January 2, 2008

Home By Another Way

Dear friends of Centenary,

It is interesting how one word can evoke a very broad range of emotion and reaction. Take, for example, the word "home." What is conjured up inside of you when you contemplate "home"?

For some, "home" reminds them of something idyllic and peaceful. Their experience of home was a positive one. Love reigned and there was a minimal amount of discord. Family members were supportive of one another.

For others, "home" dredges up significant darkness and distress. There are images of anger, abuse, instability. Some even repress memories because of the pain involved with the memories.

Yet... there is something inside of us that calls us "home." What is home? It is a place of acceptance and love. Home is not the absence of conflict, but the conflict occurs within the context of love and those present know that the conflict will be resolved. Home can never happen when abuse is present. Being "at home" means that there is an ultimate sense of safety and security, even when things are not perfect. "Home" is a place of healthy relationships... or at least the striving toward healthy relationships.

"Home" is more of a metaphor for a state of being than it is a place. For many, "home" has little to do with immediate or extended families. "Home" is our closest friends and confidantes. "Home" is the place where the heart is stirred and where you are loved. For some of us, "home" is being sober.

There is a longing for "home" in everyone one of us. That longing does not depend on whether our experience with home in the past was positive or negative. (And most of our experiences with home are both.)

Centenary is becoming "home" for many. Centenary is a place of connection with God and others. It is a place to ask questions and be enveloped by the mystery. We can be ourselves in this place called Centenary. Authenticity is valued here at Centenary. During the Advent Season and particularly on Christmas Eve, the sanctuary was comfortably filled with people longing for home. The Christmas Season was a deeply moving time.

Here we are at the beginning of 2008... and our longings for home continue. Consider this your invitation "home" from Centenary. Whatever your experience of home in the past, this place is a safe place.

I am looking forward to seeing you this Sunday... the first Sunday of 2008. I will be preaching the last sermon in our Divine Encounter series. My sermon title: "Home by Another Way". We will even be using James Taylor's song by that title as a part of worship. Let's look together at the encounter which the Magi had with Jesus (and others).

We could use your help at breakfast this Sunday! Contact Joel@centenarymacon.org or Jeremy@centenarymacon.org for more information.

Happy New Year!
Grace and peace,
Tim Bagwell

Love God. Love Others. Love Yourself. Serve.



January 10, 2008

How Do We Read the Bible?

Dear Centenary family,

I have been reading an interesting and humorous book by A. J. Jacobs, The Year of Living Biblically. The author, a self-described secular Jew from a nominally religious background, sets out to follow the commandments of the Bible for one year ? not just the well-known ones like ?Thou shalt not kill?, but also the obscure ones as well (such as wearing clothes of mixed fibers and not eating shrimp). His experiment encompasses not only the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), but also the New Testament.

So where does he start? First, Jacobs pulls together many religious advisors, Jewish and Christian, who help him interpret passages which are confusing. Then he has to decide which translation of the Bible is accurate, because there are differences in the 3,000 translations which are available.

There is a 2005 Gallup poll which states that 33% of Americans say they take the Bible literally. A 2004 Newsweek poll put the figure at 55%. In America, amazing confusion and distortions about the Bible shape our conversations about politics, policies in the Middle East, homosexuality, stem cell research, education, abortion. Some years back, I remember seeing a bumper sticker which read: ?The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.? This sentiment and others like it are inane. Look at some of the laws in the Bible:

Bind money to your hand

Don?t eat shrimp and scallops

Wear fringes on the corners of your garment

Don?t eat fruit from a tree planted less than five years ago

Kill magicians

Break a cow?s neck at the site of a murder

Do not wear clothes of mixed fibers

My list does not even begin to exhaust the more than 700 commandments in the Bible.

For many centuries, most believed the Bible was ?a true account of what happened? But more and more, science began to butt up against the literal biblical story. How do you reconcile Galileo?s universe with Joshua stopping the sun in the sky? How do you reconcile Darwin?s theory of evolution with Noah?s ark?? The questions are endless.

Hear this: Fundamentalism and literalism have done profound damage to the faith of young and old. I believe that fundamentalism and literalism are based falsely on a domino theory: if one part of the Bible is not literally true, why should we believe any of it? This false premise does nothing to propel people forward into faith? rather it destroys healthy and faithful conversation. My concern is that many who want to begin a conversation with God are repelled by the inevitable inconsistencies in those who want to advance a literalistic understanding of scripture. Cynicism increases and instead of these people embracing the faith, they reject the faith because they are given a distorted picture of the faith. Am I bothered by this? You bet I am.

Jacobs gives some examples of literalism gone berserk: In the 3rd century, Origen (an early Church father and scholar) interpreted literally Matthew 19:12 ? ?There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven?? so he castrated himself. Origen later became a preeminent theologian of his age ? and an advocate for figurative interpretation.

Another example: In the mid-1800?s, when anesthesia was fist introduced for women in labor, there was an uproar in the religious community. Why? Because many literalists felt that anesthesia violated God?s pronouncement in Genesis 3:16: ?I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.? Anyone want to stand between an epidural and a child-bearing woman who decides that she has had enough?

So what happens to A. J. Jacobs at the end of the year of living biblically?

He learns that ??there is such a thing as sacredness??

He finds that living by the Bible literally is impossible.

He finds that there are many people who are weary of the one dimensional conversation advanced by literalism.

He finds that there are people who will help someone on a spiritual journey.

He finds that he underestimates the joy that comes in the religious community when there is a connection with God.

A. J. Jacobs is changed by engaging in a conversation with God. He does not become a religious fanatic, but his worldview is affected. He becomes in his own words, ?a reverent agnostic.? He moves from being a secular agnostic to a reverent agnostic. I would argue that such a shift is profound. I can nearly guarantee that the conversation is just beginning between God and A. J. Jacobs, if A.J. will keep talking and listening.

Here is what I want for us at Centenary:

I want us to encounter the living God.

I want us to take the Bible SERIOUSLY. Literalism and fundamentalism do not take the Bible seriously. By the very nature of the conversation promoted by literalism, the Bible is robbed of its vast wisdom.

We are to look at the larger picture. Isn?t it interesting that Jesus spent MUCH time discussing poverty and peace, and absolutely NO TIME discussing some of the hot button and litmus test issues on which many want to focus? At Centenary, our community is defined by engaging and being engaged by the big picture.

Centenary is a place of radical hospitality - we welcome believers and non-believers because everyone is on a journey? and even the believers are defined by their doubts at points. Did you know that even Jesus doubted!? I want to figuratively hang out a sign: Atheists, agnostics, questioners, doubters, believers, saints, sinners, sober people, drunk people, short people, tall people, left-handed people, right-handed people? all are welcome in this place. God loves the whole world and there are no exceptions.

I want us to hunger to be a part of God?s Kingdom.

I want us to teach our children to ask great questions so that when they grow up they will embrace the faith rather than dismissing faith and spirituality.

Worship is continuing to be a divine encounter at Centenary. We are moving into a new series titled ?Living the Life of Liberation?? I hope that you will join us in worship this Sunday.

Grace and peace,

Tim Bagwell

Love God. Love others. Love yourself. Serve.



January 16, 2008

Ruth, God, and Hugs

Dear Centenary friends,
The smell of disinfectant was strong as I walked down the nursing home hallway. There is always the drama of life which one finds in a nursing home? from one room came the sound of constant moaning. I wondered if the person moaning was struggling with physical pain? or if the moaning came as the result of mental anguish?perhaps painful memories? or maybe nightmares. Who knew? The moaning was haunting. A little further down the hallway was an elderly woman who constantly cried out, ?Hey you ? I see you! Come here!? She stared into space crying out her words to no one in particular. I wondered who she was seeing in her mind?s eye.
I turned the corner and saw yet another woman who looked straight at my eyes, smiled, and stretched out her arms for me. I walked to her chair and gave her a hug. ?What is your name??, I asked. With difficulty she stammered, ?Ruth?. ?Ruth, I am Tim?, I said, introducing myself to her. I held her hands for a minute? just looking into her eyes? I hugged her again? and looked into her eyes again. She could not speak to me, though she tried. She smiled a lot and her eyes told a story? maybe a hard life? But I also saw joy and perseverance. She responded to me. I hugged her again because she held out her arms and I looked into her eyes again? then I left to make another visit.
Ruth made my day. Whatever good my hug did for her, it was returned a hundred-fold for me. Could it be that Ruth looked at me and saw that I probably needed a hug?! I have a sense that her groundedness in spite of her limitations gave her access to the souls of those who walked by. She saw me, scurrying about and knew I needed to slow down for a moment. She reached out not so much for her as for me. On occasion we make an error in recognizing who it is who needs the hug the most!
God hugs. In worship, we sometimes feel a stirring of the heart and mind. It is hard to define, but we know it is real. God is hugging us. Last Sunday was no exception as dozens upon dozens of persons came forward to either hear the words ?remember your baptism and be thankful? or they were baptized. It was not planned. It happened. God hugged and we hugged God back.
One person wrote me this email: ??Sunday was so powerful and so challenging and so full of hope and inspiration. Talked to so many who were so touched by that hour at Centenary. I know that, personally, I am moving in a forward way in that journey with my relationship with God. And I am grateful??
I am grateful too.
Go out of your way to be in worship this Sunday!
Grace and peace.
Tim Bagwell
Love God. Love Others. Love Yourself. Serve.


January 23,2008

Practice is the Embodiment of Hope

Dear Centenary family,
Dennis Hanson, Holley Long, Bill Poe, Russell Henley, and Tiger Woods could tell you about it. Swing memory. Golfers have it. When one of these guys swings a golf club, they have swing thoughts: grip, alignment, stance, visualization, rhythm. But when they actually swing the club, they are not thinking about every nuance of the swing. Once you prepare for the swing, it happens naturally. Swing memory takes over. And, if you are fortunate and have practiced hard, the authentic swing just happens.
In some ways it is like breathing? do you think about breathing every time you breathe? Or it is like a beating heart? is it necessary to tell your heart to beat? Or maybe it is a little like riding a bike ?. Once you have mastered the concept of balance, pedaling, and steering? you don?t particularly think about falling off. You just enjoy the ride. Even people who have not ridden a bike in years can get on a bike and find their balance.
Lori Fischer and Angie Coggins would want to talk about it in terms of swinging a softball bat. Crouch. Bat held high behind your ear. Eye on the pitcher. Watch the ball. Concentrate. Relax. Stride toward the pitcher. Swing! For those who have learned, it is a natural rhythm. It almost becomes instinctual.
That is what I want my spiritual life to be like. I understand the need for intentionality and discipline, but I long for that intentionality to lead to an authentic and relaxed connection with God. There is nothing wrong with planning, discipline, and intentionality. Those elements make for a good golf swing, or a good bike ride, or a good swing of the softball bat? The same elements of discipline and intentionality also prepare the way for a spiritual encounter which has depth. BUT there comes a time when we trust our instincts. At a certain point all of the instruction manuals become limited. We learn much from them, but the instruction has to become an element of our ?swing memory?, something that happens instinctually.
Worship, prayer, meditation, and Bible study are parts of my ?spiritual swing thoughts.? Then all of a sudden in the midst of the intentionality, it happens. The authenticity is there and I am lifted to a different plain. I am in a different place. A connection is made. We give ourselves to the moment and the moment sweeps us up. No longer is being spiritual something I do--- It becomes something I am. I am present in the moment. This happens for me in worship at Centenary? and at others times. The discipline and the planning become instinctual. I can sense when it happens and you can too.
Now? let me hasten to add that Dennis, Holley, Bill, Russell, and Tiger have hit errant drives. (Holley has probably hit more errant drives than the other four.) They have all had bad days when it did not happen on the golf course like they wanted it to happen. Angie and Lori have coached girls who tried hard to hit that softball, but it just did not happen. So what happens then? Do you give up and go home and quit because you had a bad day? No. You practice a little more. You work on that swing thought. You get ready. You stay open to the authentic swing. And the practice itself becomes a blessing. Practice is the embodiment of hope.
Then it happens. Dennis hits a 300 yard drive. Russell?s approach shot nestles 6 inches from the cup. Bill connects with a 5 iron that puts him in range to make a birdie. Tiger sinks a putt that breaks 20 feet to the right at the Masters. And even Holley chips it in from off the green for a birdie. Or maybe Lori and Angie have been coaching a kid who needs to get a hit. She is awkward and playing softball does not come naturally. All of a sudden it happens and the kid is lifted up as the ball she hit rolls into the outfield. I am on first! Look at me! Her teammates are excited. A softball cheer breaks out. Lori and Angie beam ? not so much about the hit, but about what the hit means.
OK? I know. I know. I hear some of you saying ?Enough already with the sports metaphors!? And you are right. Sports metaphors have their limitations. But do you get it?
Read. Pray. Think. Question. Worship. Wonder. Wander. Long for God. Connect with others. Love God. Love others. Love yourself. Serve. And at points it will happen. It may sneak up on you in moments when you are not expecting it. Suddenly there is a oneness? a peace that passes understanding? a sense of loving and being loved? a knowledge of the presence of God. While God touches you at ALL times, there are moments when you will be keenly aware that God is touching you. It happens. Our hearts are strangely warmed. That experience, my friends, is not to be missed. ******************************************************************** I am looking forward to Sunday! Can?t wait! Bill Greenhaw and Martha Jo Fountain are providing some of the music you will hear on Sunday morning? Bob Marley?s ?One Love? will also be a part of worship. (Does anyone want to see Kenneth Driggers in dreadlocks? There is no chance that Jerry Elder will be in dreadlocks! His hair is too short!) What a range of music! God works in all sorts of ways and that is part of the mystery. I will be preaching on some of what I have written about above? an authentic spiritual life? what place does the church have in helping us to uncover that longing? Is it possible for the church, which is traditionally the site for massive dysfunctional conflict, to actually be a place where community can happen? I think so. I pray so. I believe so. But we have to practice.
Grace and peace!
Tim Bagwell
Love God. Love Others. Love Yourself. Serve.