he wouldn’t be allowed to wear denim on the court. And, of course, he outgrew his attitude, and eventually did take off his denim and play at Wimbledon. So, although I do think it’s extremely stupid of Bode Miller to be skiing drunk, I don’t see the point in getting too riled up about some of the other things he says or does. (If he’s still saying and doing the same things when he’s in his 30s, then I’ll worry.)

Right now, at least from what I’ve heard, this guy is a shining star because of his incredible natural talent. Sort of like when Tiger Woods was a college kid winning the U.S. Amateur tournaments, and folks were talking about his potential, and looking back we discovered that he was a golf prodigy even as early as five years old. (We can only take this comparison so far, though, because unlike Bode Miller, I think Tiger has always been pretty careful about what he says in public, and has for the most part kept his nose clean.) And Tiger turned pro, and immediately won some major tournaments. But now we’re several years after that, and while Tiger is still very good, he doesn’t win every tournament he plays in—sometimes he doesn’t even make the cut. And he’s had some trouble with his back, and amazingly enough, he has to practice, just like any of the rest of us would.

Now, golf is a different sort of sport than many of our professional sports today, like football and baseball. A football player can’t plan on having a very long career. It’s just too hard on the body. With baseball, folks can play until they’re a little older before retiring, but still you don’t see too many pro baseball players older than mid-40s. But a golfer like Tiger can expect to play professionally for as many as 40 years!

He’ll have to do some things to make sure he can do that, though. He will have to take care of his body. He’ll have to eat right and exercise—paying special attention to the parts of the body that golf can be hard on. He will also have to keep his mind sharp—because as any of you who play know, golf is as much a mental game as it is a physical one. He will—and this goes without saying, really—want to stay away from drugs and alcohol and other things that would impair his mental and physical abilities. And he’ll have to continue to practice, continue to work on the various skills that go into the game of golf. As long as he intends to continue to play golf, he will have to do all these things. His training won’t end. It will always be a part of his life.

To be truthful, no athlete who intends to continue being an athlete can say one day, "I’ve trained enough now. I’m not going to show up for practice anymore. I’m not going to report (as pitchers, catchers and injured players will do this Thursday) for spring training this year. I’ll just come to the games, and that’ll be fine." Training, and practicing, and conditioning, cannot stop, or the athlete’s career will also stop.

Some of us women preachers—at least the ones of us who have no athletic ability, like myself—object when we hear a sermon filled with illustrations and images from sports. And certainly it can be taken too far. But there are some times when talking about sports and athletics is exactly what’s called for. One of those times is when we’re working on some texts from Paul’s letters, because Paul uses a lot of athletic imagery to talk about what the Christian life is like.

In the case of our text from 1 Corinthians, Paul uses the analogies of boxing and running because Corinth was host, every two years, to an event called the Isthmian Games—second only in prestige to the Olympic Games themselves. No doubt there were a number of events that athletes could compete in, just like at the modern Olympic Games that are going on right now. The winners of the competitions at the Isthmian Games, like the winners at the Olympics and other ancient athletic events, received wreaths of greenery as prizes. What was unusual about the Isthmian Games’ wreaths, though, was that they were made out of withered celery. Imagine you bought a stalk of celery at the grocery store and left it in your refrigerator a couple of weeks, until it started to droop and turn brown. Then you made a wreath out of it: that was first prize at the Isthmian Games. I hate to think what the second- and third-place awards were like.

Paul says these athletes compete to receive "a perishable wreath"—very clearly perishable from the moment it was put on the winner’s head. We—and by "we" he means Christians—have our eyes on an imperishable, an eternal, prize. So how much more should we be training and practicing for our own races? How much more should we be disciplining ourselves in order to be in the best possible shape for the life Christ has called us to live? How much more—and read in context this is Paul’s point—do we need to lay aside our desire to have our own way, our indulgence in attitudes and behaviors that impair our ability to be faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to the community of believers established to live and proclaim that Gospel in the world?

See, this text comes in the midst of a discussion Paul is having with the Corinthian church over the question of a Christian’s freedom. He has talked about the issue of Christians eating meat that has been offered to idols. Some of the Corinthian Christians had major concerns about this, and others thought it was no big deal and that the ones who had the concerns were superstitious rubes who needed to get over it. But Paul told them that, yes, we are free to eat this meat, because we know that idols are phony gods and can’t help or hurt us—however, if exercising that freedom might cause other Christians to fall, then we would do well to lay it aside.

What he is trying to say to the Corinthians is that a faithful Christian life is a disciplined life, a life of self-control. It isn’t a life of unbridled freedom, where we can do whatever we want because Christ has set us free from the demands of the Law. It also isn’t a life of rampant individualism, where all that matters is each believer’s personal relationship with Jesus. The faithful Christian life is a process of being shaped and formed more and more into the likeness of Jesus Christ. And it’s a life lived among others who are in the same process, in a community where we all help with the training and formation of one another in the context of mutual love and grace. Our training won’t end. It will always be a part of our lives.

The training of a Christian involves a number of activities. Like an athlete, we need to make sure we take good care of our bodies, including eating well, exercising, managing our illnesses and other conditions carefully. We need to avoid substances and behaviors that detract from our physical, mental and spiritual health, like excessive use of alcohol and drugs, and inappropriate sexual expressions. We also need to take good care of our minds, studying and reading and learning all the time, reading our Bibles alone and with others. And we need to strengthen our spiritual lives, by practicing the spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation, worship, confession, celebration, and stewardship.

These things aren’t always exciting. Sometimes they’re downright repetitive and boring—sort of like lifting weights or running laps or hitting balls at the driving range or in the batting cage. But if we are going to receive that imperishable wreath Paul talks about, we have to keep ourselves in shape for the race we’re called to run.