Saturday, July 20, 2019

Wash Me!

We’re cleaning today.  Well, I was, now I’m sitting here writing this.  I got permission from the list-maker, just so you know.  And I’ll be back at it soon.  But for now, here I am.  We’ve got lots to do.  The house has to be ready.  We have a potential showing tomorrow.  And if that doesn’t result in an instant sale (please let it be so!) then the photographer comes on Wednesday and we list the house and have an open house next weekend and then do whatever needs to be done until it is sold.  

It was easier when we had a parsonage.  Oh, we still had to clean.  We did our best to make it look new for the next pastor and family who would come after us.  But we didn’t have all the showing and keeping it clean in between time, pretending that no one really lived here.  That’s the standard, it seems to me.  To make it looked inhabited, but not lived in.  Nothing out of place, nothing actually used, just looking like it could be.  

It’s a high standard.  Almost unattainable.  I’d be more worried about it if I hadn’t gone look at a few houses when I was in Nashville.  Some of them were super clean, some were ... lived in clean.  Maybe we worry too much about it.  Maybe most folks understand what living in a house is like.  Maybe clean enough is clean enough.

But then, we want to make a good impression, we want someone to imagine living here enough to want the house themselves.  Imagine themselves in this space.  With their clutter and not ours.  So, we have to move stuff out of the way, so they have space to imagine.

And maybe that’s why God is so concerned about cleanliness.  At least the Psalmist thinks that God is concerned about cleanliness.  There’s that line in the twenty-fourth psalm, that says you can’t get close to God with dirty hands.  You can’t find your place on that hill, in that holy place if your heart is smudged and your hands aren’t washed.  “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?  4 Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” Psalm 24:3-4  

I know that there is more of concern than a little dirt on one’s hands in that reference.  But still, the cleanliness of the hand seems important enough to add to the list, next to heart and mouth.  Be clean.  But then, cleanliness doesn’t guarantee that all will be well.  In Psalm 73, the psalmist says I was clean, I had good cleaning habits, but still I stumbled.  Still I struggled.  Cleanliness in and of itself didn’t save him.  His hands were clean, but his heart was full of himself, of pride, of arrogance.  And he felt it when he came face to face with God.  He realized he was relying on his own cleanliness, his own ability to make himself worthy, rather than on the love and grace of God.  It was when he recognized his neediness, his own helplessness, that he came closer to the kind of cleanliness that God requires. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” Psalm 73:25-26 

But the best known call to cleanliness comes from Psalm 51.  Behind that psalm is dirtiness almost beyond description.  The story of David and Bathsheba and Uriah and Nathan the prophet is too messy to recount in this space, but it includes breaking of covenants and abuse of power and a sentence of death for an innocent, two innocents to be accurate.  Not to mention all the others within whom innocence died so utterly.  Could anyone ever be clean again after such a series of events?  It seems unlikely.  And yet that is the prayer of Psalm 51.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”  

Psalm 51:1-17 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. 14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Is it possible to be clean again?  We don’t think so, do we?  We might scrub and scrub, we might humble ourselves as much as we possibly can, we might try to fix what we have so irreparably broken; but deep inside we know it is a lost cause, a waste of time and energy.  We can’t get the toothpaste back in the tube.  We can’t mend the hearts that we have broken, the covenants we have smashed.  We just can’t.  It is simply beyond us.  We are no more capable of making ourselves clean than we are of flapping our arms and flying to the moon.  

Which is why Psalm 51 is a petition, a plea for help.  “Wash me,” says David.  Only then, he knows, will he be clean.  He can scrub all day long, but there will still be stains, there will still be fault.  So, he asks for help.  He asks for the cleansing that can only come from the One who made us in the first place, the One who holds our true image in the grace of memory and hope.  The only One who can restore us to that image.  Wash me, and then I will be clean.  Purge me, blot out my stains, restore me.  

And then, he says, then I’ll share it.  Then I’ll show it.  I’ll be a showplace of cleanness, I’ll be an example of what cleanliness is all about.  Then I’ll have an open house of the chambers of my heart and all will walk through and see what it is to be clean.  To live within and still be clean.  Because the Cleaner is at work within me.  Wash me and I’ll sing your praises, says the psalmist.  

Maybe those who walk through our house in the days to come will sing praises.  Maybe.  Maybe they’ll say this is where we want to live.  And will sign a contract.  And we’ll be done.  Maybe.  Sigh.  But until then, I need to get a bucket of hyssop and get back to work.  The baseboards are saying “wash me and then I’ll be clean.”


Saturday, July 13, 2019

Get Up On Your Feet!

Home again.  I was down in Nashville for a full week this time.  My second week on the job.  The problem is there is a huge youth conference taking place out in Kansas City right now, and a large portion of the office was out there,  Then, of course, it being summer, there were also many out for vacation.  So, the office was like a ghost town for part of the week.  Some came drifting back, but still it was plenty lonely at times.  Plus, our big planning retreat is still a week away, so I’m not always sure what I’m supposed to be doing.  

No big deal, I could spend the time unpacking and arranging my books and assorted office stuff around.  Except, uh oh, too many books to fit on the shelves I was given.  While I was puzzling over this, and thanking God that I got rid of as many as I did, or I’d really be in trouble, I got an email from one of the administrative folk telling me how to put in a work order for things in the office.  Perfect!  So, I put in the order – “Can I please have another set of book shelves, please.”  Yeah, two pleases, I was trying to suck up.  Anyway, a couple of days later one of the maintenance guys showed up and says, we’ve got some, but they’re no good.  But there are some in the other building.  If you can wait a bit, I’ll see if we can get you one from over there.”  Sure, ok, no problem.  I like the cardboard vibe I’ve got going on here (and at home, come to think of it).  So, I’m waiting for more shelves.  Meanwhile, my office looks like a kid home from college who doesn’t quite know how to put things away in his room.  

The other good thing about having some time on my hands this week is that I got to concentrate on my presentation at Mission u.  What’s that?  You don’t know what Mission u is?  Well, let me tell you.  The United Methodist Women sponsor summer experiences of learning about social and missional issues so that you can go back to your local church and stir up trouble.  I mean, so you can go back and get folks motivated with hands on experiences and plenty of data and background information.  It is a four day immersion into issues and solutions in local and global missions.  In other words, it’s something you ought to be doing!

There are three studies during Mission u (BTW - it used to be called School of Christian Mission, but someone decided “school” in the summer sounded like a non-starter, so they changed it).  One is the Spiritual Growth study.  I have been privileged to lead the Spiritual Growth Study many times for Mission u and it’s previous incarnation.  I always have a good time, teaching and learning with these women and a few brave men who come with questions and answers and most of all the motivation to make a change in their lives, in their churches, in their communities and in the world.  If there is one group in our whole denomination who takes that mission statement seriously - to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world - it is the United Methodist Women.  Especially the last part of the statement, the transformation of the world.  The United Methodist Women aren’t satisfied with making themselves disciples, or even their families or churches disciples with all the benefits of belonging.  No, they want the world to know that they are also a part of the kingdom of God.

Or “Kin-dom of God.”  That’s how the author of the book I am privileged to teach this coming week at Mission u has renamed “kingdom.”  Rev. Janet Wolf, is the author, and frankly it is one of my favorite books ever for the Spiritual Growth Study.  Wolf tackles her subject so well, it is compelling and inspiring. And her subject? The Gospel of Mark.  The title is Practicing Resurrection: The Gospel of Mark and Radical Discipleship.  I love that title, “practicing resurrection.”  The implication is that resurrection is not something that happened only to Him, but something that becomes a part of us.  Or we become a part of it.  Or something.  

And the whole idea of the kin-dom of God is that we are being made into a family.  All of us. Or, as I used to say regularly, all y’all, We are connected by the resurrection, we are made alive and whole and a community that is bigger than just us.  And here’s the thing, this family that is so inclusive, so all encompassing, has room for folks who don’t even know about it yet.  Who haven’t heard.  And who may have felt turned away or left out by the church and the people who claim to be followers of the resurrected one.  Which is why we need to practice resurrection.  Because the resurrected life isn’t one of sitting still, but moving forward.  Moving outward.

Mark 16:1-8 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Rev. Wolf uses a number of stories to help us get the feel of what Jesus was about.  Stories about radical change in individual lives and in social customs and structures.  It is clear, Wolf tells us, that Jesus didn’t come simply to give people a warm feeling in their hearts.  Warm feelings are great!  We find, however, that the experience of faith comes more often when we practice it.  More often then, when we practice it, than when we just think about it, or learn about it, or even pray about it.  Too often we use our “thoughts and prayers” as a means to avoid living our faith, practicing our resurrection.  It is in the practice that we discover the kind of life that Jesus wants so much for us to know and to live.

And by practice we don’t mean rehearse, or try until we get it right.  It doesn’t mean we are rookies or somehow inept in living the life of resurrection - though we might be!  No, practice as in what doctors do, or what lawyers do - they practice medicine and they practice law.  It doesn’t mean they aren’t professional, though all of us have made that joke.  No, it means they are doing it.  And yes, the more we do it the better we are at living that life.

In the story from Mark, the women decide not to practice this new life, this new understanding.  They run in fear – terror and amazement, Mark says.  They were too overwhelmed by the implications of Jesus resurrection that they couldn’t imagine it having anything to do with them.  Even though the invitation was issued.  “Go,” says the young man in white, “and tell His disciples, including Peter who did all he could do to exclude himself from the team, who acted as though he wasn’t a part of them, but resurrection includes all, even those who act like they aren’t included.  Go and tell them that Jesus is already moving.  Already on the way.  Going to where they live, going to their home town, their neighborhoods.  Go and tell them that if they want to see Him, they’d better get up on their feet and move!”

That’s what practicing resurrection is about.  Getting up on our feet and moving.  Moving out to the edges where things are risky, but folks are hurting.  Moving out to stand in solidarity with those society says aren’t worth our time or our effort or our energy.  And moving out to advocate for change that makes sure that everyone gets a fair chance to live, to make a living, to participate in a society based on more than supporting the people at the top.  To help build something more like a “kin-dom” where we all belong to one another in mutual love and support.

Is this going to be easy?  Is resurrection easy?  I don’t know, I haven’t tried it.  But I want to.  I want that life.  That resurrection life.  That living in the kin-dom life.  How about you?  

If you do, get up on your feet! 


Saturday, July 6, 2019

Living in Between

So here’s what happened. On this long holiday weekend (BTW, happy 4th of July everyone!) the list was long.  The list of tasks I was invited to help accomplish in my time at home, before heading back to Nashville for my new position with Discipleship Ministries.  Some of which I do with La Donna and some of which I am left to do on my own.  Some of which is here at the house as we continue to pack and get the house ready to sell and some of it is running errands out and about in the area.  So, this was a trip to accomplish a variety of things, a four point circuit that would then bring me back home having accomplished all that was before me.  The journey started at the license branch, to turn in the plate from the wrecked car that Rhys totaled when someone ran a red light right into him last March – yeah, OK should have been done long ago, I know.  Anyway, as always the License Branch was a bottleneck on my high speed circuit.  So, I was looking to fill the waiting time and happened to call up Facebook on my phone.  For some reason, I punched the profile part of that oh so necessary app and discovered that it was all wrong.  I was still listed as Lead Pastor of Southport and so I was attempting to change that.  Got the job changed and then was trying to change the location.  I was still resident in Indianapolis, owned a house here, but it wasn’t quite accurate, so I decided to say I was now in Nashville.  Figured it would just sit there on my profile and when the move was accomplished I could announce that with a post.  

Little did I know that Facebook was so excited about my transfer that they posted it for me!  So now all of a sudden, I’m announcing to the world that I’ve moved to Nashville, which got all sorts of reactions from various and sundry friends and acquaintances.  Some of whom were thinking that I misled them when I said we were going to wait for a while before selling the house and others thought I had already gone.  So I had to insert a post saying, well, yeah, but no.  I’m in Nashville, but not in Nashville.  I’ve moved, but we haven’t moved.  If you get what I’m saying.  Looking at the posts still coming in from that, I can’t tell who has figured it out and who still thinks we’ve pulled up stakes and moved out.  And I’ve given up trying to correct all the thinking.  Because the truth lies somewhere in between.

The truth is that all of us are in between.  In all sorts of way.  We are in the process of becoming.  Wesley called it sanctification, the move toward Christian perfection in love.  But we are also sojourners.  Traveling through this world heading to another destination.  Call it heaven, call it the Kingdom of God, call it Eden and God’s original intent for the world in which we live, we can’t be too settled where we are.  We’re neither here nor there, and yet we are called to be where we are.

Confused yet?  I am.  Always on the road, always here wishing I was there and there needing to be here.  You know the feeling.  You don’t have to travel between multiple states in order to have that sense of dislocation or displacement.  I’ve heard it from folks who debate moving to where their kids and grandkids are, or waiting for the kids to move back toward them, because everyone seems to be on the road these days.  Looking for home.  Searching for safety and a place to settle.  A place to be, to grow and to thrive.  

We are in an era of unprecedented movement.  Some move to improve their opportunities.  Some flee violence and war, hatred and prejudice.  Refugees show up on our shores, cross our borders and we struggle to know how to respond.  “We’re full up” some will announce, no room for more.  This land is our land, we declare.  And of course it is.  But then maybe not.  If this isn’t really home, if we’re on our way somewhere else, then what do we lay claim to?  If we’re not really settled, then where do we belong?

I know this is a delicate issue, one of law and nation. I’m not trying to say the matter is simple.  But I am trying to remember that we all have multiple ways of looking at even the most complex of issues.  The Bible, which is authoritative for me if not for everyone, is full of calls for hospitality.  To remember that we are all foreigners in the land, we are all sojourners, and therefore we treat those who come to our shores with respect and with grace and with honor.  Which may or may not mean making room for them to live among us, but surely does not mean we threaten their very existence by how we treat them when they arrive, however “illegally.”  Scripture tells us again and again that we are not to be like other nations, that we are to have a higher standard.

Hebrews 13:1-3  Let mutual love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

Sure, you can search the scriptures for evidence of a call to wipe out enemies and foreigners in the land and you’ll find it.  But is that the standard by which we will choose to live?  Is that the measure of our faithfulness to the God of Jesus our Christ?  Besides, if you look closely, that call to wipe out whole peoples are not about invaders, but about wiping out the ones occupying the land that you want. And historically, we have been faithful to that command, perhaps to our shame.  

Which also means we have to look at our own history to assess our motives in how we respond to the sojourners among us. That those in the highest offices of our land have used people who have been here illegally is not fake news, but a simple fact.  But now that it is a political issue, our attitude is expressed differently.  Now we are using them, but for different purposes and with different effect.  

Well, as they say, that escalated quickly.  It was not my intent to launch a polemic against current immigration practices and certainly not to claim that I have a solution to the problem.  That is above my pay grade.  I am, however, concerned about the conscience of our nation.  Which is under my remit as pastor and preacher and teacher.  And under yours as a follower of the Lord of all that is.  And I think it begins when we look at who we are as God’s people, and acknowledge that we are all refugees from a world that isn’t what God intended it to be.  That none of us are settled where we are, none of us are completely safe and secure where we are, because we long for something more.  We long for peace, we long for justice, we long for home.

In the end that’s our driving motivation.  To go home.  Some of you know that La Donna and I will have moved 21 times when we finally do make the move to Nashville.  There are lots of reasons behind some of those moves.  And none of them were because we were fleeing for our safety.  But all of them have been, and will continue to be because we have chose to follow a God who is on the move.  A Lord who said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no where to lay His head.” (Matthew 8:20, and Luke 9:58)

I don’t think He was calling us all to be homeless.  As soon as we have an address in Nashville, we’ll let you know, and will open our doors to those who may be passing through.  So, having a home is not a bad thing.  But I do think He was reminding us that protecting our home and homeland, can often get in the way of being a follower of Christ.   
And that the best place to live is in between. 


Saturday, June 29, 2019

Not Neglecting to Meet

I was sitting at the funeral dinner last weekend.  I was talking with the daughter of the deceased, and another mutual friend, about all sorts of things, as you do.  We were catching one another up on life and opportunities and paths we were on and such like.  They were very interested in this new twist in the road I was on in ministry and asked lots of questions about it.  Then suddenly, one of them sat back and said, “I’m worried about you.”  “What? Why” I said.  “Well,” came the reply, “think about it.  Yes, you’ve moved lots of times, but until now everywhere you’ve gone you moved into a community of faith who welcomed you and included you and La Donna and the kids into their family.  You had a network of people there to help you find a way forward through a new place.  But now you’re going to an office.  Sure it’s ministry, and they may even become friends, but they live all over Nashville and probably worship in different churches.  So, you’re going to have to find a church home for the first time in your life!”

I hadn’t thought that much about it, to be honest.  For a while we were working under the assumption that I would be appointed to a weekend church somewhere in addition to my full time job so the community would be built in again as we moved.  Then when we discovered that it wasn’t going to happen because of the Conference situation and the needs down there, we were stressed about how to find a house and an area of the city or the surrounds to live in that we hadn’t thought much about the church where we would worship.  

That we would worship didn’t even need to be said.  It is built in.  I read recently an article about a group of “church leaders” who were no longer worshiping regularly in a local church.  They had kind of given up on the church, even while they were still training pastors and speaking about the value of the faith community all the time.  Seemed ironic if not hypocritical to me.  I guess I can understand.  These days there is a lot of giving up on the beleaguered institution of the church.  Some are feeling like the church is abandoning them.  Some feel like they no longer recognize what the church is or has become.  So, I get it.  

But then, no I don’t get it.  Is the church a disappointment?  Sure, often.  Is the church a place of brokenness and failure?  Certainly, it reeks of it.  But is the church a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, at least once in a while?  Of course.  And that’s why it is worth hanging in there.  Or finding a community where you can find your way.  It isn’t really negotiable.

Hebrews 10:19-25 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,  20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

The Letter to the Hebrews has an interesting history.  First considered one of Paul’s letters, but then that was quickly debunked, even in the years after it first appeared.  But nonetheless, it was considered to have authority in the church which is why it was included in the canon, even without a clear Apostolic authorship.  In other words, it just made sense.  

Those who have read and studied Hebrews might argue with the “it just made sense” designation.  There is a lot that is confusing and or convoluted to our modern way of thinking.  But if you dig down and stick with it, there is so much that lifts the spirit and guides our steps.  And the view of Jesus, the Christology, is higher and more grand than in any other book in the Bible.  So, it is worth the effort of reading it.  

These verses remind us that we need one another.  The following chapter is probably the most famous from the letter, and it waxes eloquent about the people of faith throughout history who live a life of faith as an example for all those who follow behind.  And then the next chapter is the one that reminds us of the cloud of witnesses who cheer us on and bring us to run with perseverance the race that is set before us.  And if you just read chapters eleven and twelve, you might come to the conclusion that this cloud is all those who are no longer with us.  Those who have gone before and now we can read about them and gain inspiration from them.  All of which is true, but not the whole story.  If you read chapter ten, particularly the verses I chose to highlight, then you will see that the cloud of witnesses includes those who are around us now.  Those friends of the heart with whom we may communicate electronically more than physically now because of distance and divergence of paths.  But they remain important to us, instrumental to us despite that distance.  But then there is also the community of faith with whom we worship week by week.  Let us not be “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.”  This leaving church phenomenon isn’t new, apparently.  

But let’s buck the trend, let’s hang together.  Let’s be the church.  And the purpose, according to Hebrews anyway, of being the church together, of meeting together, is for encouragement.  Not for reprimand, not for condemnation, but for building one another up.  And, of course, that will call for transformation, for repentance and a new start.  But that always happens best inside the church, alongside those who are also being transformed.  Deciding who can come in and who isn’t welcome isn’t the remit of the church anyway.  Our job is to welcome, and then encourage all.  

So, I’ll learn to worship as one who sits in the pew again, next to my wife – yeah, that’ll be weird for both of us.  But we’ll get there.  And we’ll find a church that fits us, that cares about the things we care about, that speaks about the things we need to hear and to say.  It may take a while, this is important.  And yes, there may be reasons for leaving the church you’ve been a part of for a while.  Relocation reasons, for example.  Or maybe the Spirit has left that church, it does happen.  Maybe things have gotten so toxic it isn’t really functioning as a church anymore.  We humans are capable of fouling even the most godly things.  But you still need a community.  You still need a family around you to encourage you, to challenge you, to build you up.  And the church can be that place for you. 

I’m not giving up on the church.  I pray you won’t either. 


Saturday, June 22, 2019

For God So Loved

I stumbled around the parking lot feeling terribly overdressed.  It was Southport’s version of Vacation Bible School compressed into a Saturday and called the “Backyard Bible Blast.”  It was designed to be a festival, a fun expression of community joy and hospitality but not just for the kids who attend our church, but the neighborhood as a whole.  And the neighborhood came.  Maybe not as many as we might have hoped because it was threatening rain for most of the day.  But still there were plenty of little ones and not quite as little ones bounding from booth to booth, from games to displays, from food to farm animals, from bounce houses to a re-enactment of the nativity, and of course the dunk tank, which always seemed to have line of kids wanting to watch someone splash down in the tank of what had to be cold water.  

Someone might ask so how is this a “Bible” blast?  Besides the nativity re-enactment, it doesn’t seem terribly biblical.  True, we didn’t read chapter and verse.  We didn’t have a flannel graph off in the corner somewhere with Bible stories for kids.  We didn’t sit them all down and sing a song that will echo around in your head for days afterward.  No, maybe we should have just called it a Backyard Blast and been more honest about it.  Except.

Except our job had never been to teach the Bible.  Or to pound the Bible.  Or to memorize the Bible.  Those are good things (except the pounding thing - hard on the binding), but not our central task.  No, we are called to introduce Jesus to any and to all.  And we believe that the best way to do that is to act like Him first.  To welcome, to invite, to encourage, to laugh with, to enjoy, to love.  It is to be the faith we’re trying to share, to be that love we want to pass on.

That’s a very biblical idea.  The Bible is, of course, full of all sorts of ways of communicating faith.  But one of the most compelling is embodied witness.  To embody the message is simply to live it.  To live it powerfully and openly.  Like Hosea.  

Most folks don’t know Hosea well.  He’s one of the twelve minor prophets tucked away in the back of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Minor because the book that bears his name is shorter, not because he isn’t as important.  He just doesn’t have as many words.  Because he was called to live his proclamation. Hosea’s encounter with God begins not with “say this” but with “do this.”  And his “do this” wasn’t performance art, like Jeremiah.  No, Hosea’s “do this” was a life.  Marry a prostitute, and have children with her.  That is Hosea’s story.  Loving an unfaithful woman.  Raising a family.  And here’s the deal, God said love her.  Not, put up with her for the witness.  Not just go with it for a while until the credits roll and you can take your bows on stage.  No, love her.  Go get her when she strays.  Raise the children, your children, her children, when she abandons them to run back to her old life, because the pull is just too strong.  Love her.  And keep loving her. Keep loving her.  Because I do, says the Lord.  

Really?  Way back then?  We thought the loving God was introduced by Jesus.  But this is long before Jesus.  This is the God we sometimes fear.  The God who puzzles us, troubles us.  The God who seems so harsh, so angry.  I’m not trying explain away a whole lot of difficult stuff in the Bible.  I’m just trying to present to you the God that Hosea knew.  Was there frustration there?  Was there judgment?  Yes, of course, that doesn’t stop even when Jesus comes to town.  But it is always a judgment the arises out of love.  We forget that.  We struggle with that.  We believe it, but don’t really ... you know ... believe it.  We recite it, but it doesn’t seem to be a part of our being, our inner understanding, it isn’t in our soul.  Yet, this is the God Hosea knew.

Hosea 11:1-9   When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.  2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.  3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them.  4 I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.  5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me.  6 The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes.  7 My people are bent on turning away from me. To the Most High they call, but he does not raise them up at all.  8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender.  9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. 

You are loved.  That is the third and final essential truth I want to leave with the congregation I served these past two years.  You are loved.  Not as a matter of course, not because it is in the script, but you are loved with a love that staggers the imagination.  God says through Hosea, through his life and his words both, that God’s love is not like the love we may be used to.  It is not conditional.  Not based on behavior, not conditional or limited.  God’s love is not based on a false understanding of who you really are, a role you play, a mask you wear.  God’s loved is a creator’s love, a parent’s love, the one who taught you to walk, who picked you up every time you fell and is willing to keep doing it.  Every time you fall.

Hosea went out and brought his wife home every time she strayed.  Every time she forgot the covenant she made with this strange little prophet, he waited patiently and loved continuously.  Every time.  Did he have harsh things to say in the name of God?  Of course.  But if you listen carefully, the harshness is in what they were missing.  The harshness was the willingness to allow them to stray and to live on the consequences of their actions, live with the brokenness they had chosen.  Because underneath it all was this compelling, constant, perfect love drawing them back.  

Underneath it all is a compelling, constant, perfect love. You are loved.  That’s a truth no one can take away from you.  You can pretend you forgot it.  You can believe your own doubts and your own insecurities.  You can live as though you aren’t loved.  That’s part of the freedom we have.  We can walk away and pretend we aren’t.  But there is nothing we can do to make God stop loving us.  Nothing.  It is why God does everything God does.  

John 3:16-17  "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17 "Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Remember that?  Of course you do.  Everyone knows John 3:16.  It is the single most quoted verse in the whole Bible.  It is scrawled on cardboard and held up in the end zone in football stadiums across the country.  It is graffitied on rocks and walls on lonely stretches of high in the middle of nowhere.  It’s on billboards and t shirts and buttons and patches and calendars with pictures of kittens or mountains.  It’s everywhere.  We know that verse.  But.  Do we believe it?  Better yet, do we live it?  Live in the truth of God’s motivating love?  Live in the confidence that God is here, that Jesus walked this earth, that the Spirit meets us where we are not for condemnation but for love?  
I was overdressed for the Backyard Bible Blast this afternoon because I had participated in a funeral for a colleague and friend, who had given his life in ministry and witness to the love of God.  And he was remembered today as one who knew how to laugh.  The best witness any of us can give to the world is to live knowing that we are loved, and then to love because of it.  Love as you are loved.  

This is my final word to Southport United Methodist Church.  This weekend I say farewell to those whom I have loved and those who have loved me.  And there is nothing I can offer them more important that this truth: You are loved.


Saturday, June 15, 2019

Memory Serves

Well, that’s done.  Annual Conference, I mean.  Another year’s obligation checked off.  Another one of those painful business meetings interspersed with a family reunion is now all done.  For this year.  There’ll be another one.  But for now, we’re done.  And I survived. Not just survived.  I stepped into the flow, waded a little deeper into the water this year.  (Our theme was “Water to Witness” – meaning the baptized are called to share the gift and invite others.  Hence the water metaphors).  I stood for election to the delegation to General and Jurisdictional Conference.  And was elected to be a part of the Jurisdictional Conference which will be held in Fort Wayne in July of 2020.  

Some of you are thinking, wait a minute you grumble like an upset toddler every year about having to go to Annual Conference, and now you agree to do more?  Yeah, I admit the incongruity.  But it seems to me that this is a time where sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option.  And while I do not claim to have all the answers as to what would be the best direction for the church, my church, your church, to take in regard to faith and culture, I want to be a part of the conversation.  No, that’s not quite right.  I feel like I should be a part of the conversation.  It is a part of being in the family.  To be involved, to be committed, to be known.

Known.  We want to be known.  All of us want to be known.  And I don’t mean we want our names in lights, or printed in mile high letters on the marquee, or on every lip and every website and social media post.  Most of us don’t really want that – though fame has a certain appeal, let’s be honest.  Yet, we are rational enough to know the downside most likely outweighs the upside of that equation.  So, it isn’t notoriety that we want.  I still suggest, however, we all want to be known.  By someone, a few someones anyway, by those close to us, those we know in return.  

In our astoundingly connected world, loneliness is still a devastating social ill that affects far too many people.  Hundreds of friends on Facebook, but no one who knows the real you.  No one who notices your worth, your giftedness, your grace.  No one who remembers you.  We’ve all encountered that blank look when someone we thought should remember us doesn’t.  It’s a sobering, devastating feeling.  We feel insignificant, unimportant, alone. 

Though, maybe we’ve been the forgetful ones.  Maybe someone does that horrible game “Remember me?” and then refuses to tell you their name.  Memory is a tricky thing, let’s be honest.  We have trouble in the best of times recalling the names and the faces of even those closest to us.  Add to that the devastation of dementia of various kinds and we are dealing with one of the worst fears we have these days.  Because there is a part of us that believe when our memories are gone, then we are gone.  We are made up of the memories we have.  Without them we have nothing, we are nothing.  A cipher, a zero.  

Which brings me to the second essential truth that I hope to leave with the congregation I have been serving these past two years.  Another stunningly obvious statement that on the surface might not seem all that important.  But I believe that it is not only a profound truth, it is actually a taste of the salvation we are offered as children of God.  You are remembered.  

Psalm 98 O sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. His right hand and his holy arm have gotten him victory. 2 The LORD has made known his victory; he has revealed his vindication in the sight of the nations. 3 He has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel. All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God. 4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.  5 Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. 6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD. 7 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it. 8 Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy 9 at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity. 

The Psalms might seem an odd place to go for propositional truth.  The psalms are songs, hymns and poems of the people of God, seeking to grasp the mystery in metaphor and emotion.  The psalms are a great place to go find companionship for your personal journey, because wherever you are there is a psalm that echoes the state of your soul.  If you are joyous, read the psalms.  If you are hurting, read the psalms.  If you are broken or victorious, if you are hurting or whole, if you are grieving or in love, all this and more is captured in the images and rhetoric of the psalms.  

But in the psalms you find descriptions of the nature of God.  And here we see that part of the essence of what makes God God is that God remembers.  Indeed in the 98th psalm the praise comes because God is a God who remembers.  It is essential to the nature of our God.  God remembers God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.  God remembers.

Perhaps that is too general for you.  Sounds nice in the abstract.  But not necessarily sustaining.  Well, then, let’s get personal.  Let’s get specific.  Let’s get individual.

Luke 23:39-43 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." 42 Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." 43 He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

Oh, we know this one.  We read it during Lent, or perhaps in Holy Week.  When we remember how Jesus poured out His life, and the words He spoke as He did that pouring.  One of the seven last words from the cross.  We know this one.  But it’s the request that amazes me here.  In that moment, that brink of death moment, that ultimate despair moment, this man - of whom we know almost nothing - makes an incredible request.  Me, I would ask for rescue.  I would ask for relief from suffering and pain.  Or maybe I would ask for a place in the next world, if I was able to grasp the concept of the next world in any form or fashion.  But not him.  This man, we call him the penitent thief, but we don’t really know his crime or condition.  After shushing his compatriot on the other side in what some commentators call the first Christian sermon, he then makes a simple request.  Remember me. 

I don’t know what he expected from this request.  I don’t know what was on his mind when he asked it.  Did he simply desire that someone somewhere would remember that he once existed, was that enough to give his living and his dying meaning?  Or did he know, or suspect, or even hope that what Jesus revealed was actually true.  Which is that to be remembered by the living God is to live in paradise.  Or living in paradise is being remembered by God.

You are remembered.  You who have claimed this gift and tried to walk in love.  You are remembered.  You who may have doubted your place, felt insignificant, wandered lost and afraid and so very much alone.  You are remembered.  Can you hear the power in this truth?  Can you grasp the gift of this truth, even just a little bit?  You are remembered.

The hard truth is that all of us may lose our memory.  We may lose our grip on those we love most.  And those we love may lose sight of us.  It is happening with all too frequent regularity.  But even forgotten by our own family, or even when we forget every face in front of us, we are remembered.  So, what else can we do with this truth, but tell everyone we know, until they become the ones who tell us.  

You are remembered.  Thanks be to the God who remembers.


Saturday, June 8, 2019

Living Life Alive

The final stretch.  My last three weekends to preach at Southport.  And then what God has in store for me in terms of preaching, I don’t really know.  I know I’ll be working on preaching, writing about preaching, teaching about preaching.  But will I actually be preaching?  I don’t know.  I would assume so, but that remains to be seen.  Seems ironic, I know.  But there it is.  

So, given that this is it for a while anyway, what should I say?  What words, themes, ideas would I want to go out on?  What would I leave my congregation with as I shuffle off to new and unknown horizons?  Well, I decided on some basic, almost embarrassingly basic truths.  Truths so simple they are likely to bring a snort of derision as I trot them out these three weeks.  Truths so fundamental that I believe we sometimes forget how radical they are, on the other hand.  What do I mean?  Well, here’s truth number one: You are alive.

Uh, really?  That’s it?  Yes, really.  That’s it.  You are alive.  But of course there’s alive and there’s alive.  If you get my meaning.  Oh, you don’t?  Or you want a little more information?  OK, let’s start with Pentecost.  This is Pentecost weekend in the church.  A story of power and wind and fire.  Kind of a “huh, how about that” most of the time, a “well, my goodness, wouldn’t it have been cool to be there, back when God seemed more ... alive.”

There’s a dynamic in the Bible stories that grips us.  It is as though the barrier between this world and the Kingdom world is thinner somehow.  As if all you have to do is reach out your hand and then you can feel Someone take hold.  All you have to do is be quiet enough and you can hear a voice that calls your name.  All you have to do is ...

Well, take a look, or a read.  See how present the Spirit is.  See how close the Kingdom is.  Take a look:

Acts 2:1-13  When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.  4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.  

5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.  6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.  7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?  8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?  9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia,  10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,  11 Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power."  12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"  13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." 

But that was then.  Now it is a lot quieter.  Or a lot noisier.  Quieter on the divine side, noisier on our side.  When was the last time that you were amazed and perplexed by something that God was doing in your life?  When was the last time that you were blown away by the presence of the Spirit?  It seems like that sort of experience is left for others.  For the heroes of the faith, or for those who profess a Pentecostal faith that seems wrapped up in signs and wonders and woefully out of touch with how the world really works.

Is that what we are supposed to hear on Pentecost Sunday?  That “slain in the spirit” and “speaking in tongues” kind of faith?  Is this a call to live like that?  Maybe.  But I don’t really think so.

Our story is in two parts.  The first four verses tell of the coming of the Spirit on the little band of followers who had lost their way when they lost their leader.  Only four verses that function as the fulcrum around which the whole story of the church pivots.  Before that these twelve did almost everything wrong.  They missed the point, they ran and hid, they got in the way, they didn’t score too well on the disciple aptitude test.  Before this moment in the story, you just know that if Jesus was serious about leaving this whole church thing in their hands, disaster was sure to follow.

But then something happened.  The something described in the first four verses of chapter two of the Acts of the Apostles.  Something noisy, like a violent wind.  A tornado, that sounded like a freight train roaring through the room.  Something that gives a simple choice - get out of the way, or get on board.

Then tongues, Luke says, tongues as of fire, divided, meaning coming from a common source but able to spread out, like a vine and its branches, reaching out to touch each one.  And these tongues, these fire-like divided branches rested on each of them.  Rested.  Doesn’t that seem odd to you?  Rested on each of them.  Not, dove right down to the core, not, cut through to where soul and spirit meets, joints and marrow, not, cleansed them like a purifying fire, washing them like fuller’s soap.  The sound was violent, but the tongues rested.

The second part of the story is what spills out into the street.  That’s when you know it is a good party, when you can’t contain it in the house.  At the Pentecost party, the neighbors complained - well some were cynical and sarcastic, but others were curious.  Some passing by wanted to join in, they were peering in the windows, hoping for some of what they were having.  They were amazed, they were captured, they saw something beyond the surface - some of them did anyway.  “We hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

But only some.  Maybe things weren’t closer to God in those days.  Maybe it just seems that way because they find a God excuse, or a God explanation for everything that happens.  Maybe if we decided to start looking deeper into everything that happens, we’d realize that the Spirit is closer than we realize.  We think we are alone because we don’t hear the freight train, but the Spirit is actually resting upon us, close as a breath, close as a heartbeat.  

Breath.  Something about a breath.  “Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7) In the Greek version of the Old Testament this verse ends with a curious phrase.  It essentially says “the human being became an alive living thing.”  An alive living being.  Meaning we can be living and not alive.  It is the breath of God that makes us alive.  The breath that wakes us up to what is really going on in the world around us.  That’s what happened at that first Pentecost, the Spirit made them alive again.  Alive the way they were intended to be, the way they were created to be.  

This is the life that Jesus came to bring us, “ I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)  He was talking to living people, but they weren’t alive.  Do you see?  I know it sounds like semantics, but there is a deeper reality than just words.  There is a deeper truth that we often forget.  In our noisy world, in our just getting by world, in our going through the motions hoping that one day we’ll make it to wherever we are heading and it will finally make sense world; we lose track of the sense of being alive.  The consider the lilies aliveness, the wind like a freight train aliveness and fire like a comforting friend aliveness.  

Now you’re thinking, how do I get me some of that?  Well, here’s the truth you need to hold on to: you’ve already got it.  The Spirit came, the wind blew, the breath breathed on you.  You’ve got it.  You are alive!  Now live as an alive living thing.  Open your eyes, open your heart, open your mouth and breathe it in and breathe it out.  So that everyone comes alive because of you.  You are alive.  So, for heaven’s sake, start living.


Saturday, June 1, 2019

Something Like a Fire

If you’ve been reading this blog for long, then you’ve been introduced to all of the denizens of the home in which I live.  There’s people, of course, me and my wife of thirty-nine years (!).  Then there is our son Rhys, the newly minted Master of Library and Information Science (though we are still waiting for the paperwork to prove that he has completed all collegiate righteousness).  But we humans don’t sum up the life force in this address.  There’s Nick, the three legged terrier mix, who passes comment on the goings on of the entire neighborhood (and La Donna is fond of saying terrier is close to terrorist).  Rounding out the sometimes peaceable kingdom of our dwelling are the feline members of the family, Dora, the substantial cat and Cato.

It was Cato that brought this inventory to mind today.  There is something about her that embodies the theme for this week’s message.  See, Dora came to us in the usual way, someone in town, a friend of our daughter Maddie, had a cat who had kittens and wondered if we wanted one.  Maddie went to see them and of course she simply had to bring one home, so after receiving permission the little ball of fur came with her into the house.  So, Dora joined us and quickly became comfortable and content.  And she grew, and grew and now takes up some considerable space.  Granted some of it is fur, as she is a long haired, silky and beautiful cat.  But some of it is ... Dora.  Just a lot of Dora.  Cato, on the other hand, was a stray.  Half wild, she was born on the campus of Wittenberg University where Maddie attended.  Apparently this wasn’t unusual, as the campus was sometimes called “Kittenberg” in recognition of this feline phenomenon.  One day as Maddie and some friends stood at the front door of their sorority house, a gray streak darted through the open door and ran from room to room, keeping the giggling college girls at bay for a considerable amount of time.  Finally, however, the numbers won out and the few ounces of shivering fur were gathered up and claimed.
After much debate, they named her Cato.  Maddie, always innovative with names wanted to name her Cat.  Someone else suggested something more substantial, like Catastrophe, and it got abbreviated to Cato.  The story how she came from University in Ohio to full time resident with us also long and convoluted, so I’ll skip it for now.  I tell you part of her story to help you understand her personality a little bit.  I don’t think she ever lost a little bit of wild in her.  She would probably be diagnosed as ADHD if there was someone competent to evaluate cats psychologically.  Cato is constantly on the move. I’ve debated attaching a pedometer to her somehow, just to see how many steps she gets in on an average day.  There isn’t a corner she won’t investigate, a door she won’t go through or demand be opened.  When she’s in she wants to be out, but don’t close the door behind her, or she’ll turn and want back in.  

It’s like there is a fire burning inside of her, driving her to move, to explore, to discover, to go.  Just go and embrace a world that’s much bigger than her little kitty eyes can endure, and often bigger than her little kitty heart can withstand.  Sometimes her explorations send her running back into the house with a puffy tail and arched back having encountered some threat, some terror that overwhelms her.  But it doesn’t keep her down for long, it doesn’t keep her in behind closed doors.  As soon as her heart stops pounding so hard and the hairs on the back of her neck lay down again, then she’s off.  Like Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 20:7-9 O LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed. I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. 8 For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, "Violence and destruction!" For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. 9 If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name," then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

We are concluding our Disciple’s Heart series this week.  We’ve talked about a lot of different dimensions of this process, this journey in these past six weeks.  It’s called “sanctification” in proper theological terms. Or striving for Christian perfection in Wesleyan language.  Becoming more like Jesus, learning to love God with all of our heart and soul and mind and strength, we could say.  And we’ve talked about the role of the individual, of the community and of the Spirit in making this happen.  But no matter how diligently you work these ingredients into the mix, it isn’t going to produce what we hope.  Because something else is required to make this work, to sustain us in the journey, to keep us on the path.  A fire.  

Jeremiah had a difficult task.  Some would say impossible.  To announce bad news to a nation that thought it was doing well.  A nation where the numbers showed growth and strength and prosperity.  Jeremiah had bad news to share.  He had a reprimand to administer, a warning to proclaim.  And he hated it.  He hated how it made him feel, almost as much as he hated the response it evoked.  He’d just as soon give it a pass.  Just sit this one out.  Let them go on their merry way, thinking all was well and everyone was happy.  Let them continue to ignore the broken being trampled in the mad rush to progress, let them continue to ignore the hungry and the hurting on the margins.  Just let them, he thought as he turned off the TV and pulled the blinds and hunkered down to let it all go skipping along without him.

Except he couldn’t.  He just couldn’t.  Even hiding in his blanket fort on his comfortable bed, in the dark of his room, he heard the cries.  He felt his call vibrating in his skeleton from within, urging him out yet again.  Something like a fire, he said, burned inside of him.  The presence of the Lord resided deep within him and if he tried to keep it in, tried to take the easy way out, the comfortable route through this life, then it flared up.  Like he had eaten something so spicy it burned inside of him.  Like he had biting insects covering his skin.  Like he backed into a cactus.  He had to move.  

It’s this compulsion that is required to complete the journey of sanctification.  This something like a fire burning within that drives us to continue on.  But not just a compulsion to completion.  Not just a drive to be better.  That could be a part of it.  That self motivation to be all you can be.  But it won’t sustain you for this journey.  Because this is a journey outward.  What we discover about this pathway is that it leads out to serve.  To give.  To love. To walk alongside, particularly the forgotten and the broken, hurting and the hungry.  It is a journey to live a life of love like Jesus showed us.  

In the end, this journey is not really about us.  Or, it’s not really only about us.  It’s about the Kingdom, about the reign and rule of God, and the world that matches the prayer we pray week after week: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  We’re seeking, no, we’re driven to live in the kingdom, to be shaped by that hope, to gather up all those that God loves and find our way to heaven.  
I don’t know for sure what Cato is seeking in her mad dash to everywhere.  What adventure she seeks to encounter, what friends she searches to include, what world she seeks to inhabit.  But she continues to search, is driven to discover.  

May we all be so driven.


Saturday, May 25, 2019

Joined and Knit Together

Thirty nine years.  Or sixty-four percent of my life.  That’s a majority.  That takes the vote, determines the passage of the bill into law, that’s ... well ... a lot. It was my anniversary this weekend.  Well, our anniversary.  It’s hard to have a wedding anniversary by yourself, I suppose.  She was there.  Thirty nine years ago today.  A Saturday morning in South Bend, Indiana.  In a beautiful sanctuary, with dark, carved  wood, a huge stained glass window, and baptismal font that was supposed to be almost a thousand years old.  We stood before the altar and my dad walked us through the vows we made, the promises that would change everything in ways of which we only had a glimmer.  A hint at best at what our lives would be from that moment on.  

Like the hundreds, or thousands who stood at that font, or where held over the water and had hands laid on them, wet, dripping hands, and words intoned, the Trinitarian formula, the words of blessing and cleansing and renewal, words of claiming and promise.  And the suspicion that life would be different from then on.  Only a suspicion, mind you, a hint, a glimmer of what was to come, how life was to unfold. But what was certain was that nothing would be the same from that moment on.  That water washed moment.  That promises made moment.  

Because lives were intertwined in that moment.  Hearts were joined.  Responsibilities shared.  I can no longer think only of me.  She could no longer look only to her own horizon.  Two became one, not so that something is lost, but so that all that was is woven into what will be.  All of me was wrapped into us.  All of me.  She accepted the less than perfect parts as well.  Most of which she didn’t even know yet.  Much of which I didn’t even know, until confronted with life that stretched me and twisted me and turned me inside out.  And then we would see how I would fare.  Sometimes well, sometimes not so well.  But she took that, and wove it into her life.  Even as I did that same.  Thirty nine years ago.

Or a thousand years ago.  Two thousand years ago.  Lives have been woven together by words and promises.  The body has been shaped, formed, and has stood strong or not so strong at times.  That ancient font has stories to tell, your story and mine too.  Stories of the body of Christ, woven together and made into something more than what any of us would be on our own.  And not just the strength of numbers, though that is a part of it.  No, there is something more, something mysterious and profound.  A Spirit that binds us, connects us, strengthens us.  A Spirit and a Presence that is within our grasp and beyond our vision.  We are more fully ourselves when we lose ourselves in that body.  We are victorious when we surrender to the other.  To the Other.  To the Spirit and to the community of faith.  

On our journey of faith, our discipleship path, as the disciple’s heart is being placed within us, we begin to recognize that we need companions on the way.  We need those who will come along beside and shore us up and allow us to guide and strengthen and shape.  We are in this together.  That’s where we are in the series called “A Disciple’s Heart.”  The recognition of the need for the community of faith.

Ephesians 4:1-16 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. 7 But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ's gift. 8 Therefore it is said, "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people." 9 (When it says, "He ascended," what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) 11 The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people's trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body's growth in building itself up in love.

One.  How many ones did you count?  Paul falls all over himself with the one refrain.  One, one, one.  We are one.  He sings that song – we are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord, and on and on until we all go crazy.  But the point is made.  Unity is a sign, says Paul, a sign of the body of Christ, a sign of the Presence of the Spirit.  It is an essential element in the process of sanctification, of making of disciples.  But why?  We live in a world that is all about the individual.  About self-actualization.  About the lone hero prevailing against impossible odds.  That’s what we hear every day, hundred times a day.  It’s all about me.

Which is precisely why we need a community.  We aren’t made to be rugged individualists.  We aren’t designed to forge our way alone.  We are made to be connected to others.  To partners and friends, lovers and confidants.  “It is not good,” says the Lord, the Creator God at the beginning of everything that is, “for the human being to be alone.”  It is part of the design that we walk together.  

Together.  And yet uniquely ourselves.  See this togetherness isn’t sameness.  Unity isn’t about uniformity. We each have our gifts, we each have our calling, our part to play in the larger whole.  Some commentators have argued that Paul’s list here in this passage is about offices, about what it takes to have a church, a community of faith.  Maybe, but I’m not so sure.  I think these are roles, these are gifts that are shared with the community as a whole, and the wider world.  Like each of the lists that Paul makes in his letters, this is a sample of the variety of gifts and abilities and inclinations that the members have.  And the purpose of each of the gifts is the same: to equip the saints.  To build up the body.  To help us all grow up to maturity. 

Paul isn’t really contradicting Jesus when he tells us to not be like children.  It kinda sounds like it, but Paul is emphasizing a different aspect of childishness.  Jesus says be like children, trusting.  Paul says don’t be like children, gullible.  Admittedly it’s an fine line.  And it begins with speaking the truth in love.  Being true to one another, to living in community, accountable to the promises and the hope that is within us.  That’s why we need each other, to practice loving in an atmosphere of forgiving grace.  We can risk loving like Christ within the body, because everyone is on the same journey, everyone has the same goal and hope. 

So, how do we do it?  How do we take the risk of loving one another?  How do we survive the ebbs and flows of life and heart and soul?  Well, Paul has a suggestion for that too.  In fact he leads with it.  “Lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.”  That’s the goal, that’s the hope, that’s the race that we run.  But here’s the methodology: “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”  That’s the key, he says.  That’s the plan.  With humility – how we hold ourselves with honesty and clarity; and gentleness – how we hold one another, the “golden rule in action, treating others with the same caring honesty with which we want to be treated.  And with patience.  With patience.  He says it twice just be sure we’ve got it.  Because we live in time, and we wait for the Lord, and we wait for completion, for maturity, and so we wait for one another with forgiveness and grace and hope and love.  For thirty nine years.  Or more.  Thank you, La Donna Riddle Weber for your grace and patience over the last 39 years.  Who knows what might be next?


Thursday, May 16, 2019

Festival of Homiletics, 2019 Minneapolis Day Four: Climbing Trees and Going Home

Day four of the Festival is the last full day.  Friday morning we’ll hear from the Rev Dr. Amy Butler, the Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City and then we’ll go back home and attempt to put into practice some of the things we learned, attempt to share some of the inspiration in our preaching in our own congregations, attempt to hold on to the grace we have tasted in this place.

But that’s tomorrow.  Today we spent some time with some familiar characters and learned we hardly knew them at all.  The morning began at Westminster again, as we heard Dr. Matt Skinner present a sermon titled “Don’t Give Me That Old Time Civil Religion.”  We revisited Philippi with Paul and Silas.  And all seemed well until the slave girl with the spirit of prophecy outed them as emissaries of the God of salvation.  Paul healed her because she annoyed him and ended up in jail because he messed with a source of income.  And that was just the problem with the story, even the girl was just a commodity.  And that maybe our call is to move beyond the winners and losers mentality that allows us to keep score.  Especially in our polarized culture we devolve into shouting matches and muscle flexing that accomplishes nothing except widens the gaps.  Maybe we need a different approach.

Maybe we need to climb trees.  At least that is the advice of Dr. Anna Carter Florence, Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta.  Her sermon was based on the familiar story of Zaccheus.  Aware of all the usual interpretations, Florence Carter instead invited us to step into the head of Zaccheus for just a moment.  Imagine, she asked us, wanting to see Jesus so much that you would risk the humiliation, the risk to life and limb, you would think creatively enough to actually think of climbing a tree just to catch a glimpse.  Maybe our problem is we think Jesus is so available, we’ve forgotten to desire a glimpse, forgotten to live our lives trying to catch sight of Him.  Maybe we’ve forgotten we’re looking, or maybe we’ve stopped looking.  Maybe it’s time to climb a tree.

The next hour Dr. Carter Florence introduced us to a work in progress.  Her next book will be a dictionary of sorts.  As a teacher of preaching, she decided to write a book that presented characters and places and words from the Bible while she looked for the preacher in the story.  Or the Word that spoke.  So, she presented various letters, like C, which was Caleb and told the story of the one spy who believed in the promised land.  Or L which was Lukewarm, like Laodicea the town that couldn’t get a good water supply; the cold wasn’t cold and the hot wasn’t hot and both were calcified in the pipes.  So when John the Evangelist put the word Lukewarm in the mouth of the Lamb of God, it made all of them sick to their stomach.  Q which was Quirinius, governor of Syria when Jesus was born, and U is for Ur the town were Abraham was from, but never really lived in.  We all need a place to be from, she argued.  It is and will be a reminder of the power of that Book, the more you listen and the deeper you go.

The Rev. Lillian Daniel had the hardest job all week.  She was a last minute addition to the program to take the place of Rachel Held Evans, the progressive blogger and writer whose writings challenged the complacency and patriarch of the church.  Rachel, or RHE as she was known by those who learned from her and loved her, was taken to the hospital a few weeks ago with an infection that moved to her brain.  The next thing you knew, the brain seizures were so severe she was placed in a medically induced coma while they sought the medications that would cure her.  Except they couldn’t.  And at 37 years old this mother of two, died to the shock and horror of many.

Lillian Daniel agreed to speak in her time slot because she was a friend of Rachel, and she said, “we have a hope that is not seen.”  With all that in background, Daniel spoke of the need for and the danger of the personal in preaching.  The very act of preaching is self-revelation of the deepest sort.  But it is also possible that the vulnerability of the preacher can block the presence of the gospel.  So, it is a line we walk each and every time we climb up into the pulpit.  Something I’ve been trying to talk with my students about for years.

We then ended this last full day with a poetry reading by Natasha Trethewey, the US Poet Laureate from 2012-2014.  Trethewey writes powerfully and passionately about the vulnerabilities of life, her life and through her the life of our nation.  She is of mixed race, born in the sixties in Mississippi when we were still trying to find our identity as a nation with civil rights.  After her white father divorced her black mother, her mother remarried, to a black man who had anger issues and after divorcing him he came back and murdered Natasha’s mother.  The grief and the guilt and the anger are work together to create breath-taking art.  Each poem is a heart wrenching exercise in the search for hope in the midst of despair.  In other words, preachers aren’t the only ones who struggle with the place of the personal in their presentation.

A beautifully heavy end to the week, though we still await a word from Dr. Amy Butler.  But soon we’ll all return home.  And I for one will be looking for a tree to climb to claim a new perspective on my life and the gospel and the life of the church and the world.   I am grateful to those who fed me, challenged me, encouraged me and troubled me this week at the Festival of Homiletics.  And I am also grateful for those who come to listen as we go out on a limb to catch a glimpse of our savior.  Come and climb with me.  You can see for miles.

Derek C. Weber

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Festival of Homiletics, 2019 Minneapolis Day Three: Abduction Method and The Great Chasm

As I posted yesterday’s reflections online, the heavens opened up.  No, it wasn’t a revelation from God or an announcement of divine approval of my writing.  It was a Minnesota thunderstorm.  It rolled through between one and two a.m. this morning and drenched the city in a short period of time.  But, at least the storm had the good sense to come when most were sleeping and save the 1,600 preachers wandering the streets of Minneapolis from a soaking.  Who says that many proclaimers of the Word don’t have a little divine favor?  Or maybe it’s good luck.  Either way, most of those I asked during the day if they heard the storm said no.  They, at least, were sleeping.  And so as not to be up too late again, let me get to a reflection of Day Three of the Festival of Homiletics.

We began again with worship.  I decided to head to the second venue, Westminster Presbyterian Church, for early worship with the Right Rev. Rob Wright, Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Atlanta.  Bishop Wright asked us to engage in “Reimagining Leadership” and took as his text the story of James and John and their mom asking for special places of honor at Jesus side in the Kingdom.  Jesus took that occasion to talk to us about what it means to lead in the Christian Context.  “It shall not be so with you,” He said.  The “lording over” or the “tyrant” leadership.  No, ours is about service, about giving life away.  A different approach.  One of sacrifice.  But can we cast a vision, through preaching, that counters a world of lording?  That’s the question.

One minor quibble with the good bishop’s message.  As he concluded and was moving into praise, he quoted from an “old Anglican who wrote “O for a thousand tongues to sing, my great Redeemers praise, the glories of my God and King, the triumph of His grace.”  Except that old Anglican was Charles Wesley, part of the founding duo of the Methodist movement.  Old Anglican indeed.  Technically correct, but oh so wrong!

After our break we reconvened in the sanctuary for a sermon and then a lecture by the Rev. Brian McLaren. McLaren has been a provocateur for years, challenging the way we do church, the way we do faith communities, asking us is it time to rethink everything about who and what we are.  It is my personal belief that the past few years and now months in our denomination at least are proving him to be not merely a provocateur, but a prophet.  

His sermon was titled “Scaring the Hell Out of Rich People.”  And he walked us through five parables that we’ve usually taken individually, but argued that they are a case that Jesus was building to help people, his audience at the time - pharisees, rich people - to understand a fundamental truth about life, namely that you can’t serve God and wealth at the same time.  We’ve convinced ourselves that you can, and we’re destroying ourselves because of it.

So, how do we begin to think differently.  From sermon we turned to lecture and McLaren suggested that in order to begin to think differently we need a shock, a new reality.  As a teacher of preaching I know about the inductive and deductive methods of constructing sermons, or of teaching.  McLaren suggests there is a third, which he called the Abductive.  We need to see the world differently.  And in order to do that we have to be taken out of the world as it is, so that when we return everything looks different.  For example, he argued, we receive a cancer diagnosis, we are abducted into a new reality and suddenly what seemed so important before no longer does so.  Everything has changed.  We preach to abduct the hearer into a new way of seeing the world.  Which is exactly what Jesus was doing.  He wanted us to see truth so that we could live truth rather than persisting in the lie.  

But we are slow learners.  Because there is too wide a gulf between truth and the lie.  Dr. Frank Thomas, Professor of Homiletics at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis was our next preacher.  He preached on the “Great Chasm” in Jesus parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  Thomas challenged us to bridge the gaps that exist in our society, seemingly insurmountable.  But that Jesus parable was less about the afterlife and more about this life and how we cross the chasms between rich and poor, left and right, urban and rural, and on and on and on.  

Then back at Central Lutheran, Dr. David Lose, former professor, now pastor of Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, asks “Why Preach?”  In a world of so many words, spoken and written and tweeted and posted, we are drowning in words, why add to it with sermons that fewer and fewer want to hear anyway?  He admitted he wasn’t about to suggest we stop, but wanted to ground his encouragement in scripture.  Taking a look at Luke’s Gospel, Lose suggests that like Luke our message is ultimately to Theophilus.  Luke is the only Gospel that begins with a subscription.  He writes to “Most Excellent Theophilus.”  There are many guesses as to the identity of this person.  Including the suspicion that it might not be a single person at all.  Theophilus translates as Lover of God.  So, this might be, Lose suggests, Luke’s church.  The people he knows who love God.  On the other hand, Theophilus could also be translated as the Beloved of God.  In which case Luke and we are announcing to the world that they are loved.  A message worthy of continued proclamation.

After our dinner break we gathered back at Central Lutheran for a Jazz/Gospel worship, where Sarah Renner and her gathered musicians sang Marvin Gaye and Andre Crouch and Aretha Franklin and gave us a taste of the heavenly choir.  And Rev. William H. Lamar, Senior Pastor of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington DC welcomed us to Central Lutheran Holiness Church and encouraged us to let Jesus ride on and then join the parade.  It was an invitation hard to resist.

One more day and a half to go.  And by the way, more rain is predicted.  But not until the preachers leave town.  Another blessing of the Spirit?  Or simply coincidence?  You decide.  Ride on King Jesus!

Derek C. Weber