Saturday, November 23, 2019

Ordinary Epiphany

I’m under a deadline.  I’m supposed to be preparing the preaching notes for our worship series for the season after Epiphany.  But I keep running into blocks.  Or I can’t get the words to come out right.  Or I’m feeling the pressure.  Or something.  So, here I am.  In the past, when I was using this as preparation for preaching each week, when I was having trouble getting the words to come out right, I would write something else.  A letter or an email, a story or a fantasy, something, anything really.  What I’ve discovered about myself is that the best way for me to overcome writer’s block is by writing.

I know, that seems impossible.  I can’t write, so I’ll write!  Doesn’t really make sense.  Except that I’m writing something else.  Not trying to force my way through what I’m supposed to be writing, but instead writing around it.  A different genre, a different purpose, a different style.  So, I’m here writing this, hoping it will help me write that.

What is that?  Well, I’m in charge of the preaching notes for the worship series for Ordinary Time 2020.  The first Ordinary Time.  And it should be up on the website already.  But it isn’t.  I’m behind.  So, I should be writing it.  But I’m not.  I’m trying.  And now I’m going back and forth as words come and ideas begin to flow a little bit.

What’s Ordinary Time, you say?  Thanks for asking.  Even if you didn’t.  Let’s pretend you did.  So I can answer it.  It is the season after Epiphany.  At least in this case.  There is also an Ordinary Time that is the season after Pentecost.  Did you realize that Epiphany and Pentecost aren’t seasons?  They are days.  And the season that follows those days is called Ordinary Time.  Advent and Lent, and Christmas and Easter are seasons.  Thus you have the Third Sunday in Lent or the Fourth Sunday in Advent.  But you have the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany or the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (that’s a long season!)  Ordinary doesn’t mean, well, ordinary.  It means ordered, it means counted, it means significant.  Don’t think that it is just down time.  Because any time in the family of God, in the body of Christ is significant time.  It matters, you matter, even your ordinary Ordinary time.

We are still in the larger block of Ordinary Time, even though Advent is hard on our heels.  I’m looking into the first Ordinary Time of 2020, which is lectionary year A.  And we have chosen to build a series out of the Epistle texts for the five weeks in the middle of this block.  So, from January 19 through February 16, we’ll be looking at the beginning of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians.  

OK, it’s now Saturday, and I finished the series.  At least I finished the preaching notes for the series.  So now I’m at home, watching college football and reflecting on the process.  The first realization is that I need to start working on the next series now.  The pressure to get it done made me panic a bit.  But I got it done.  Or rather, I did my part.  The work isn’t done, because others have to contribute.  And part of what they will contribute will be, perhaps, recommendations on changes and adjustments that I need to make to what I’ve done.  It’s a group process.  A team effort.  

That’s inherent in the series.  We decided to title this one Somos del SeƱor.  That translates as “We belong to Christ.”  We took it from a verse in the Epistle texts.  It’s a series based on I Corinthians.  

1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. 12 What I mean is that each of you says, "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ." 13 Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. 18 For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Paul leaps right into the issue in this text from the second week.  The issue is division.  The issue is factionalism.  The issue is us and them, left and right, good guys and bad guys.  The issue is that the church has begun to reflect the larger society around it.   Rather than living as an example of what community is supposed to be, we have shifted into the same sorts of line drawing and team choosing that the rest of our culture revels in.  “Now I appeal to you,” Paul pleads, stop it!  Stop being a mirror and start being a lighthouse.  Stop trying to blend in and start standing out, standing apart.  

The problem that Paul identifies has to do with allegiances.  To whom do we belong?  On the one hand it seems simple.  Of course we belong to Christ, that’s how we would answer the question if we were asked.  But Paul isn’t interested in what we say, he’s interested in what we do, how we live.  And how the church in Corinth is living right now does not reflect the allegiance to Christ and Christ’s Lordship.

Paul is asking for a profound humility to govern the behaviors of the body of Christ followers.  He even diminishes his own actions with his “senior moment” of who he has baptized.  It’s not about me, he declares to them.  It’s about Him, the Christ who calls Paul and who calls the community of faith in Corinth.   So, set aside the other allegiances and cling to the One who gives life.  Be like Him.  Be like Him in his humility.  Be like Him in his suffering.  Be like Him in his death.

Paul introduces the cross in this text as a call to humility.  The cross is foolishness to the world, Paul declares.  Foolish in its shame.  Foolish in its embarrassment.  Who would claim the cross as a symbol of anything, let alone victory?  The cross is not just the worst way to die, it is the lowest, reserved for the wretched refuse.  The cross is the empire’s means of taking out the garbage.  Who would claim the cross?

We do, says Paul.  We do because we see the power of God at work.  “God took what is low and despised in the world …” That’s coming later, this is a preview.  For now, Paul says, the cross is the power of God, for those of us being saved.  Being saved.  Those of us.  There is a process here, and a commonality.  We’re in this together.  Let’s not be choosing sides, let’s not be building barriers, creating a us and a them.  Let’s have the same mind and the same purpose.

That’s the difficulty isn’t it?  We don’t have the same mind; we don’t agree on everything.  Sometimes we wonder if we agree on anything.  Wrestling with what Paul means here is necessary for preaching this text, especially in the current climate.  Would the leader who celebrates the unity within diversity of the gifts of the Spirit, really be asking the church to only think one thing?  Or is the emphasis not on a particular theology or interpretation, but on a mission that loves God and loves neighbor, period?  The singularity Paul calls for is vital.

There is an odd moment in the text.  We can clearly understand why Paul condemns the “I belong to Paul” or “I belong to Apollos” or “I belong to Cephas.”  But what’s wrong with the “I belong to Christ”?  Isn’t that the whole idea?  Why does he seem to claim that those touting the I belong to Christ slogan are just as divisive as the others?

Perhaps it comes down to the pronoun.  I belong to Christ.  Paul is about community, about being a body.  His “yous” are almost always “all y’alls”.  The complaint is about the “in your face” attitude that separates, rather than the humility that invites and welcomes.  We belong to Christ is an invitational phrase.  We belong to Christ is, on the one hand, almost too obvious to mention.  On the other hand, it changes everything.  It is the definition of an ordinary epiphany.


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Church Shopping

We’re settling in.  That the answer I give over and over these days.  We’ve finally made the leap and are home owners in Nashville.  It was an weird and wonderful journey to this point, some of which I have outlined in this space.  And we are hoping and praying that a week from now, we will be able to not be home owners in Indianapolis.  Yes, that’s right, at the moment we have two houses, or more accurately, two mortgages.  By the way, you did know that the word “mortgage” translates from the Latin and Old French as “death pledge”?   Or pay it until you die.  Charming.  Anyway, that’s part of the long story and we’re hoping it is coming to an end soon.  We don’t need two houses.  Or two mortgage payments.

In the meantime we are settling in.  We came to Nashville in the midst of a September heat wave, it hit 100 degrees the Monday we moved in.  It was hot and humid and fairly miserable.  Luckily, the movers did the real work, we just pointed.  Of course we had unloaded a uHaul truck full of stuff that we brought the day before (trying to reduce the overall cost of the move – not sure it helped, really) and were still recovering from that.  This used to be easier, it seems to me, this moving thing.  We used to younger.  Maybe that has something to do with it.

My favorite moment and the one I have described to my office colleagues more than once was when the movers showed up with the library table and asked where it went.  See, those who know La Donna can testify that she is organized on this move thing.  She has a journal that she has used many times that says what is in what box.  She used it to pack and now to unpack those boxes.  She had in her head the layout of the new house, which she had only seen through photos and a video tour given by our Nashville realtor.  But she had a plan in her head, was directing those movers (who were great, by the way – friendly and polite and hard workers) like the ground crew at the airport bringing the planes in to land.  Until the library table showed up.  

The library table is long and big and substantial.  Takes up a lot of space and is one of her favorite pieces of furniture.  But somehow, she forgot it when she did the floor plan of the new house.  Where was the library table going to go?  She didn’t know.  We just added it to the growing pile in the living room, of furniture and boxes.  It was no longer a living space, but a storage space.  We were living in a warehouse.  They kept bringing stuff off the truck and I was sure it was someone else’s stuff.  We got rid of a lot of stuff.  Where was it coming from?  They filled our house and left us a path to navigate and plenty of places for the cats to hide and then they thanked us and left.  And there we were, piled high with stuff.

But that was a few weeks ago.  Now it looks more like a house than a warehouse.  There are places to sit and a table upon which to eat.  Beds to sleep in and dressers full of clothes for us to dress and go and greet the day.  Oh, sure, there are still things piled up here and there looking for a spot to reside, still boxes and packing that need to be recycled or squirreled away somewhere, but you can see the design that used to only be in my wife’s head.  Now it looks like a home.  Our home.  The cats and dog are settled and seem content that this will be ok.  And the library table found a space in the living room too.  It is beginning to feel like home to all of us.

Of course the house is only part of the picture.  We’ve got to find doctors and veterinarians and grocery stores and libraries and hardware stores, everything that it takes to live in the world these days.  Well, our part of the world anyway.  And one of those things is a church to attend.  Not just attend, but belong to.  There are churches everywhere down here.  And United Methodist ones on almost every corner.  But finding the one you can feel a part of is a tricky exercise.  And new to us.  It was never a question for us, we attended where we were sent.  I remember years ago attending a workshop about leadership in the church or something.  I don’t remember what it was, but I remember a question we were asked.  If you weren’t the pastor of your church, would you attend there?  It was a question I couldn’t wrap my head around, frankly.  It was simply something I had never thought about.  Where shall we attend church?  Now all of a sudden I have to ask and answer that question.  And it isn’t easy.  We’ve had a few weeks, attended a few churches, any of which would be OK.  I wonder if OK will sustain us, though. Not just sustain us, but motivate us to participate in the life of the church in a way that could be transforming.  

Where to worship is an important question.  If you look at the word worship in the Hebrew Scriptures, you’ll find that a lot of the early usages of the word were all around the issue of where.  The place where worship can be done is a vital one for the people of God.  The prophets asked another question and that is not just where, but with what?  Do you bring idols, wood and stone, gold and silver into your place of worship?  So, the furniture of worship is also an important question.  We pay attention to the architecture, the aesthetics of our worship space.  It matters, these aren’t trivial items.  The place matters.  

I remember in the UK all those years ago, driving around and seeing the English countryside marked by the steeples and the towers reminding people to come and worship.  They found the highest places in the towns and cities and build their structures there, inviting us all to look up.  Look up and see something beyond our simple daily existence.  I loved visiting churches just to look, in those days.  But I came back to the churches I served to worship.  Where we worship matters.

John 4:19-26 The woman said to him, "Sir, I see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." 21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." 25 The woman said to him, "I know that Messiah is coming" (who is called Christ). "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." 26 Jesus said to her, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."

Now, I know that this is a diversionary tactic on the part of the woman.  Jesus has been embarrassingly intimate with her from the very beginning of this encounter, crossing all kinds of lines that society has drawn to guide such conversations - or the lack thereof.  And now He has gotten even more personal, with a simple description of her life’s story that would have knocked anyone for a loop.  But give her credit, she tries to take over the uncomfortable conversation with a reference to an ancient worship wars debate.  Was she really interested in the matter, or just trying to get Him off the current subject, namely her private life?  Who knows, but Jesus takes her seriously enough to give her an answer.

It would be possible to read this text and determine the where doesn’t matter.  Jesus is telling the woman at the well that what matters is Spirit, and spirit.  What matters is the how you worship, how you meet the God who comes among us.  What matters is not the music program or the preacher, or the order or anything else you could think of.  It’s only the spirit of the worshiper communing with the Spirit of God.  

Except that this interpretation has led to the idea that we don’t really need the church.  We just need ourselves and God.  And I don’t think Jesus would want to say that.  He went to the synagogue wherever He was.  So, there’s something more.  There’s the community of faith, of course, that’s central.  But there is also the environment that lead us into a spirit of worship.  It matters.  Where we worship.  Because where we worship leads to how we worship and reminds us who we worship.  It matters.

So, we’re looking.  Shopping, as they say.  Except I never liked that word, that idea.  When I’m shopping, I’m looking for what I want or what I need, and am often admittedly confused as to which is which.  And yes there is an element of that, we all have preferences in the kind of church, the kind of service we want to attend.  But it isn’t just for me, or for us.  There is also room for the inclination of the spirit.  Or the Spirit.  

One of my questions as we visit churches is where does God want us to be?  Where can we serve, where can we help, where can we feed as well as be fed?  That’s a part of my prayer as I attend worship where can I worship in spirit and in truth?  It may be a mountain – a place high and lifted up, it may be Jerusalem – in a city bustling with the busyness of living, it may be neither.  It may be a journey to the place of worship, it may be the one down the road from where we live.  But it will be a place alive with the people of God in all their glory and all their humanity. I can’t wait to find it.  And settle in. 


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A New Heaven

We’re here.  After a circuitous passage from my last place of service to this one, we are here.  In situ, in loco, arrived and in.  Loco is actually better than it sounds.  There is plenty of loco in this place.  Mainly us, we who have packed and loaded and unloaded and now are faced with piles of boxes and furniture that might or might not fit in our new abode.  But various many legged creatures are also a bit loco as their whole world has changed rather radically in the past couple of days.  Many legged includes not just cats and a three legged dog, but we seem to have brought a number of Indiana stink bugs into the Tennessee swelter. 

Yes, we moved during a record heat spell in middle Tennessee.  Nashville has recorded the most days in the 90's  in the month of September ever.  Most consecutive days in the 90's, hottest September on record, and today will be the hottest day in October on record.  Welcome to Nashville.  We were all dripping in sweat, we gave the moving crew bottles of Gatorade and Powerade, just to keep them alive.  The air conditioning was off because of the constant in and out.  A paltry breeze swept through every now and then and it felt like heaven.

“This is not our home.”  That’s a phrase we hear within the faith from time to time.  It is designed to remind us that we are pilgrim people on the way.  That we shouldn’t be too satisfied with the way things are in this life, but be ready to move into God’s realm, God’s kingdom.  “Heaven is my true home.”  I agree with that perspective, to a point. Certainly this world and this life is not all that there is or all that we work and long for.  We can’t be so complacent that we become those who say, “that’s just the way it is” with a shrug of the shoulders.  We are the ones who are working for something more, something better, something more like the heaven we want to claim.

But heaven isn’t supposed to be an escape valve.  It is supposed to be a model.  The life we build in this place does matter.  The work that we do here, on our home, in our community, in our world makes a difference.  Didn’t you ever wonder why when the book of Revelation talks about the coming of the realm of God it always says “a new heaven and a new earth”?  Take a look.

Revelation 21:1-5 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." 5 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."

So, I’m writing this.  And believe that those words are trustworthy and true.  But also eternal.  This is a someday text that isn’t just about someday.  It’s about every day.  About a new home, and a new dwelling place and that God can and does come and take up residence in that home.  And that there are tears to be wiped can not be denied.  Our new home situation was frustrating and trying and anxiety producing, and I don’t think we are untypical.  As we look for places to store our precious belonging, we are also looking for ways for the Spirit to breathe on us and through us in this new place. 

I know, I know, Nashville Tennessee won’t be heaven.  There will be mourning and crying and pain to come.  The day we were finally in our phone rang with the news that our son Rhys had his car stolen overnight.  Bad stuff continues to happen.  But he will survive, we will survive, you will too.  It might not seem like it at times, and it sure didn’t to us along the way of this journey.  But here we are.  And God is in the mix making all things new.  

And you don’t have to move states and sell and buy a house to experience this new dwelling, this new heaven.  It can be yours any time you reach out and invite the Spirit to take up residence with you.  An air of peace, even in the midst of labor and upset, an air of peace can permeate this new heaven that you can claim, as we are claiming right now.

It is good to be home.  In the loving embrace of our God. 


Thursday, September 12, 2019


It’s been a while, I’m sorry.  A lot has been going on, but then a lot hasn’t as well.  I’m still living in between.  The house in Indianapolis was sold and we’re waiting for the closing, though there might have been a hiccup with the buyer and his financing - but they assure us all will be well by closing date.  We are praying.  We’ve bought a house in Nashville, well contracted to buy a house.  You don’t buy a house like a pack of gum.  You don’t plunk down your money and then just move in.  There are hoops through which you have to jump, forms to sign, inspections and appraisals and offers and counter offers.  But most of you know all this.  This is only our second go, and it seems to have gotten way more complicated in the two years since the first one.  But maybe that’s just a faulty memory blocking out the struggles the first time.  

Add to the circus that the house we are buying is empty.  The previous owners moved out long ago.  And here I am paying for housing while we wait for all the paperwork to go through.  I could sleep on the floor.  There’s an air mattress in my trunk right now, waiting for the eventuality that I could get a key and camp out in our house.  But apparently that’s not done.  The ad said immediate occupancy, but it meant immediately after closing, I guess.  Because it isn’t immediately now!  Tomorrow.  Maybe tomorrow.

We’ve been living a tomorrow kind of existence for a while now.  Waiting for something to resolve, something to work out so that we can get on to the next thing.  It’s a common way of living, I know.  We’re not the only ones.  I know of many others who are waiting for tomorrow.  For the job application to be picked up, for the semester to be over and graduation to be done.  Waiting for the wedding date or the birth date, so that life can really begin.  Or the new life anyway.  The better life.  And then there are those who are waiting to know about tomorrow.  Waiting for the tests to come back to know whether there was going to be a tomorrow, or how many tomorrows there might be.  Waiting to hear from someone in a disaster zone to know whether they will want any tomorrows.  

Tomorrow holds us in abeyance, it seems, for good things and for the not so good.  It’s out there, holding back our living, our being, our sense of self and place and well-being.  If we can just get beyond tomorrow, we’ll be OK.  Or at least we’ll know where we are.  Just get me to tomorrow.

Matthew 6:25-34 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.

It’s not that Jesus isn’t interested in tomorrow.  He spends a lot of time telling His followers what is to come.  He wants them to be prepared for tomorrow.  He tells them what is going to happen to Him and then to them.  He tells them to sit down and count the cost.  He tells them how to live, what to do, where to go when He is gone, as He will be soon.  Jesus cares about tomorrow.  About His tomorrow and about their tomorrow and about your tomorrow and mine.

But what He wants is that tomorrow does not get in the way of today.  Notice in this part of the Sermon on the Mount, He doesn’t say don’t think about tomorrow.  He doesn’t say ignore tomorrow.  He says “don’t worry about tomorrow.”  It’s that word worry that He wants to talk about.  Not tomorrow.  Tomorrow will come and it may have good news or it may have bad news and whatever it has you can deal with it then.  There’s nothing you can do about tomorrow now.  So, don’t let tomorrow steal your today.  

Jesus gives us a little lesson on observation in this passage.  Look around you, He says.  That’s one of His favorite things to say.  Right next to Listen!  You who have ears!  Here He says Look!  You who have eyes!  He wants us to pay attention to what is going on around us.  I suspect He might have something to say about our fixation on screens – phones, tablets, computers, smart watches.  I’m not saying that Jesus would be anti-tech.  We could argue that forever.  But He would be anti-anything that makes you oblivious to what is right in front of your face.  There’s a world out here, He would say.  Look at that bird soaring overhead, He would point out.  See those flowers swaying in the summer breeze.  Have you ever seen anything so wonderful?  Look at those clouds, He would say, rolling across the azure sky.  Or watch that child picking wild flowers as a gift for his mother.  Or that mother receiving that gift as though it was the most precious thing in the world, because it is.  Do you see?  There is a world here.  There are lives here.  There is grace here and love.  It’s all around you.  How can you doubt that there will be enough for you when the world is overflowing with it?  

Of course, Jesus isn’t being naive here.  He knows, and says God knows, that there are concerns about living in their world that occupy us all, food and clothing perhaps the most basic, but not the whole list.  But again, He isn’t saying that we live thoughtlessly expecting the necessities to be provided in some miraculous way.  The other hint in this passage is one of my favorites.  The you.  “Why do you worry.”  “All these things will be given to you as well.”  Most of you know what I’m going to say.  All those yous are plural.  All y’all.  Why do all y’all worry?  All these things will be given to all y’all.  There is within the human community enough that all will be fed and all will be clothed.  

Which means our work, not our worry, but our work, is not to make sure I have enough, but see how we can all have enough of the resources of this world that we need to survive.  For many of us that might mean doing with less so that others can have more.  Or so that others can have enough.  We have to trust in the community and the abundance that God has provided for all.  Which takes cooperation and trust, which is rare these days, unfortunately.

In fact we can’t really talk about tomorrow without a quick reference to yesterday.  I’m writing this on September 12th.  Yesterday was the 18th anniversary of 9/11, the day that everything changed for citizens of the USA.  In one way that event seems a long time ago, and a lot has happened since then.  But in another way it still seems fresh, the wound is still raw, the lessons yet to be learned.  We still have a tendency to blame a whole community of people for what happened and not just those who perpetrated the acts.  We want to find enemies to attack, rather than seeing this heinous action to be an aberration from the norm.  We worry about tomorrows that may never come because we choose to live in fear and with hate.  This isn’t the life that Christ called us to live.  This isn’t the hope that need to hold. 

But tomorrow will come.  The tomorrow we need to embrace.  Your tomorrow.  My tomorrow.  Even as I was writing this, a slew of emails came through orchestrating the closing of the house down here in Nashville.  So many details to work out.  But we can trust that they will work.  And I will try my best not to be consumed with worry.  May you also be free from the fear of tomorrow.  


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Faith Comes

I’m late.  Apologies.  It was a weekend for the ages.  And now the week ahead is another wild one.  Our saying around the house, amid the boxes and the piles and the confused creatures wondering what in the world is going on now, is “It’ll be great in October!”  Meaning, we should be through this messy transition place, where we aren’t here and we aren’t there and no where seems like home at the moment, and settled in a new abode carving out a new chapter in our lives by the month of October.  For a while there, we thought we might have to restate the mantra as “It’ll be great in November!”  Because it seemed like things weren’t happening fast enough and we might get stuck betwixt and between.  I don’t know exactly what betwixt means, but it sounds really cool.

But then this weekend, we were actually in Fort Wayne for the wedding of some dear friends.  I was invited to preside over the ceremony, which was held in the Allen County Courthouse, of all places.  It is gorgeous and marble and echoey.  We stayed in town Friday night after the rehearsal and Saturday night after the wedding and then came home to Indianapolis in time to pack and get on the road for Nashville.  Whew.  

Betwixt, it’s my new word, all of that, we were making offers on houses in Nashville.  Three different offers, actually.  The first one didn’t get very far because we found out things we didn’t like early on and so didn’t submit it.  The second one we were really invested in and did a lot of back and forth with the realtor to get the offer right.  But it wasn’t accepted.  We were ready to give up and figured that I would start all over again when I got back to Nashville.  But then La Donna saw one in the same development of the second offer.  We hadn’t seen it, but it was the same floorplan and we were willing to go offer without seeing it.  Then our realtor did a video walk through and we liked it, maybe even better than the other one.  We made the offer, it was countered, we accepted the counter and here we are!  Homeowners.  Well, homeowners to be, as many of you know there are lots of steps to go from here.  But we are excited and relieved and anxious, and believers.

Believers?  We believe in a future we had begun to give up on.  Ask my office mates, many of them stopped in and were worried about me last week.  I seemed down, or burdened, or despairing.  I had lost faith that it was ever going to happen.  Not completely, I wasn’t ready to give up, but I wondered.  I worried.  I was tired of looking at inadequate houses, or beautiful ones that someone got before we did.  The difficulties of living, often drag us down from living the life we’re called to live.  They often keep us from seeing the new way of being alive in the world as we prepare for the coming Reign of God.  It’s hard to hold on to faith, which is why we need to hear it and sometimes see it from time to time.

Romans 10:13-17 For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." 14 But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15 And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" 16 But not all have obeyed the good news; for Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed our message?" 17 So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.

Actually, it wasn’t the house issue that brought these things to mind this week, though it does seem to fit.  Not, I was and am celebrating the fact that I am preaching again!  I first got to preach for the wedding on Saturday.  An admittedly short sermon, though I threatened them during rehearsal with 45 minutes worth, but still it was a sermon.  A proclamation of the Word in this celebration of love and covenant and family and the ability to see beyond the present into a lived future.  I loved having the chance to preach again.

And then this week, I am preaching the Wednesday service in the Upper Room Chapel.  The worship team from Discipleship Ministries is leading worship this week.  It’s a chance for us to present the kinds of things we write and talk and teach about all the time.  I was asked to preach.  Imagine, the Director of Preaching Ministries is going to preach!  In fact I’m titling the sermon “No Pressure” as a tongue in cheek nod to the moment.  What might they be expecting from the Director of Preaching Ministries?  Indeed what does any attender of church, member or not, expect from the preacher?  I’m wanting to address this expectation a little bit.  To admit that maybe we preachers have let people down over the years and the expectations no longer are there.  Maybe the hearer isn’t expecting to hear about faith anymore, or about a call to see a new reality toward which God is moving us.  Maybe people are just expecting a little advice on how to live a better life.  Which isn’t a bad thing, but seems a little small compared to the grand vision Jesus gave us about kingdom living.  

How shall they hear, Paul asks in Romans.  What are we listening to these days?  What are the voices who declare the good life to us, who describe our dreams for us?  Every now and then I read an article that says preaching is a relic of the past.  It is fading away, they claim.  Unnecessary in this postmodern world.  Except that there are preachers in the world aplenty.  Preachers who capture our attention, who beguile us with images and sensations that are compelling.  Secular preachers, consumer preachers, political preachers, social activist preachers who are drawing us into their sermons because we don’t have a compelling vision of the message Christ brought, the message Christ is.  

Part of my job is to help preachers compete in a world full of proclaimers.  I have decided, after two whole months on the job, that my main function will be one of encouragement.  Preachers need to hear how vital they still are to the movement of the church, to the vitality of the church.  They might need to change some things as the world around us changes, but I believe that there will always be a place for preachers to cast a compelling vision of hope and grace and faith in a complicated and wearying world.  We need to stand in opposition to the polarization of our culture, to the anger and violent speech that we hear all too often.  We need to help the church find its voice in a noisy world.

Yeah, that’s one change I intend to advocate for.  For too long preaching has been understood and practiced as a monologue.  The time for monologue is over, I believe.  Instead the preacher engages in a dialogue with his or her congregation.  Not necessarily in the sermon time – though there is a great opportunity there, it was one thing I experimented with at my Fort Wayne church in an event we called Genesis. Some of the folks I met with at the wedding remembered that experiment and spoke of finding it creative and affirming.  

But if not in the sermon, then elsewhere.  Find a place for dialogue.  Find a way to let other people than just the assigned preacher speak, share, preach.  I believe we’ll be surprised at the depth and passion and power that will rise from the church again when we do.  

And maybe when we find a way for all to speak, then we will become the church with the beautiful feet.  OK, as slogans go, that may not be the best.  But faith comes from what is heard.  So let’s practice listening.  Listening to the Word, listening to the preachers, listening to one another.  And then faith will come.


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Life Happens

“Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans.”  Who said that?  Apparently there is some debate.  The one who popularized it, oddly enough, was John Lennon.  In his song “Beautiful Boy” on the album Double Fantasy, a song written for his son Sean, Lennon says “before you cross the street take my hand. / Life is what happens when you are making other plans.”

But those who know these things, or know how to check these things say that the quote is actually older than that.  The first recorded appearance of “life is what happens,” was in 1957, in a Reader’s Digest, and is attributed to an Alan Saunders, who just might have been the cartoonist behind Steve Roper and Mary Worth (Google it kids).  Which means the saying is as old as I am, thereabout.  Which maybe says that it is my theme quote.  Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.  Not bad, as quotes go, don’t you think?

Now, some folks see tragedy in this quote.  That it’s a warning that terrible things will come along and interrupt and disrupt and throw you off track.  It’s another version of a similar quote: “Stuff Happens.”  Yeah, OK, there’s another word there, but I’ll leave it with stuff for now.  And maybe that’s what Lennon had in mind as he was contemplating raising a child in a complicated and dangerous world.  Hold my hand, because stuff happens. Watch out, stuff will happen and your plans will come to nothing.  

I can see that.  And like Lennon, I know that raising a child is scary stuff. And that in fact, the scary stuff never stops.  And we live in a scary age, with tragedies happening as a matter of course almost daily.  This is our life, we think, this dash from tragedy to tragedy, from horror to horror, and it isn’t going to get any better, no matter how many plans you make.  Life happens.

Sure, I live in this world too, I can see scary.  But at the same time, I can see something else.  Something maybe even comforting.  Something about plans and about life and about me and about us.  Something like this, maybe:

Jeremiah 29:11-14 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

First of all, I know.  I know that all you biblical scholars will point out that we so often misuse this text.  We like to make it personal and individual, and it was really designed to be communal, corporate.  That God, through the prophet Jeremiah, was talking to a people and not a person.  And we have to resist the all too frequent urge to turn everything into a personal message just for us.  We are prone to individualize everything, when God wants us to see ourselves as part of something larger, part of a family, part of a nation, the people of God.

And yet.  I’m not undoing the previous paragraph, but hear me out.  If this is indeed how God acts to all, can we not also interpret that this is how God acts to each?  Yes, God wants me to read the plurals in the Jeremiah text.  “I know the plans I have for all y’all, God says, plans for all y’all’s welfare not harm, to give all y’all a future with hope.”  Jeremiah 29:11 DWSV (Derek Weber Southern Version) I know God wants me to know that my future and my plans aren’t just about me, but about a larger we.  My part is woven into a whole with so many others.  

But still, I can see the hand of God at work in the threads of my life as they begin to take shape into a tapestry of which I am a part, and not the whole.  The pieces of my life, our lives, are falling into place, maybe not always in the exact way that we might have envisioned, but it is coming together.  La Donna announced on her Facebook page that the house is sold, one piece fallen into place.  Although a very helpful friend, thank you John, pointed out that it isn’t really sold yet because all the papers haven’t been signed just yet.  True, and it all may fall apart, in which case we go back a few steps and start over.  Trusting.

Just like we made a list of seven different houses that I was hoping to send to my realtor in Nashville so we could look at them next week.  But when we checked again, six of them had been sold.  Or at least under contract, thank  you John again.  I have to say that it is difficult to look at a house online, see the photos and then begin to imagine yourself in that house, with your stuff filling those spaces, only to have to undo those thoughts and pictures because that one is now gone.  Life is what happens when you are making other plans.  So, we look again.  And again.  And again if necessary.

Let me say, I don’t think I believe that God has a divine finger on the house that will be the one we finally get.  I don’t believe that’s how God works.  But that God’s Spirit sustains us through the anticipation and the disappointment and the working out of the transition that surrounds us.  That God actually wants us to make plans.  I’ve never been a fan of that other saying I’ve heard.  You know, the one that goes, “you want to know how to make God laugh, tell God your plans.”  That might on the surface seem like another version of life is what happens.  But it actually seems to suggest that God doesn’t want us to make plans, doesn’t want us to work things out.  That our job is just to sit and wait while God works everything out for us.  I don’t think that’s how God works either.

We are supposed to plan, we are supposed to work things out. We are supposed to seek God’s will and how best to fit into the world that God intends us all to live into.  At the same time to not be so wedded to those plans that we collapse if it doesn’t quite work out the way we first envisioned.  And all along trust that God is with us.  Even when things aren’t quite going the way we plan.

Go back to the text, and see what the promise really is.  What is the future with hope that God wants to provide?  What is the fortune that will be restored and the home that we will be gathered into?  The real promise is this: “Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD ...”  

That’s where we’re going, that’s the home God promises to us.  A home in the neighborhood of God.  A home in the Presence.  I don’t believe God has our house picked out in the Nashville area, that’s work that we and our realtor have to do.  But I do believe that God will be there, wherever it is, and will sustain us and strengthen us and guide us as we seek to find our fortune there, the fortune of the family of God, the mission of God’s people, God’s church.  And there are so many people with whom we will interact and connect and grow and serve alongside, here and there and everywhere.  We are bound together in the plan of God. 

In the meantime, there are pieces fitting together.  This house is nearly sold.  Rhys has a plan that will let him stay here, Maddie has a new job in Boston, things are coming together.  Lots more questions, more plan to work out.  And in the meantime, life happens.  For us and for all.  I pray that the life that happens to you is one of joy and peace and is full of the Presence of God.


Saturday, August 10, 2019

Through the Waters

One of the items on my job description is that I’m to “acquire knowledge of best practices and learning in the field,” “in order to become a broker of knowledge for preaching ministries.”  Which means I have to listen to others, to learn from others.  Which means a lot of things, no doubt.  But one thing it means is that I need to go to conferences and seminars where others are doing interesting and innovative work in the field of preaching.  So, this coming week I am going to a Summer Preaching Seminar at one of our United Methodist Seminaries.  The leader of this seminar is a woman professor of homiletics of whom I am unaware.  But her subject fascinates me. The instructor is Dr. Joni Sancken, and the seminar is titled the same as her recent book on the same subject, “Words that Heal: Preaching Hope to Wounded Souls.”   

What better topic for preachers to consider than how to preach in the face of trauma of various kinds?  Dr. Sancken has an emphasis on pastoral care through preaching, and also peacemaking and preaching.  Which might be expected given that she comes from the Mennonite tradition, which has a long history of working for peace.  

Here’s the added dimension to this event, the seminary where Dr. Sancken teaches is United Theological School in Dayton, OH.  Dayton was the site, as you know, of the second mass shooting of last weekend.  Nine people were killed in 32 seconds, according to reports I read.  I’m sure it will add an air of necessity to the proceedings next week when we meet together.

It seems like there is trauma around all the time these days.  Whether it our own personal trauma or the national trauma of violence and death, polarization and finger-pointing, or even a global trauma of natural disasters increasing at an alarming rate and refugees swarm the shores of other lands seeking an end to the degradations of poverty and racism and hate.  The ability to find words that heal seems a prerequisite for preachers everywhere these days.  And perhaps always has been.  And yet can words do?  How can words heal when the brokenness seems so overwhelming?  

Well, maybe I’ll bring back some new insights after next week.  Stayed tuned.  In the meantime, what can we say in the midst of our own personal and corporate struggles?  How we find words that bring if not healing then hope?  I think there are lots of words that can be used to address difficult issues, but I usually want to start with this word: Presence.

Isaiah 43:1-7  But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.  4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life.  5 Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you;  6 I will say to the north, "Give them up," and to the south, "Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth--  7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made." 

Isaiah speaks a word to people who are longing.  And underwater.  Or walking through the rapids of loss and exile, of war and death.  And the word he speaks is one of hope.  It is a word of redemption.  It is a word of comfort.  Just what they need.  But maybe not what they want.

What they want is a rescue.  Take us out of here!  Fix it, fix them, fix us.  Make it right.  That’s what we want in desperate situations.  But what we get instead is Presence.  I will be with you, thus says the Lord.  OK, a good thing.  No, a wonderful thing, but ... why don’t we get what we really want?  Why don’t we get a wave of the divine hand and circumstances change?  Why don’t enemies get sent packing, and good guys get sent home?  Why doesn’t God  just get up and do something about everything that is wrong is our world right now?

Why doesn’t it say in the forty third chapter of Isaiah that when you sign up for God’s team there won’t be any waters?  Why doesn’t is tell us that following God means you won’t have to walk through fire?  But it doesn’t say that, does it?  No, it says, when you walk through fire!  It says when you pass through the waters!  When?!  It is like it is inevitable.  Like a safe bet.  Like you’d better just count on it.  Well, thanks.  Thanks a lot.  If God followers aren’t any safer from disaster or catastrophe, then what’s the point?  If we don’t have some divine protection from harm, why bother?  OK, it does say that you won’t get burned.  That sounds good, until you get to the second rendition of the phrase.  You won’t be consumed, meaning you won’t get burned up.  But that doesn’t seem like a real blessing, does it?  Where’s the promise to make it all right? 

That “what’s in it for me?” question really gets under my skin.  It sounds like a consumer approach to faith.  I’m only interested in what I can get out of it.  But once in a while, it is a question that needs asking.  What do we get, Isaiah?  When the chips are down, when all seems lost, when the questions outnumber the answers, what do we get?

Presence.  John Wesley’s last words, it is reported, were “best of all God is with us.”  Best of all, he said.  Presence is the greatest gift.  Presence is grace at work within us.  Presence is what enables us to endure whatever the waters bring, whatever the fire burns around us.  We are not alone.  And not only that, but this Presence is a loving Presence.  We are precious to that Presence.  We are known by name.  And the promise is that wherever we go, wherever this life drives us, for good or for ill.

And perhaps it is the function of the people of God to practice presence.  Not simply for themselves but for those around them, for those who are hurting, those who face tragedy.  We can’t always fix what’s wrong, but we can be present.  We can offer grace, present kindness, express fellowship.  It is our inclination to want to find the words to speak in moments of tragedy, to bring consolation.  But many, if not most of our words can have the effect of trivializing the pain, overlooking the tragedy.  “It’ll be all right” seems hollow in the face of 9 deaths in half a minute.  Despite the words that might come to mind, perhaps we are best to fall back on the words that God uses in Isaiah, “I’m here.”  It acknowledges the depth and speed of the water that rises.  It recognizes the heat and the destruction of the flames.  And yet it says that no matter the pain that surrounds you, you are not alone.  I am here, God is here.

I’ll be interested to hear what Dr. Sancken has to say about Words that Heal.  But I suspect it will include something from Isaiah 43.