The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins this Sunday. Once again it finds us broken and divided in the Church and the churches. We argue over everything from what color paint to put on the walls of a Sunday school room to who can serve and be served Holy Communion. Some “Christians” promote and thrive on division for one reason or another, usually power, money, and/or recognition. Most in the Church, though, long for God’s people to prove by their life together the power of God to bring harmony and peace. They look to the day when Jesus’ prayer that “they may all be one” (John 17:21) will be made reality. They join the prophet Ezekiel in hope that those who belong to God may be one in his hand (Ezekiel 37:19; the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer).

 

I doubt seriously that oneness will ever be achieved or practiced as once imagined, namely, structurally or by agreement on doctrines. And, indeed, I suspect that kind of unity is irrelevant today. Denominations as institutions simply don’t matter anymore. We live in a post-denominational age. 

 

And that’s actually good news, since it may force us to refocus our energy from ourselves back to where it belongs. As usual, young adults are leading the way in reminding us of the possibilities of paradigm shifts like that from denominational to post-denominational Christianity. Rodger Nishioka, of Columbia Theological Seminary, has pointed to eight trends in the viewpoints and interests of young adults we all need to pay attention to:

 

n  from tribal education to immigrant education;

n  from mission out there to mission right here;

n  from reasoned spirituality to mystery-filled spirituality;

n  from official leadership to gifted leadership;

n  from long-term planning to short-term planning;

n  from mass evangelism to one-to-one evangelism;

n  from “traditioning” to experience;

n  from duty and responsibility to “what’s in it for me?”

 

Nishioka says that the main thing young adults are interested in is not what denomination a congregation is, but whether the Holy Spirit is active there. Do they experience God in the midst of the gathered community?

 

A major indicator of how God is present among a people is their involvement in mission. Post-denominational young adults are telling us that they want to see those nearby (“right here”) served with compassion, given a voice, and treated with justice. I believe it is involvement in such mission—not agreement on doctrine, structure or ordination— that has the potential to unify Christians. As Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, once famously said, “When you’re up on that roof, it don’t matter if you’re a Baptist or an Episcopalian; it just matters that you can hit the nail on the head.”

 

In serving our neighbors, especially the “least of these,” we serve Christ. Jesus himself said that our commitment to them is the basis on which we will be judged. So I dare say we won’t be held accountable for whether we wore the “right” vestment, believed the “right” doctrine or ordained the “right” people. We can find our unity again or for the first time if we simply follow Jesus, who came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

 

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

 

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(O Sapientia)

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,

pervading and permeating all creation,

you order all things with strength and gentleness:

Come now and teach us the way to salvation.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Adonai)

O Adonai, Ruler of the house of Israel,

you appeared in the burning bush to Moses

and gave him the law on Sinai:

Come with outstretched arm to save us.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Radix Jesse)

O Root of Jesse, rising as a sign for all the peoples,

before you earthly rulers will keep silent,

and nations give you honor:

Come quickly to deliver us.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Clavis David)

O Key of David, Scepter over the house of Israel,

you open and no one can close,

you close and no one can open:

Come to set free the prisoners

who live in darkness and the shadow of death.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Oriens)

O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light,

Sun of justice:

Come, shine on those who live in darkness

and in the shadow of death.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Rex Gentium)

O Ruler of the nations, Monarch for whom the people long,

you are the Cornerstone uniting all humanity:

Come, save us all,

whom you formed out of clay.

Come, Lord Jesus.

 

(O Emmanuel)

 O Immanuel, our Sovereign and Lawgiver,

desire of the nations and Savior of all:

Come and save us, O Lord our God.

Come, Lord Jesus.

         

            Silence

 

God of grace, ever faithful to your promises,

the earth rejoices in hope of our Savior’s coming

and looks forward with longing

to his return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts to

receive him when he comes, for he is Lord forever and ever.   Amen.

 

 

Since at least the 8th century CE, the “O Antiphons” have been sung or chanted in liturgy in the Western Church during the Octave before Christmas (December 17-23). They may have been used as far back as the 5th or 6th century, when there is a reference to them in the writings of Boethius, a philosopher and poet. French Benedictines not so long after were reciting the prayers and then giving gifts to each other.

 

Those same monks arranged the antiphons in such a way that they formed an acrostic. Starting with the last title and taking the first letter of each in turn, they formed the Latin phrase ero cras (“tomorrow, I will come”): Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia. Their creative arrangement reminded them of the promise of Jesus’ advent (coming, parousia): “Surely I am coming soon” (Revelation 22:20). 

 

I love this litany! First, for its extreme age. In this time of disposable everything, we need truly ancient traditions that have been developed and shared and valued over the millennia, enriching the lives of countless numbers of believers. In reciting the O Antiphons, we are connected in a deep and enduring way with those who have gone before us.

 

Second, for its imagination. We become so lazy in our address to God and Jesus, preferring only a couple of titles like “Father” or “Lord.” But the Bible is full of wonderful terms that would take our worship and prayer to a new level, if we would but seek them out. The seven words (in Latin) used in the O Antiphons barely scratch the surface of what the Scriptures offer us as a resource for our relationship with our Lord.

 

Third, for its longing and passion. Can’t you feel the ache in these prayers? Surely in these days of economic crisis, unending and fruitless war, genocide, corruption, greed, fear, and on and on, we need the intervention of divine providence that these ancient lines call for. Particularly for those bound in whatever way—by debt, by addiction, by prejudice, by lust for power—these prayers plead for freedom and help. And for us all, in our deathly culture from which we cannot extricate ourselves, there is no other hope for breaking free from the tomb than our God’s swift coming.

 

You readers who worship in a liturgical church that observes Advent and follows the customs of the ages will most likely pray these prayers yourself this Sunday as part of the gathered community. If you do not have that opportunity, I encourage you to use them for personal devotions, ask your pastor to include them next year on the Sunday before Christmas or both.

 

Have a blessed Christmas, and be encouraged by these words “ero cras,” “tomorrow, I will come.”

 

© Tom Cheatham

 

Notes

 

The version of the O Antiphons I use here comes from Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Church (USA).

 

My source for history is Fr. William Saunders, “What are the ‘O Antiphons’?” http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0374.html

Four years ago today Susan’s dad Neal came to live with us. It was an interesting, uplifting, and at times challenging journey for all.

 

Neal joined the Church Triumphant on October 11. It is my privilege to bear testimony to his faith and invite my readers to join me in following his example.

 

“…[G]ive thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you…” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

 

“The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4: 5b,6).

 

One of the qualities I admired most about Susan’s late father Neal was his thankfulness. Even in his time of decline, when some days he barely said a word, he was always grateful. And for the smallest things. A glass of milk. Fresh figs from our backyard tree. Help with some personal task he could no longer do for himself.

 

You don’t just wake up one morning and become a person who lives with gratitude. Neal’s whole life was like that. He wasn’t greedy. He wasn’t fancy. His needs and wants were simple. And whatever he had and got was always a gift from “the good Lord,” as he consistently called God.

 

What if every day you and I gave thanks for the “little” things? Hot buttered grits, salted just right. Licks on the nose from a loyal dog. That first taste of morning coffee. Cute chickadees and barking wrens. Multi-tools. Warm woolen socks. A page-turner book that excites the imagination. Playful teasing and banter with spouse, family or friends. A smile, a hug, a twinkle in the eye from a loved one when the day hasn’t turned out very well. If we were to reflect a bit, all these are really the essence of life.

 

Imitate Neal. Be grateful every day. Let that be our commitment this Thanksgiving.

 

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

Recently I was considering updating my Internet browser. I had tried to do that once before, but apparently downloaded the Beta version of the software. Big mistake! My computer was totally FUBAR afterwards.

 

So I turned to Alston, my friend and go-to guy for IT, and asked about the safety of the program. He told me things should be fine, but just in case my computer experienced problems, I should create a “system restore point.” If the software didn’t “play nice,” he said, I had a way of returning my computer to the way it was before the bugs took over. 

 

I have yet to try to install the update, but in the meantime, I’ve realized that providing a “restore point” is a pretty good description of what God has done in Christ on the cross. Things are obviously terribly wrong with humanity. The “system” is full of “bugs” or really just one big Bug called “sin.” It’s responsible for everything from the greed and corruption of Wall Street to the anger of parent and teen against each other to the intolerance and hatred of “religious” people toward those who are different or of another faith.

 

Sin is not wrong acts. Those are symptoms of the root problem, what the Reformed tradition calls “radical depravity.” Sin is a broken relationship with God. Once that basic “operating system” is compromised, all sorts of terrible things happen. We’re alienated from each other and refuse to share in community and harmony with our neighbors. We fail to live out of our own best nature, which is to express the love and justice of the God who made us.

 

But in some way I don’t pretend to fully understand, the cross of Christ repaired the brokenness. What Jesus did on the cross set in motion the process that will end in the restoration of all creation to the way God intended it to be. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself,” said Paul (2 Corinthians 5:19).

 

Obviously, the time when the new creation comes is not yet, though we hope fervently for everything to be restored soon. In the interim, we can still look to the cross as our “restore point” where our faith in God can be made whole again, before doubt and fear took over. When we despair that anyone anymore acts selflessly: look at the cross. When we wonder if God cares: look at the cross. When feel burdened by sin: look at the cross. And be renewed, refreshed, restored.

 

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

This post is the final one in a series based on my recent sermon “The Debt of Love,” preached at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Northport, Alabama.

“The commandments…are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Romans 13:9).

The Book of Leviticus says that correcting or rebuking someone about their behavior is an expression of love (Leviticus 19:17). The Gospel of Matthew (18:15-20) gives an example of such loving admonishment in the community of faith. Someone has wronged another member of the church. What is to be done? There are several options. The one wronged could stew about the grievance and hold a grudge. He or she could spread rumors about the offending brother or sister. Or the hurt one could do the unthinkable: go to the person who committed the offense and talk. Love wants a relationship to be made whole again. Love that does no harm knows that a sister or a brother is harmed by being alienated from another, whether he or she knows it or not. The one who was hurt is harmed, too, because he or she doesn’t have a proper relationship with the other member. Wholeness is found in community. The purpose of the conversation, as difficult and painful as it may be, is to regain a positive relationship. Love leads us to seek out those who have done us wrong and talk seriously about what happened.

None of us likes to talk about things that are unpleasant. Sometimes we’d rather sweep problems under the rug. We seem to believe that if we ignore them long enough, they’ll go away, like a stray dog who comes around wanting food and a scratch behind the ears. And ignoring a problem works. For awhile. But if that’s our standard method of conflict management, we’re in for a rude surprise. One day, like a volcano, it will all erupt—all the pain, all the anger, all the frustration, and for the slightest of reasons. Except that what we see as a triviality is really a trigger.

My first time in seminary, I shared a house with three other guys named Jim, Ernie, and John. I barely knew John and Ernie; they seemed to be gone most of the time. But Jim and I got to be good friends. Some of the things I did rubbed him the wrong way and vice-versa. But I was brought up to be nice; you simply didn’t say things to people. Talk about them behind their backs, yes, but not to their face!

But one day I had had it. For some reason, the way Jim answered the phone pushed some button. All my anger and frustration and irritation focused on the silly way Jim pronounced “hello.” I confronted him, and we had it out about all the issues that I had had and he had had since we met. Our friendship was actually stronger after that. I had gained a brother.

Paying the debt of love isn’t easy. But Paul is convinced that trying to fulfill every detail of the law would be harder still. He should know. He tried and failed, as did his peers. Better to have one focus, one ultimate calling, one principle that guides us in every situation. People in debt try to consolidate all their payments into one monthly amount to one company. Rather like that, we follow this one summary statement that fulfills all the requirements of God: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We can’t live such a life in our own strength. And we don’t have to. The good news is always that we are not alone and that we don’t need to be afraid. Whether we’re gathered in a little group of two or three, in a megachurch filled with thousands, or anywhere in between, Jesus has promised to be among us. Prayer holds us up, as do our sisters and brothers. Faith in God’s purpose gives us hope. And so we can go out to love.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…. Love does no harm to a neighbor” (Romans 13:8a, 10a, based on NRSV).

In last week’s post, I explored how Paul talks about actual debt and money in the text from Romans. How we spend our funds and the amount of debt we have are moral and ethical issues.

But even if none of us had any mortgages and paid for everything we got with cash and barter, there would still be a debt crisis in our land. Because every one of us owes, or ought to owe, a debt of love to our neighbors. No collectors call if we don’t pay. Our credit rating with the credit bureaus stays in the high numbers. But there are other, more dire consequences. Ironically, if we don’t pay this debt, our lives will be impoverished. We’ll be ruined at the deepest level of our being. We could have millions of dollars in the bank, but you and I would be morally and spiritually bankrupt.

We’re called on to pay this debt frequently. In fact, it comes due not just once a month or on Sundays, but every minute, every hour. The bill varies. Sometimes it’s really big, and we wince at the cost. Other times we can pay it with the smallest of coins.

But it’s an urgent responsibility. See, love is in danger of extinction worse than the polar bears or some other creature we hear about. We live in a malicious and mean-spirited society. Everywhere, including in the churches, I see prejudice and hatred, lying and backstabbing, the desire to get revenge and promote fear. Paul calls on us to stand against the culture and make the decision to love.

Let’s be very, very clear. Love is not a warm fuzzy, though who doesn’t like a soft kitten or cuddly puppy? He’s not talking about romantic attraction, though that is one of the greatest powers in the world. Love doesn’t mean never having to say you’re sorry, if you remember the old movie line. In fact, probably just the opposite. No. Love is a verb. And we all remember our grammar. A verb is an action word.

Paul sums up what he has in mind with one sentence: “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” Just seven words in English and in the original Greek. But unpacking that brief sentence is complicated.

A key question, of course, is “Who is my neighbor?” The Bible’s definition is quite broad, and the Greek word also means “fellow human being.” Certainly we think of those of the church and our immediate community. But is not anyone and everyone on this planet in some sense our neighbor, especially those in need?

And how can I know if I’m doing no harm? We would not think of striking and injuring someone. But are my spending and consumption hurting someone across the globe because the products I buy are made in a sweatshop and my neighbor in another country is thus working under miserable conditions so I can have a product? If I drive carelessly or when I’m angry, could I not very well harm my neighbor who is also driving his or her car or simply crossing the street? What if my off-hand, insensitive remark deeply wounds someone else?

Tough stuff. Enough to drive you crazy. Or to the cross.

Next week: Some help in answering the questions.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham

Note: This post and the two that follow are adapted from a well-received sermon preached at Bethel Presbyterian Church, Northport, AL on September 7. An elder encouraged me to share it with a wider audience.

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…” (Romans 13:8a)

You can’t turn on the TV these days without seeing a commercial from some debt and credit counseling service bemoaning how many credit cards Americans have or how much we owe, then promising to help us get out of debt. You’d think that all of us were in deep trouble financially and would be better off cutting up our cards and using cash.

The picture is not as bleak as we hear on the commercials, but the statistics are still disturbing. Consider:

  • today’s average consumer has nine credit cards;
  • total U.S. consumer debt, not including mortgage debt, reached $2.55 trillion at the end of 2007;
  • the average American with a credit file is responsible for $16,635 in debt, again excluding mortgages;
  • the average credit card-indebted young adult household now spends nearly 24 percent of its income on debt payments, with about 13% of young adults spending over 40 percent of their income servicing debt, including mortgages and student loans.

I can’t help but wonder what Paul would think about the situation I’ve just outlined. After all, he insists that we “owe no one anything.”

Our first response might be to say “So what? Who cares what some musty old dead preacher in another country said 2000 years ago?” After all, Paul lived in a day when the banking system as we know it didn’t exist. Certainly, people bought and sold things. Debts were owed and paid, sometimes cancelled. Taxes were levied and grudgingly paid. And we can identify with all that.

But we think of back then as a much simpler time. Life didn’t move quite so fast. There wasn’t as much to have or want. So of course Paul could admonish his readers not to owe anybody anything. And, we have to admit, that sounds great: no car payments, no mortgage, no credit card bills. But who can do that in today’s economy? How would we buy anything off the Internet without a credit card? And it’s so easy to whip out the card instead of carrying cash, especially for large purchases, like a major appliance or your last tank of gas.

We can get around Paul by spiritualizing his advice. But that would be a mistake. Sometimes credit card and other debt is a moral issue, both for individuals and for organizations, like churches. Suppose you and I make good money, but consistently spend more than we make. And what if much of that spending is on impulse purchases and “must-haves”? What if we’re addicted to such habits so much that we don’t keep enough funds available to pay our monthly bills on time or give to the church or some charity?

Or how about the church like the one where I started out as an Associate Pastor? They had a huge mortgage payment, which came right off the top before anything else. Giving never quite measured up, so my youth budget got slashed over and over in favor of the bank note.

What if sleep won’t come night after night because you’re worried about that big balance you’re carrying on each of your cards, and with minimum payments, you’ll never be free of debt? So day after day you’re irritable and distracted at work and with your family.

Suppose what we spend our money on is an index of our true values? “Where your treasure is, there is your heart also,” said Jesus. And I think the reverse is true: “where your heart is, there is where you will invest your treasure.” You and I can always find the money in organizations and personally for what we really think is important, even if to the outside observer it looks trivial. Think of just these two statistics: Americans spend over $100 billion annually on fast food and $97 billion a year on beer. What if only a portion of that were spent on relieving hunger or providing clean water?

Sometimes our debts of money keep us from paying our debt of love.

Next week: Love does no harm.

© 2008 Tom Cheatham