June 2010


When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over (2 Kings 2:9-14).

I work every week in an historic home that used to be the “manse” or pastor’s residence for First Presbyterian Church in Amory. Since the new manse was purchased years ago, the older home has served as the church office and historical room and is now known as “the Annex.”

The other day, merely out of curiosity, I opened the old-fashioned medicine cabinet in the bathroom. I was intrigued by what I found in it: an Allen wrench and a lovely little vintage water glass about four inches tall. The latter had an etched leaf pattern encircling it maybe a half inch from the rim and sat on a flared foot. The former, the wrench, was a typical tool used to assemble those shelving units, dog gates, etc. that come in big boxes.

How did these two completely unrelated items come to be left behind in a medicine cabinet in Amory, MS? Who had left them? Why? No doubt members of the church reading this will be able to tell me.

In the meantime, my discovery has led me to reflect on what we leave behind, whether when we die or when we move on to another place or job. Maybe the Old Testament lectionary reading for this Sunday quoted above has put me in such a frame of mind or maybe it’s my work as an interim pastor or maybe it’s because I’m not getting any younger.

What’s left behind could be actual physical objects, like that glass or the wrench, books or files or money or a home. It could be the values inculcated in a younger generation that sustain, inform, and guide them and which they will pass on to their children. And unfortunately, it could be anger, resentment, glee at our departure. (Let’s hope not.)

What we leave behind depends a great deal on what lies beneath. I mean what’s in our hearts and souls, whether we live with faith, hope, and love, what the focus of our lives has been. Those who live with positive values, who care for others, who center their lives in the Word of God, Jesus Christ, will leave a positive, beloved legacy (see Psalm 1).

What we leave behind also depends on our belief about what comes next. Do we see the future as promising? Do we have faith in those who will come after us? And, most importantly, do we believe tomorrow is held in God’s hands, and God will not fail us, no matter what mortals may do?

If so, like Elijah, we may confidently pass the mantle.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

 

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And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:5).

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert (Isaiah 43:19).

Certain sectors of our society seem to love euphemisms. “Outplaced”=“fired.” “Furloughed”= “laid off for an indefinite time.” “Wardrobe malfunction”= “supposedly accidental, but actually intentional, exposure of a usually hidden body part.” “For your convenience”= “for our convenience.” “Negative outcome/success”=“failure.”

One of my favorite euphemisms these days is “upgrade.” My first question is “according to whose standard?” Like the “software upgrade” on the pumps at a gas station I frequent that will allow customers to buy only 35 gallons per transaction. Why should how much gas I can buy be limited? For whom is such a restriction an “upgrade”? Certainly not the person with the RV.

Sometimes upgrades are really just that. Something better. The way the laptop on which I’m typing is far better than the other two I used to have. Or the way IE8 improved on earlier versions, once the bugs were worked out. And, oh, by the way, I chose to upgrade in those cases.

What I hate is forced upgrades. Like when my Internet security software is completely upgraded with a new layout, and the old one was just fine. Or when my local cable company decides they are going to “upgrade” my service and everybody else’s, and of course it will cost more, require additional equipment, and defeat some of the functions of my old-fashioned analog VCR. (But “we have a DVR available for an additional charge,” said their rep.)

Whenever changes are made, whether in cable service or an organization’s life, I believe we have to ask: who stands to benefit from this change? Who decided to make it and why? Are those to be affected given a chance to decide if they want the upgrade/change? If not, are they provided a viable, attractive option if they don’t want it? (Unlike our cable company, that would deprive us of all but basic service if we did not accept the upgrade.)

I’m not against change. In fact, I like it, if I get to have a say in how/when/what. If it’s not imposed, but negotiated or at least explained. If I can see that it will genuinely make my life better/easier/simpler. I don’t need or want change that makes an already complicated world more complex or an already difficult to comprehend process or form more frustrating to deal with. And I especially don’t like change if my freedom to choose is restricted by it.

For all my complaining about upgrades, though, there is one upgrade I’m looking forward to and praying for: the day when God makes all things new.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

 

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who by myself spread out the earth; who frustrates the omens of liars, and makes fools of diviners; who turns back the wise, and makes their knowledge foolish; who confirms the word of his servant, and fulfills the prediction of his messengers; who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be inhabited,” and of the cities of Judah, “They shall be rebuilt, and I will raise up their ruins”; who says to the deep, “Be dry— I will dry up your rivers”; who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose”; and who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be rebuilt,” and of the temple, “Your foundation shall be laid” (Isaiah 44:24-28).

I made a wonderful discovery recently while preparing a Sunday liturgy. Or maybe it was a rediscovery. Whichever, it came from reading Psalm 146, the appointed psalm for the day.

As I adapted the poem as a call to worship, I saw as if for the first time in the psalm that God the Creator is also indentified as the one who does justice, feeds the hungry, cares for the marginalized, brings freedom, lifts up the downtrodden, watches over the stranger, and defeats the wicked. The Creator is the Faithful One; the Creator is the Sovereign One who reigns forever. The Creator is worthy of all praise, which mortals are not.

I began to wonder whether other texts identifying God as Creator had such an emphasis. Indeed they do! And that’s just the beginning of how exciting the meditation of the Scriptures is on God the Creator.

First, God the Creator is the One who helps his people. The most succinct expression of this great truth is the familiar line from Psalm 124: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 121 reminds us that help comes not from idols whose shrines were on hilltops in the ancient world, but from the Lord, “who made heaven and earth.” Perhaps the most sustained treatment of the Creator God as Helper is Isaiah 40-45, written by a great poet of the Exile. Here is just a taste: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth….He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless” (40:28a, 29).

Second, God the Creator is the One who claims us and calls for obedience and faithfulness. Deuteronomy 32:6 holds that honor is due God because he is our Father, who created us. The call to rest on the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments is founded on the practice of God the Creator, who was secure enough in his work to turn aside from it on the seventh day. And the prophet chided the people for their lack of community by saying: “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another…?” (Malachi 2:10)

Third, God the Creator is the One who defeats idols. Second Isaiah, in the Babylonian Exile, came back to this theme over and over. Idols are made of wood, stone, and metal; they cannot save. God, on the other hand, is the only true God, who made heaven and earth, and before whom the idols of the peoples are nothing; all nations and their rulers are “a drop from a bucket” before God. No one compares with him (see especially Isaiah 40:18-26).

Indeed, the great creation narrative of Genesis 1, so often the subject of controversy these days, was written to subvert the claims to supremacy of Marduk, the national god of Babylon. No one in the ancient world doubted that a deity had made the universe. The question was which god had made it. The priests who penned Genesis 1 were asserting that the God of Israel was the Creator, who brought order to chaos and so could bring order to the chaos and confusion of exile. The claims of Marduk and his followers were false; the exiled Jews could trust in their Creator God and could turn a deaf ear to the taunts of their captors.

Fourth, God the Creator is the One who alone is to be worshiped and exalted. It would be enough said if I only took you again to Isaiah 40-45. But listen to these texts: “O Lord, the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth” (2 Kings 19:15). “Praise him, you highest heavens…. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created” (Psalm 148: 4,5). And this amazing paean of praise from Revelation, which I think of as the worship book of the Church: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created” (4:11).

It’s clear to me that so-called “creationists” or advocates of “intelligent design” who claim to revere the Bible have likely not actually read that Book. When the storytellers, psalmists, and prophets name and exalt God as Creator, they are not concerned with scientific theories. Indeed, there was no science as we know it in the ancient world. Rather, the writers are largely doing pastoral care—providing assurance, calling to account, bringing hope, subverting the claims of the nations for their idols.

The true creationists are not those who push biblical texts as scientific truth. It is instead those who worship the Creator, exalt him alone as their God, and find in him their help and hope.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham

 

 

Due to improvement work on a railway underpass on Highway 278 coming into Amory, MS, I have had to find an alternate route to my office at First Presbyterian Church. I tried the recommended detour once, but it seemed roundabout and too time-consuming. I looked at the local map and found a way into downtown that made more sense.

The route takes me through a part of Amory I had never seen, making it not only the road less traveled, but the road never traveled. Now that I must drive it two days a week on my commute, I’m seeing churches, industries, homes, and businesses I would not have encountered in the usual course of my work and contacts as interim pastor of the church. So I’m getting to know the town in a much more complete way.

As I drove down the new (to me) connector street into town, I began to think about the value of stepping out of our comfort zones now and again or exploring parts of ourselves we have not taken time or energy to cultivate. I was forced by the circumstance of road work to take a new route. Do you or I need to be pushed, cajoled or forced into a fresh approach or returning to an activity we love that we have abandoned or might we choose to do so willingly?

The first day I took my chosen detour, I heard an interview on Acoustic Cafe, an NPR show, with John Oates. You may know that he was and is half of the classic rock/R&B duo Hall and Oates. Turns out he has an acoustic, roots music side that was in fact his love before the duo was formed. His latest solo effort, 1000 Miles of Life, sees his return to that sort of music, featuring legendary players like Bela Fleck and Jerry Douglas. I never cared for Hall and Oates, but the cuts played on Acoustic Cafe were extraordinary, and indeed revealed another side of John Oates. He pursued this project because he wanted to return to the kind of music he had loved since he was a teen.

Hearing about Oates’ interest in making the music he loves on the same day I began to drive the alternate route felt like a message from God. It couldn’t be coincidence. The word was: travel some new paths, reflect on what you love and go do that, step out of your comfort zone and see what treasures and wonders new territory may hold.

Interesting, too, that the very same week, I had written a devotional for the local hospice on “walking” a finger labyrinth. We do that with our non-dominant hand, again to push us out of our comfort zones and discover something about the fresh wayschartres-labyrinth1 God may want to work in our lives.

I’ve tried “walking”  those paper labyrinths with my left hand. It’s hard and tiring. But also satisfying. Maybe that’s the way it always is when we take an alternate route.

© 2010 Tom Cheatham