Saturday, May 27, 2017

Finishing the Work

With a stroke of pen ... No wait, with a million and half strokes of a pen, we became homeowners. For the first time in our lives, we now are the owners of a home on the south side of Indianapolis. Close to the University of Indianapolis where our journey began, sort of.  But now a new journey begins.  We met at the Chicago Title Office in Greenwood (I wonder if there is a Greenwood Title Office in Chicago?) And sat with our realtor and with the current owners of the property and their realtor and a title person. (Not a titled person, this wasn’t local royalty, as far as I could tell).  And we signed forms.  A ream of paper.  Form after form, she told us what everything was as she handed it to us to sign.  This one is affirming your identity.  This one is saying you didn’t lie on the last one.  This one says you aren’t lying on any of those others.  This one says you understand what you’re doing.  I had to hesitate on that one.  But La Donna nudged me and I signed.  This one says you’ve not been declared mentally incompetent.  I looked for affirmation once more, she pointed out that it didn’t say by your wife.  Oh, OK.  I signed.  Then the forms outlining the dire consequences for not paying the mortgage.  I swear one of them said they could make soup out of my bones if I was more than 15 days late.  Signed that we would have insurance.  Signed that we would improve the property.  Signed that we would be good neighbors (the Mr. Rogers Form).  Signed that we wouldn’t run away screaming - and just in time, I must say.  And then suddenly, hands throbbing with cramp, we were done.  Just like that.  The sellers handed over keys and a garage door opener.  Told us about a couple of repair things they promised to do.  And then got a little weepy as they realized the house they lived in for thirty years was now in the hands of strangers who didn’t have clue what they were doing, and less than two months ago had no plans of buying a house.  And it was over.

We stumbled out into the bright sunshine and tried to massage some feeling back into our fingers while we chatted with our realtor.  She’s a member of my new church and therefore especially keen to do a good job, and she did.  Including sending her husband the contractor crawling under the house to look at some plumbing issues.  And then we said thank you and got in the car for the two hour drive back to Fort Wayne.  It was quiet for a while, as we realized that we were both poorer and richer than we have ever been in our lives.  A lot of money disappeared from our bank account with the wave of a modern technological wand, money we scraped together from a variety of sources that we didn’t plan on touching for a long time, and now it’s gone.  Didn’t even have to write a check (Google it kids!)  But then we have a house, in a nice neighborhood, and we’ll move in a few weeks and start over again.  A new chapter.  A new life.  And it felt ... good.  

John 17:1-11  After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, 2 since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. 3 And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. 4 I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. 5 So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed. 6 "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. 7 Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; 8 for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. 9 I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Glory.  That’s what Jesus’ prayer is about here in the Gospel of John.  Glory.  Glorify your Son, Jesus prays.  It’s chapter seventeen.  Almost the end of the Gospel.  We are coming to the climax, to the end toward which the whole event was aiming from the philosophical beginnings and the first miracle with water into wine and the wonder that ensued.  Glorify your Son.  Your Son, he prays.  Not me. Not glorify me.  Which is what you’d expect if it was just a prayer between Jesus and His Father.  But no, it’s not just a prayer, it’s a sermon.  An announcement.  A word of encouragement for those who are about to walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  It’s not a prayer like we understand prayers.  It’s a pastoral prayer.  Where the pastor prays words that the congregation doesn’t have words to pray.  But nods along as though those are exactly the words they were longing to say.  Jesus prays like that, for them.  For Himself too.  But through Him, through His life and His suffering and His death, He prays for them.  Puts the words in their mouths.

Oh, I know, the prayer could be a construct.  Since John was written many years after the event, this prayer could be a prayer made up of the prayers of the church, of leaders and followers and hopes and dreams.  It could be a prayer that was really a theological treatise on the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus.  Glorify your Son, as a way to explain to those who come after the event what it all means.  Probably.  Most likely.  But then again, maybe He prayed this way for those who haven’t yet made it through.  So that they had a word to hang on to when the wind begins to howl and rain begins to fall.  A word to cling to when the ground trembles and the temple shakes.  Glory.  

What a word to have on the tip of our tongues when things seem uncertain.  Glory.  Not the glory of this world, awards and prizes and offices and achievements, not the glory celebrity or wealth.  No, glorify Your Son because Your Son is glorifying You, by finishing the work.  By accepting the cross, taking the nails, breathing through the pain. Glorifying God by dying.  I know it sounds ... barbaric. This is the stumbling block that Paul talks so much about.  How does this cruel and painful death give God glory?  Wouldn’t living be a better way to glorify?  

Yes.  It is a better way.  For us.  We are called to live, to hand over our lives to Him and live.  Live fully, live joyfully, live united.  His dying prayer is that we might learn to do this living thing together.  Together.  That’s how we finish this work that He has given us to do.  By living fully, joyfully and united.  In peace.  Shalom, the fullness of all that God has in store for us.  Our lives give God glory, because Jesus’ death gave God glory.  Because He finished, we can finish.  Because He was faithful, even unto death, we can be faithful in all of life.  And give God glory.

Because He was poorer than He had ever been before, He gave away everything, not holding back even the blood in His veins, the breath in His lungs, because He became poor, He was rich in glory. Glorify your Son, He prays before those confused and soon to be terrorized disciples, glorify even in death, so that there is glory in life.  I’ve glorified you, He prayed, by finishing the work.  And a day later He says from His place of execution, It is finished.

No, no, no.  I’m not equating a new house purchase with the death of the Son of God on a cross.  But like so many things, it can be a metaphor, a reminder, a pointer beyond the event itself, toward the gift that life is.  It can be an opportunity to give God glory, by finishing the work that He has given me to do.  Us to do.  To live for Him, not just in a pew on Sunday mornings, but in the world, at work, at school, as we go out and come in, in our house.  I may have gotten the form to make soup from my bones wrong.  I’ll admit that.  But I’m right about our home (and yours) being a place to give God glory. Let God be glorified.   Amen.


Thursday, May 18, 2017

Festival of Homiletics 2017 San Antonio, TX Cont'd again

Day Four: Spiritual Borderlands and Drag Queen Bingo  

The theme for the Festival this year is “Preaching On the Borders.”  It has cropped up in various places throughout, many sermons and many lectures pointed toward it.  But today it came rushing to the fore.  Or maybe it is because this event is almost over and I’m about to head back home.  Home to transition.  Home to a border crossing, from one place to another place of service.  To say there are mixed feelings doesn’t adequately describe it.  But a part of the anxiety is the change itself.  Crossing into the unknown is always daunting.  But perhaps that’s where we’re called to go.  Perhaps that’s where God is.  Oh, certainly God is in the safe center too.  No question.  But on the borders, or as the Celts called it, the thin places, God seems more real.

The day began with Bishop William Willimon.  Bishop Willimon is a United Methodist Bishop, long time Dean of Duke University Chapel and pastor in North Carolina, and kindred spirit of mine.  He speaks with a biting sarcasm and talks of biblical characters as though he met them at a bar.  I like that.  He also seems to make up his sermons on the fly.  And is surprised as we are when they end. “The Light of Love Comes Shining Through” was the hopeful title of his sermon this morning.  He talked about his ministry, as pastor and bishop, and concluded that his best times were when Jesus pushed him over a boundary.  Jesus, he says, never met a door He couldn’t kick in, a border He couldn’t cross, or a boundary wall He couldn’t tear down.  

Willimon told of receiving a fill in appointment to a declining church in Raleigh.  He was told it would be a couple of months, he was there for a year.  He decided to try to make it go, to make it relevant to the changed neighborhood where the church was located.  He sought out some folks who knew the area and asked them “Where do we go to find out what is going on in this neighborhood? How do we become relevant to our community.”  The urban expert said “Drag Queen Bingo.” Bishop Willimon said, I’m not sure we are ready for that.  The expert said, “Oh, I thought you were serious about evangelism.  Better go back and prepare to close down.”  The bishop and a few members of the church went to Drag Queen Bingo.

They crossed border into a world they didn’t know existed.  Their eyes were opened and so were their hearts.  Was the church saved?  Did the community find Jesus and give up their wayward life?  The bingo addiction I mean.  Well, he didn’t actually say.  These things take time.  But doors were opened.  And Christ will go through.

After a break the Bishop moved from preaching mode to lecture mode, “Confronting Racism through Preaching” was the title.  Not quite a hopeful, or easy.  He spoke of attending a Methodist camp one summer as a youth, and being asked to room with a “Negro.”  Willimon claimed that when he left that camp he no longer lived in the same world he had occupied before.  His world was wider, deeper. His roommate grew up a few blocks from him, he discovered, but his experience of their home town was different, and a town he never knew was described to him.  This border, what was once called “the color line” is a border in our hearts, but also in the structures of our culture in ways many of us don’t want to or can’t acknowledge.  But one of the things that Jesus can do is open eyes.  And one of the tools He uses to do that is preaching.  So it is on us preachers, and us congregations to raise these issues and open our eyes.  Biblically we can look at the stories of Jews and Samaritans, or later Jews and Gentiles.  These too are racial divides.  And demand proclamation.  Demand salvation from this sin.  The bishop reminded us that God only saves sinners.  Let’s confess our sin.

Grace Imathiu is a Kenyan Methodist preacher now pastoring in the States. Her sermon was called Border Scandal.  Based on the story of the Woman at the Well, Grace is the one who invoked the memory of the thin places.  But thin places while holy and full of Presence, are also dangerous places, she argued.  Dangerous because change happens in those places.  Transformation happens. Be prepared to cross over into a new way of seeing, a new way of being.

The current Dean of the Chapel at Duke University is Dr Luke Powery.  Powery has degrees in theology and preaching but also in music.  He is an advocate of the place of the Spiritual in both the history and theology of Christian proclamation.  And, oh my goodness, can he sing them.  Spiritual Borderlands, Powery says, means not just Spirit, but spiritual.  And the songs shape the experience theologically, even as they shape the singers spiritually.  The spirituals are keys to speaking the truth, too preaching on the borders.

First of all spirituals sound the note of the reality of human suffering.  Not the health, wealth and prosperity of an easy gospel, but the blood and tears and death of a real world.  Proclamation tells the truth.  Spirituals sound the note of divine suffering .. Were you there when they crucified my Lord? We proclaim his death until he comes.  But then Spirituals also sound the note of the ecology of community, the reminder that the only way we live in this world is together.  The only way we make sense, make meaning in this world is as a body together.  And we do it singing, as spirituals sound the note of the practice of singing as a homiletical strategy.  We are a community that proclaims, and sings our faith with confidence and joy.  Luther said Music is the handmaiden of theology.  We sing our way across the borders.

Which is part of what David Lose said, the final speaker of the day.  “Proclaiming Truth in an Alt-Fact World” that was his title.  And he starts by admitting, he didn’t know how to do that.  Shortest lecture of the week.  Actually no.  He raised some questions, gave some pointers and said that we all are sorting our way through this crazy world.  But the point that resonated the most with me was when he pointed out that in this current climate, studies have actually proved that facts presented rationally are the least effective means of changing minds.  We have learned, Lose presented, to seek out information that affirms our opinions and biases.  We don’t seek information to learn or to change, but to be agreed with.  And facts that contradict our opinions are at best ignored and at worst slammed as fake news.  So, if facts don’t work, what does work?  Well, what works better is story. Or what we in our tradition call witness. We tell it from a personal perspective. 

What’s your story?  Where are your borders?  


Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Festival of Homiletics 2017 San Antonio, TX Cont'd some more

Day Three: Pharisees and Sleepers

Woke up to rain.  Rain in San Antonio.  Isn’t it supposed to be dry as a desert?  No, apparently not.  It rains in San Antonio in May.  And I didn’t bring an umbrella.  Or rain coat.  Or poncho, or goofy hat.  So, I could either wait it out and miss the opening worship and lecture, or get wet.  It was Brian McLaren preaching and then lecturing.  Brian McLaren has written more about how the church needs to change in the current century, about the revival of evangelism that makes a difference in the lives of those we seek to invite into the body of Christ, about a faith that honors those who are different the way Christ honored those who are different, about worship that is vital and preaching that matters. Brian McLaren was preaching and teaching.  I got wet.
The opening worship was titled “A Service for Organizing Spirituality” and the sermon was “Why People Hate Organized Religion.”  He began with a blessing, no, an absolution.  It’s not your fault, he told us clergy as we sat in that theatre and listened to his litany of what has happened to the church we love and serve.  He took a passage from Luke, chapter 11 verses 37 through 44.  Jesus is telling the Pharisees what has gone wrong with their thinking.  But when McLaren read it, he took out the word Pharisee and substituted Leader of Organized Religion.  “You leaders of organized religion clean the outside of the cup, but inside you are greed and wickedness.  Woe to you leaders of organized religion, you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds but you neglect justice and the love of God....”  Whew, hard to hear.  But it is bigger than any of us.  Bigger than all of us.

Why do people hate organized religion?  Maybe, McLaren argued, it is not that we shouldn’t be organized, but it is that we are organized around the wrong things.  Wrong things?  We are obsessed with trivialities, arguing over sanctuary furniture or instrumentation or service times, and not the things that really matter.  We are driven by greed and by money, bowing to the will of those who give the most who seem to believe they should determine what the programs, the mission of the church ought to be.  We are obsessed with popularity, with numbers and ratings, desperate to be liked.  Jesus compared this way of thinking with a graveyard.  We might look good on the surface, but there death underneath.

The solution, however, is not for organized religion to become unorganized, but to organize for different things. What are those things?  The things Jesus calls for, justice and the love of God.  But then the question arises: How will we do this?  McLaren says that will only become clear when we decide to do something.

A powerful ending to the sermon, which was luckily followed up by a lecture on just this issue.  He began with a poem by Mary Oliver titled “When you finally did what you had to do.”  The lecture was essentially a “just do it” message.  It’s about deciding that there is more to do than maintaining the institution.  But also recognizing that institutions serve a purpose and are necessary for the community.  But they can’t become ends in themselves.  Which is why movements help keep institutions honest.  Keep them on mission.

Part of that mission is what Bishop Yvette Flunder called Radical Inclusivity.  Asking us if we are really ready to see all of God’s children as worthy of inclusion or not.  Asking how we can undo the tools of shame and fear, that celebrates diversity not just puts up with it.  But, she also warns, it is hard work.  Worth it, but hard.  Being the church we are called to be is always hard work.

And it begins, says Father Michael Renninger, by paying attention.  His sermon was titled Awakened Savior, Awakening Church, from the story of Jesus sleeping in the boat during the storm.  Don’t you care, they asked him, when they found him sleeping.  Well, says Fr. Renninger, the Lord is asking us that same question now.  When there are so many storms in our world and we are seemingly sleeping in the boat.  Don’t we care that so many are abused, neglected, refugees and trafficked?  We may not be able to still every storm, Fr. Renninger, but we certainly need to pay attention to something.

A good day.  A heavy day.  But also one that offers hope.  A wake up call to the church.  To each of us in the church.  Each of us as the church.  But nothing will change by each of us.  It will take all of us.  



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Festival of Homiletics 2017 San Antonio, TX Cont'd

Day Two: Whole Hearts, Fake News & Thresholds

The first full day at the Festival began under a cloud.  Well, there was the fact that I somehow slept through my alarm and had to rush more than I intended.  But I really meant that the skies were overcast, leaden clouds hinted of rain, or maybe just a humidity you could feel in every pore.  But I made my way to the Scottish Rite Theatre for worship with my distant relative from Denver.  Well, actually, I’m pretty sure we aren’t related, though her name is Nadia Boltz-Weber.  She is the pastor of the Church of All Sinners and Saints, a Lutheran Church in downtown Denver that is made up of people who never found a home in the respectable churches in town.  Boltz-Weber is a former stand up comedian who became a Lutheran pastor and founded a church because she never really found a home in the respectable churches in town either.  Tattooed and pierced she often sets people on edge.  But her theology is compelling and Christ centered in a powerful way.  Boltz-Weber said in her lecture later in the day that she is always a pastoral preacher, she holds no designs on being a prophet.  She wants the Word to matter to the people, to her people, people on the edge, people wounded and wounding.  But that’s later, this morning she is preaching.

She decided to bring us an Ash Wednesday text.  Joel - “return to God with all your hearts.”  Even the crappy parts of our hearts, she suggests.  Even the parts we’d rather not acknowledge, the parts we ignore, pretend aren’t there, that embarrass us.  Those parts too.  Return them to God.  But not, she tells us, because it is some kind of test for us, to see if we are strong enough or holy enough.  No, it’s because God can handle it.  Our hearts are safe in God’s hands.  God will receive our heart and bless it and heal it.  Even the part of our hearts we’ve given to those who hurt us the most.  The parts we won’t name.  The parts that are cold and dark, like a root cellar.  The hearts that were broken by a heartless world.  Or the parts we’ve given to a shepherd shaped wolf.  Because, the good news is we have a God who never tires of forgiving.

Which might be a useful skill for all of us to learn, at least according to Dr Alyce McKenzie, who teaches at my alma mater, Perkins School of Theology at SMU in Dallas.  Dr. McKenzie came to speak on “Finding a Way in the Wilderness: Biblical Wisdom’s Good News in a Culture of Fake News.”  McKenzie has long been fascinated by preaching from the Wisdom literature of the Bible.  Do we live, as some propose, in a Post-truth era?  Truth seems to matter less and less all the time.  We live by opinions and biases.  What we look for is not information in order to learn, but that which will confirm our opinions.  We don’t want to understand, we want to be proved right, even if we have to make things up - fake news - to do it.

McKenzie says the antidote is an emphasis on Wisdom.  Biblical Wisdom contrasts Fake News in that Wisdom is about shalom and fake news is about chaos.  Wisdom wants to guide us through life, to the good life, Fake News just wants to upset, throw out the “experts” and drain the swamp.  Wisdom is collaborative and Fake News is conflictual. Fake news presents us the fool that Proverbs speaks of, in contrast with the wise person, who is characterized by living in the fear of the Lord (humility), compassion for others, impulse control and the courage to speak up.

The analysis of the current age continued with a presentation from Dr. Jennifer Lord, who teaches at Austin Presbyterian Seminary.  Her presentation was titled “Way In and a Way Out: Preaching and Liminality in a Culture of Change.  Liminality is the stage of change from one thing to another, usually used to define ritual change like rites of passage.  Lord spoke of her own childhood as she moved from Brownies to Girl Scouts, and Bluebirds to Camp Fire Girls.  Yes, she said, she was both.  And she remembers most vividly the ritual of transfer from Bluebird to Camp Fire girl.  The night of the ritual, they had constructed a little bridge for the cross over.  The appropriate time she and the other bluebirds walked across and became camp fire girls.  She said that bridge was her liminal space.  Moving from separation - through liminal space - to incorporation into something new.  

But, Lord asks, what if she stopped in the middle of that bridge and didn’t keep moving forward?  She would have been neither, or some of both, or ...?  Her thesis is that is where we are in our culture today.  A constant state of liminality.  Moving from one to the other, except no one knows where we are going, and we are losing track of where we have been.  Delayed adolescence, others call it.  The surge of the gaming culture, all kinds of gaming - gambling, electronic games - merges with the event culture to live in a constant state of non-reality.  I know I’m not doing her lecture justice, but here’s the mic drop issue.  The Christian life is a constant state of liminality.  We are always becoming.  But will likely never reach our goal in this life.  

You thought that the preacher was to rage against this not here or there kind of world in which we live.  I know I did.  But instead, Lord suggests that we claim it.  Live into it, embrace it, proclaim it as essential to the Christian life.  But, and this is important, the Christian liminality is different from the world’s liminality.  In many ways, but the most crucial is this, we know where we are going.  We know who we are want to become.  We are to be like Christ.  Unlike the world that embraces the unknown and unknowable, the Christian faith is crossing the bridge with every step.  

There is more.  There was more, but my brain is full and I don’t want to tax yours.  So, I’ll let these three carry the meaning of the day.  Time to rest for another day.  Oh, I also managed to explore a little bit and will post some photos of the Riverwalk and other interesting San Antonio sites.  As soon as I can figure out how to get them off my phone.  I mean they are there but not yet here, kind of in transition, crossing over, at least I hope.  If you see what I mean.  

I need some sleep.


Festival of Homiletics 2017 San Antonio, TX

Day One: Sibilants and Fire Starting

“God of Grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power.”  The familiar hymn resonated in the Lila Cockrell Theatre in the San Antonio Conference Center.  “Crown thine ancient church’s story, bring her bud to glorious flower.”  It was a hymn of invocation from the 1,800 pastors from various churches in various places, some came with enthusiasm and hope, others came from the depths of despair and wondering if the call had run out and maybe God had moved on.  Those buds seemed way past flowering, others were blown and spent and used up.  Yet the story, the church’s story - ancient and yet ever new - still resonates in hearts.  Even hearts weary from traveling all the way to San Antonio, Texas.

“Grant us Wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour, for the facing of this hour.”  The hour didn’t especially need courage, though Walter Brueggemann is a formidable academic force in Old Testament history and interpretation. But there was wisdom aplenty.  Brueggemann’s sermon based on a story in Judges 12.  It’s a story of insiders and outsiders and about boundaries and borders.  And about accents.  The enemy was identified by how they pronounced a certain word.  Or as Brueggemann says, it was about getting your sibilants right.  

But the sermon was not really about an ancient conflict between unpronounceable tribes, but about the world in which we live today.  And the faith we claim to want to live.  Brueggemann’s advice is to watch our pronunciation.  How do we speak?  Do we speak of the foolishness of God that is wiser than human wisdom?  Or are we ready to replace the mystery in our faith with programs and budgets and numbers of butts in the pew week by week?  Do we speak of the weakness of God that is stronger than human strength?  Or do we bow to the powers that be to define what is good in our world today? Remember, Brueggemann said, human power ruled the day from Friday noon until Easter morning. But that was it.  God stepped in and changed everything we know. And do we speak of the poverty of God which is richer than human wealth?  Or do we agree with the wise person who pointed out that we write “In God We Trust” right on the god we trust?  Who knew that self-giving, self-sacrificing would actually enrich others?  Jesus is effecting a change from the economics of the world to the economy of God.

Brueggemann says God chose the foolish, the weak, the poor to show the world the wisdom, the power and the riches of God.  Consider your call.  And watch your language.

Worship concluded with communion, of all things, a logistical nightmare in a theatre not designed for such ritual and eighteen hundred preachers who just might be better at leading such rituals than following directions.   And a closing hymn that reminded us of the source of our strength.  “When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride.”  But it’s the final verse that always speaks loudly to me, and perfectly set up our next speaker.  “Were the who realm of nature mine, that were an present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

The stage was cleared of the worship setting and a single speaker with laptop walked out after his introduction.  The speaker was Rob Bell, preacher, writer, filmmaker, and celebrity.  His books have been praised and condemned within the Christian community, and Rob Bell’s response has always been “that’s ok, they’re not for you anyway.”  His passion is making faith intelligible to non-church people.  But actually, I would argue, he wants to make faith intelligible to all people.  Insider and outsiders.  His title was fascinating.  “The Whole Thing is On Fire: a few thoughts on cosmology, photography, and the science of homiletic pyrotechnics.”  Whew.  

Actually the lecture was a study on dealing with adversity.  His presentation was very visual, but there was a technical problem and the pictures wouldn’t display.  In the waiting time Bell reminded us why we were in this business.  What we signed up for.  We signed up, he said, to start fires.  When we began we wanted to preach because we had something to say.  But often, he realized, we now preach because we have to say something.  

Bell posits that the enlightenment did a million amazing and useful things.  But it also did some damage to our cosmology, or how everything works in the universe.  Or relates.  Or just is.  The enlightenment told us, Bell argues, that there are subjects and there are objects.  And objects exist in dead space.  Us and them.  But the ancient world saw things differently.  Psalm 19 sees things differently.  The heavens are telling the glory of God.  Everything is alive.  Words are alive, creation is alive.  And we are called to be alive in it.  To pay attention.  That was Bell’s proscription: pay attention to what’s going on around you.  And then use the experience of worship to create space for a new experience of life and living.  To light fires, Bell told us.  Go light fires that stir up the complacent, that inspire the hopeful, that lift up the despairing.  Light fires.  

Fires have been lit.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

Stony the Road

It’s done.  She walked across the stage, shook various hands, tried to get her service dog in training to shake at least one hand (but she wasn’t interested), got the big white envelope and smiled for the camera.  And with that it was done. Of course it was done. Of course.  We planned for this day.  We waiting for this day.  And now it’s here.  No, wait, it’s gone.  Just like that.  Gone.  Hard to believe, frankly.  Hard.  Like a stone.  A stone in the gut, weighing you down.  Sadness in a way, that it’s over. Gone.  In a blink of an eye.  A stone skipping across a quiet pond, making ripples that disappear, even as the stone sinks out of sight.  Gone.

What am I saying?  It was a good day.  A bright sun shiny day.  We were proud to watch her walk across those stones set into the ground forming the platform on which they all stood, they all passed. Built up into something new, something more.  The horizon was clear, the future is bright.  Stand on those stones and launch yourself into a new tomorrow.  I couldn’t be more proud.  

It wasn’t easy, getting this far, crossing this threshold.  It wasn’t easy for her or for us, just like it wasn’t easy for her brother last year.  There were rocks in the road, stones on the path, there were trips that made us fall, stumbles that bruised us.  But we kept walking.  They kept walking forward, over the stones and into ... what?  More stones? 

1 Peter 2:2-10 Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation--3 if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. 4 Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and 5 like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6 For it stands in scripture: "See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame." 7 To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, "The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner," 8 and "A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall." They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

A nod to Mother’s Day, I guess, Peter starts with milk, with feeding, with infancy and nurture, with tasting and seeing.  What Mother doesn’t remember those struggles and those joys?  Happy Mother’s Day, to all those who help us drink the spiritual milk, who help us grow in faith.  We are grateful.  We are better for it, for you.  Thank you.

But it’s the stones that dominate the thinking in these verses.  Come to the Stone, and be a stone, and live inside those stones.  Peter gets a little carried away, it seems.  Stones on the brain, I guess. Rocks. Rocky, that’s what they called him.  Jesus changed his name from Simon to Peter (Petros - Rock). Maybe he’s trying to return the favor.  Come to the Living Stone.  Come and let Him build you into the house He’s trying to build.  Be a stone, like Him.  A living stone.  Part of the foundation.  Part of the structure.  Be a stone, a temple made of stone.  Be a stone sanctuary, let worship take place in you.  Make worship take place in you.  We’re both the structure and the activity that takes place inside that structure.  We’re the building and the worship that inhabits that building.  It’s makes your head spin a little bit.  Which is it?  What is it?  What are we, who is He, and what in the world is a living stone?  If living water is water that moves, water that bubbles and rushes and flows, what is a living stone?  

Let yourself be built, Peter pleads with us.  Let yourself.  Not decide for yourself.  I’m going here, I’m gonna hold up this wall, I’m going to frame that window, I’m going to lie on this path.  No, let yourself be built.  Go where He wants you, where He can use you.  You’re not in charge, you’re a stone, for heaven’s sake!  You’re not the architect, you’re building material.  Be built into something greater than yourself, something you may not even see right now. Who knows what you will be? He’s not done with you yet.  

Not done.  There was a finality to today in the sun at Wittenberg University.  A door closing, a chapter ending.  It felt done.  But I have to tell you a secret.  A contentious one, at that.  Maddie defied her parents (again), and she a few girl friends went to celebrate finishing their school work by getting a tattoo.  We didn’t want her to.  Told her not to.  That’s a door that closed, I suppose.  What are you going to do?  Let it be the end?  

It’s a tiny thing, tucked behind her ear.  It’s a semi-colon and a plus sign.  It says there’s more.  More to her.  More for her.  There’s more.  That’s why we’re living stones, I suspect, and why He is a Living Stone too.  Just when you think you’ve nailed Him down, He pops up again.  Just when you think you’ve buried Him deep, rolled the dead stone over Him, He lives.  Again.  There is more. More to Him.  More to you.  More to me.  More to her.  

I want to see what’s next. 


Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Terrible Grace of Wanting

It’s time for an update, sorry for the public service announcement quality of this bible study.  We’ll return to our regularly scheduled programming in just a moment.  But I needed to let you know of what’s ahead for me and for the Late Night Bible Study group, and why you may not see these weekly emails with any regularity for the next month or so.  First, next weekend is Maddie’s graduation from Wittenberg University.  I’m not exactly sure of the schedule, I’ll be preaching here on the 14th, but may be traveling late, so I can’t promise a bible study.  

The following week, I am heading to San Antonio for the Festival of Homiletics, my favorite continuing education event of the year.  I’m am feeling guilty about leaving, with all that needs to be done here, but La Donna is insistent.  Besides I’ve bought tickets and registration and hotel.  So, I’m going.  I hope to send updates from time to time from there, to let you in on some of the insights I’m gaining, but it won’t be the usual Bible Study.  Plus, that Sunday, which would be May 21st, our Director of New Generations Ministry, the newly minted Dr. Lakeya Stewart will be in charge of worship, with youth and graduate recognition.  So, while I’ll be assisting in the service, I won’t be preaching.

Then there should be a couple of weeks of sort of normalcy.  Sort of.  We will be in the last weeks of packing and preparation, there is the small matter of closing and possession of the house (which is anxiety producing to a surprising extreme), and other transitional issues I can’t even imagine at this moment of relative calm.  Then June 7 through 10 will be Annual Conference, ending with a affirming of the appointments, and then home for a final farewell and final Sunday on June 11 and then, last minute packing, trucks arriving and loading, and shutting everything down.  And ending. And starting.  All over again.  And learning to live with the grief of ending, of dreams that didn’t come to fruition, and the weight of failure.  And grasping hope and possibility in a place unknown at present.  A foreign place that will be home.  One day.  Like this place was.  Not exactly, but sort of, kind of.  Like so many other places.

I want to go home.  To be home.  To stay home.  I want what happened to not have happened.  I want what happened to be for the good of us all.  I want to hope, though hoping seems hard some days.  I want to see God in the midst of the mess, in the broken hearts and confused minds.  I want to believe in the irresistible will of God, but I’m afraid we’re too good at resisting.  I’m too good at resisting.  I want to stop resisting.  I want ...

Perhaps the most familiar six verses of the whole Bible.  Variously translated, written into songs of a variety of genres, parodied in more ways than even Google can catalog; the 23rd Psalm holds a place in the canon of scripture that is unparalleled.  And yet, do we listen to it?  Do we examine it’s depths, live into it’s promises?  Or do we simply slip into it like a warm bath, soothing and comforting, but hidden beneath the frothy bubbles of the comfort we seek?

Comfort is important.  Being soothed when we ache, when we are unsettled.  We long for those arms to wrap around us and protect us, to shelter us, to love us when it seems no one else will.  But David was hoping for more, wanting more than simply balm to soothe our troubled souls.  Psalm 23 is about equipping, about building up so that we can walk, so we can live.  Not just exist, but to live.  The shepherd doesn’t just protect us, doesn’t just feed us, but makes us alive.  “He restores my soul.”  A soul, living being, life, self, desire, passion, appetite, emotion - that’s the definition of the Hebrew word that is there: nephesh.  It’s not simply a breathing being, it’s not simply an entity that is content, upright, taking in nourishment.  But one that is enjoying the meal. One that is alive to the greenness of the grass and depth of the still water teeming with life itself.  He makes me alive again.  Again, like I was created to be.  Like I have been in moments, fleeting experiences that make my heart pound and my eyes tear up and the laughter burst from my lips.  I want that again.  I want to walk in the right paths.  Not the paths of self destruction, self satisfaction, self-centered preference driven gluttony; but your paths.  Because only those paths will keep me alive when the darkness comes, when death surrounds, when despair grips so tightly hope slips from our fingers.  Restore my soul.

And then, typical of attention deficit David, we leap from pastures to dining rooms.  Without a warning or commercial break we find ourselves ushered into a luxurious ballroom, convention center, like we’ve stumbled into a wedding reception we aren’t sure we’re invited to.  The table is groaning under the weight of all of our favorites, so we lunge to our seat and dig in before we notice that the guest list includes many we would have left off.  Those we hoped to avoid.  But the waiter keeps filling our cup, we thought to grab and go, but we’re stuck.  We’re there, with them.  Them.  And we’re blessed by it.

I’ve often wondered what David had in mind with that “in the presence of my enemies” line. Probably thought about thumbing his nose at them, behind the velvet rope, kept at bay by the same servers who keep the cup overflowing.  He probably thought it was an in your face kind of taunt, a bit of I’ll show them that they don’t know who they’re messing with.  I wonder if that’s what he thought as he wrote it with a cruel grin on his face, not realizing that the inspiration for that verse was taking him farther than he intended to go.  Than he hoped to go.  Than he wanted to go.

Those right paths, those tables in the presence, they’re not so frothy and bubbly when you think about it.  Not so comforting, not so warm bath-like.  The Lord as shepherd isn’t the walk in the park we might have imagined.  It has an edge, a demand hidden inside.  He gives us a hint.  Gives himself one too, I suspect.  In the word choice at the end of the psalm.  Our translators hid it from us, uncertain how we would respond to it, perhaps, afraid we would be confused by the real message.  We make it a passive, because comfort and ease sounds passive to us.  But there’s nothing passive about the job of a shepherd.  That’s why he’s got a rod and a staff.  The staff was the crook, used to keep sheep on the path, hooking the end around the neck of the wandering sheep and lifting them bodily back into a new, safer direction. The rod was a weapon, a ninja bo staff or bokken, used to fight off the enemies that would make a meal of the poor unsuspecting and defenseless sheep.  The shepherd’s life was at risk all the time.  Not a very passive profession.  So why a passive ending.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me.  Like a puppy, a lost lamb, ready for me to turn and take it when I wanted it, and to leave it when it is inconvenient for me, but I’m in charge.  It follows me.  I’ll acknowledge it when there’s time.  When I’m in the mood.  When nothing better comes my way.  Surely it’ll be there.  Waiting.  For me.

Except it isn’t waiting.  The verb is an active verb.  A better translation would be surely goodness and mercy shall purse me, shall chase after me, all the days of my life.  That’s what I want.  Isn’t it?  A love that will not let me go.  That will chase after me, even when I try to run.  Even when I think I’m not worth chasing.  Even when I don’t know what I want.

I have a friend who struggled with the opening verse.  I shall not want.  Doesn’t that say we shouldn’t want?  Anything?  That wanting is bad?  Or anti-faith somehow?  We are made to want.  It is a part of who we are.  Part of the human condition.  A life of faith doesn’t remove the wanting, in some ways it drives it.  We need to long for the Kingdom, to want justice, to work for peace.  And to not settle for anything less.  We need to want to be alive and to rid ourselves of anything that makes us less than all God created us to be.  And want to stop letting anyone tell us we are less than we are in God.  

What David meant was that when he stopped to think about it, he had everything he needed to be alive.  Maybe what should have said The Lord is my Shepherd, I’m going to stop whining when I don’t get my way!  Or better, not my will, but thine be done.  Amen.