Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Marvel of the Night

Before the marvel of this night adorning  / fold your wings and bow / then tear the sky apart with light / and with your news the world endow. 

I sat in the pew on Christmas Eve while the choir sang me into the heavenly host.  Let me say that again, it is an astounding statement.  I sat in the pew on Christmas Eve.  Yeah, that part.  That’s what was so astounding.  I sat in the pew, on Christmas Eve.  Do you know how long it has been since I sat in a pew on Christmas Eve?  Tell me, because I don’t.  It seems like forever.  I have been up front, leading the event for more years than I can count.  

OK, there have been years, in Edinburgh in the late 80's for example, when I didn’t lead worship on Christmas Eve, but those are dimly remembered.  I sat in the pew on Christmas Eve in Nashville Tennessee this year.  Two different pews.  I did it twice.  Just because I couldn’t believe I was doing, I guess.

No, I did it twice, partly because we have a couple of churches that we like and so we decided to go to each of them on Christmas Eve.  Plus, for some reason Nashville prefers an early Christmas Eve service.  The vast majority of the services offered were between 4:30 and 6pm.  I love an early service, especially one designed with children in mind.  The wild chaotic, barely holding in the longing hearts of the little ones who are all space shuttles rumbling on the launch pad read to leap into the joy that is Christmas morning.  

Proclaim the birth of Christ and peace / that fear and death and sorrow cease: / sing the gift of peace!

Those early children’s services might speak of peace, but it is a vibrating peace, woven with joy and anticipation and a living hope so real you can taste it, as strong as the peppermint candy canes you hand out knowing it is going to make fingers sticky and lips a bright shiny red.  Now, the earlier of the services was more a family service, not simply for children, so it had a calm about it, a sober embrace of the Christmas joy, with choirs and preacher and candlelight and communion.  It was a beautiful experience, though odd to sit in a pew and observe, participate like the assembled masses, crowded into the pews.  A glorious celebration of the night.

Awake the sleeping world with song / this is the day the Lord has made. / Assemble here, celestial throng / in royal splendor come arrayed.

I do love the early services on Christmas Eve, but precious to my heart and my thirsting soul is the late night service on Christmas Eve.  Our Catholic friends call it Midnight Mass, though it usually starts at 11 to end at midnight.  Here it was ten thirty, the latest we could find in our United Methodist tradition here in Nashville.  And we went early, expecting there to be another crowd, seating limited.  Rhys, who went with us to the early service was fading fast and he decided to stay home and go to bed.  So, La Donna and I went and found a seat and waited.  

Assemble here, celestial throng / in royal splendor come arrayed. / Give earth a glimpse of heavenly bliss / a teasing taste of what they miss: / sing endless bliss!

A taste.  The organ played a full half hour before the service began.  It was glorious, and certainly an invitation into a celestial throng.  The crowd was smaller than I expected, and subdued, leaning in to all that took place, the carols, the anthems, the sermon and the story.  There was a friendly camaraderie in the sanctuary that night, like we all belonged there, together, one family because of the child in a manger.  When we went forward to kneel at the rail for communion, it was as if we knelt on straw and were straining to see the baby.  And the little crumb of bread and tiny thimbleful of juice was a Christmas meal of love and acceptance, of fellowship divine.  And all the strife that seems ready to rend the denomination asunder was pushed aside in the darkness of that vast space.  And we were enfolded into a new hope, and a new possibility. 

The love that we have known / our joy and endless light / now to the loveless world be shown / break upon its night. / Into one song compress the love that rules above: / God is love!

“Before the Marvel of This Night” is the anthem the Chancel and Sanctuary choirs of West End United Methodist Church sang on that late Christmas Eve.  It is indeed an invitation to stand with the angel host who sang Christ’s birth to the shepherds on that lonely Bethlehem hillside.  Carl Schalk wrote the beautiful music for this piece, but the words were penned by Jaroslav Vajda.  Vajda was born in Ohio, despite the Slovak name.  His father was a Lutheran pastor there in the early 1900's when Jaroslav was born.  Jaroslav himself became a Lutheran pastor and served churches in Pennsylvania, Missouri and Alexandria, Indiana.  He wrote over 200 hymns, including a few in the United Methodist Hymnal (#122,  235, 619) before his death in 2008 at the age of 89.  

Now the silence / Now the Peace / Now the empty hands uplifted / Now the kneeling / Now the plea / Now the Father’s arms in welcome / Now the hearing / Now the power / Now the vessel brimmed for pouring / Now the body / Now the blood / Now the joyful celebration / Now the wedding / Now the songs / Now the heart forgiven leaping / Now the Spirit’s visitation / Now the Son’s epiphany / Now the Father’s blessing / Now / Now / Now

That hymn is listed as a communion hymn in our hymnal.  But it could be the promise of Christmas Eve.  It could be the hope of a world in need of peace.  And not willing, not needing to wait.  Now, Vajda and Schalk wrote, Now.  I write this, after mulling it over since Christmas Eve, on New Year’s Eve.  Another threshold into new possibilities and new hope.  Or maybe just another year, another day, another sunrise so much like all the others we have seen.  

Except it isn’t.  The world is new.  God has promised to do a new thing in our midst.  

Isaiah 43:18-19 Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

Join me in working and watching for the new thing that God is doing in our midst.  And I wish you all the blessings of Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Wondering Love

“Preaching is the bringing of truth through personality.”  That’s a famous quote I learned many years ago when I began to study preaching in earnest.  It’s not terribly sophisticated, not erudite or wrapped up in incomprehensible theological jargon.  Yet, it always appealed to me as a definition of this thing that I do.  It points to two significant elements in the preaching moment.  The first is something bigger than the individual involved in the task.  Preaching is about reaching beyond the mundane into something of eternity, about grasping hold of the kingdom of God and bringing it into the consciousness of the people.  Admittedly, it fails more often than it succeeds.  At least I failed more often than I succeeded.  But the attempt was made, and perhaps even through my fumbling attempts a glimpse was possible, a hope was kindled.  Truth was experienced.  

That’s the part of the equation that speaks of eternity.  Truth.  Truth through personality.  But Truth disconnected from real life isn’t compelling.  It needs a place to be grounded.  There needs to be a point of contact.  Personality.  The preacher.  The speaker, the witness.  Me.  You.  Anyone who tries to speak of something profound, who tries to share the truth of Christ.  Personality.  The you that is you.  Essentially you.  This preaching thing takes something profoundly personal in order to make it work.  When I teach preaching, I join with lots of other teachers or preaching who say that their task it to help each preacher find their own voice.  We aren’t trying to make clones of ourselves.  We are trying to help the preacher be the most authentic self they can be.  

Which is a lot like faith.  See, preaching is just one aspect of this faith thing.  And we’re all trying to do it.  You may not consider yourself a preacher, but you are.  You preach with your speaking, but also with your doing.  With your being.  Preaching is bringing truth through personality.  The life of faith is living truth through personality.  It’s your call as well as mine.  To live a life that is authentically you but also points to something beyond you, something bigger than you.  A truth that you can’t contain.

And why?  Why are we bringing this truth through personality?  Because that’s what Jesus did.  That’s who Jesus was.  He was the originator of bringing truth through personality.

John 1:1-16 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, "This was he of whom I said, 'He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'") 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

It was in a series of lectures on preaching at Yale University in 1877, where the Rev. Phillips Brooks declared that preaching was bringing truth through personality.  Brooks was Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston at the time.  He had accepted that position in 1869, coming from Philadelphia.  A huge man, six feet four inches tall and weighing 300 pounds, personality radiated out from him. Considered by many the finest preacher of the 19th Century, he captivated congregations with his eloquence and optimism.  He was ordained in 1859 and began his ministry at the Church of the Advent in Philadelphia.

After only three years there, he then took a position at Holy Trinity in Philadelphia where he served until his move to Boston.  Shortly after moving to Holy Trinity, he took a year off to travel abroad.  Included in his journey was time in the Holy Land, and he was especially taken by his visit to Bethlehem.  Upon his return, he worked for three years on a poem attempting to capture his experience there.  And in 1868 he wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for his congregation.  His organist Louis Redner set the tune to music (after a restless night of struggle, where he claimed an angel whispered the tune in his ear) and it was presented to his church.  Neither of them thought it would last beyond the Christmas of 1868, but it has become a favorite of many, sung year after year.

“O little town of Bethlehem / How still we see thee lie / Above thy deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by / Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting Light / The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight”  

Junius Dotson, the General Secretary of Discipleship Ministries, spoke this season about the war over Christmas.  But not the one you might have heard about.  He meant the war between our hopes and our fears.  Brooks’ carol speaks of that struggle, and hints at the resolution, of hope winning out over fear.  But it’s only a hint.  There is still a plea sung in the carol.  “O holy Child of Bethlehem / Descend to us, we pray / Cast out our sin and enter in / Be born to us today / We hear the Christmas angels / The great glad tidings tell / O come to us, abide with us / Our Lord Emmanuel.”

We’re still waiting.  But we wait with hope, because of what has already happened.  For the truth that came through personality, for the Spirit that was wrapped in flesh.  We saw His glory, John says, full of grace and truth.  And now we live that truth out in our lives, in our flesh, in our personality. 

And in our hope.  That’s our call this Christmas season.  To keep on hoping. Or, as Phillips Brooks said, to join with the angels in keeping a watch in wondering love.  “For Christ is born of Mary / And gathered all above / While mortals sleep, the angels keep / Their watch of wondering love / O morning stars together / Proclaim the holy birth / And praises sing to God the King / And Peace to men on earth.”

We can either sleep through this season, this time, or we can take our place alongside the heavenly host and watch with wondering love.  Which means continuing to live and work, to serve and give, to believe, in the end, that God is not far, that the “kin-dom” of heaven is among us.  That is the truth that the gospels proclaim.  That is the truth that we proclaim, by being who we are, by living in wondering love.  It is the truth that the world needs.  

Bringing truth through personality is not just for preachers.  It’s for all of us.  It’s for a world where truth is a rare commodity.  We don’t bring this truth with a hammer, crushing those who dare to disagree.  Instead we bring it with wondering love.  Because we believe in Christ who is with us even now.  Because we believe in Christmas.  


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Ordinary Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Church Shopping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A New Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, September 12, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Faith Comes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Life Happens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, August 10, 2019

Through the Waters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, August 3, 2019

Rush Job

Whew, what a week.  I’m still catching my breath.  It quickly got out of control and for a while I was feeling like I wasn’t up to the task presented to me.  Let me explain.  One of the tasks my team (the worship team of Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church) is tasked to do is to help local churches do worship to the best of their abilities to enhance the making of disciples and to connect with the world around them.  We do this in a variety of ways, some of which I am still discovering.  But perhaps the most obvious, or certainly the best used, are the worship helps that we post on our website.  We try to do them far enough ahead so that as people are planning their worship service we will be ready to help.

This week we discovered a problem with the notes for the worship series in November.  So, I agreed to do my best to produce something for us to send through the system to get posted ASAP.  So, I wrote.  And wrote.  And read and thought and prayed.  Prayed lot.  And wrote some more.  Late into the night sometimes.  Trying to get something ready to send to our editor.  

When I sent it out late Thursday night via email, I wrote in the email that while I felt good about the project basically, it was not my best work.  The pressure of the deadline caused me to cut some corners that I wouldn’t normally have cut.  I would have taken more time to make the material more rounded, more resourced and more collaborative.  But it was, in short, good enough.

Good enough?  What’s good enough?  And how often do we settle for good enough?  In way too many arenas of our lives we have been settling for good enough.  We’ve been getting by, making do, too accepting of the way things are, too apt to say, well, things are like that these days.  We shake our heads, we still complain, but then we shrug our shoulders and say, “what can you do?”

Romans 8:22-25 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

You might be wondering where I’m going here.  And the truth is that I’m not sure.  Except that as I thought of my experience this week, rushing to get something done, with a deadline past due, and knowing that I could have done better if I had more time, and I thought about patience.  Patience is listed in the fruit of the Spirit passage that we enjoy so much.  It is something that Paul talks a lot about.  Jesus doesn’t seem to use the word, except in a parable about forgiveness.  You remember that one?  There was a man who owed an impossible sum.  As Jesus tells the story, the man owes ten thousand talents.  I’ve heard various interpretations of how much a talent represented.  One point of agreement is that it is a lot.  The smallest amount I heard described was everything a person could earn in a year.  That’s one talent.  This man owed ten thousand of them.  Ten thousand years worth of income.  Be patient with me, he said to the creditor and I’ll pay you everything.  How patient isn’t defined in the story.  Ten thousand years patient seems ... excessive.  But here’s the kicker.  The creditor says, what the heck, just forget it.  I beg your pardon?  Yeah, ten thousand talents here, ten thousand talents there.  No big deal.  (Note to self: send this parable to the people who hold our mortgage!  Matthew 18:23-35) Ahem.  

Of course there is a part two, and patient appears there too.  The only time the word appears in the Gospels, any of them.  The guy just forgiven a debt of ten thousand years worth of wages, runs into a guy who owes him a buck fifty.  No, that’s wrong, it was more.  A hundred denarii.  That’s not something to be sneezed at.  Almost a third of a year’s worth of income. 

When we first went to England, we went to work in the British Methodist Church.  It was an amazing and sometimes troubling experience.  But the reason I bring it up is that in the British Methodist Church the pastors are paid once a quarter.  Up front.  So, I arrived and was handed a check (actually it was Britain, so it was a cheque) that had three month’s wages in it.  Dang!  It was a little startling to say the least.  But I was smart.  I did the very smartest thing I could think to do, I brought La Donna with me.  Whew.  She of the lists and organization and budgets.  I would have been living on the street begging for left over fish and chips inside of a month and half without her.  Well, maybe not.  But my point is it was not an insubstantial amount of money. 

So, the guy forgiven the huge debt stumbles on the guy who still owes a significant (compared to the other hardly even registers on the Richter scale!) amount, who says the exact same thing that he just did.  You have to wonder if the second guy was listening to the first guy make his plea and recorded it on his phone so that he could play it back when it was his turn.  Be patient with me.  But the forgiven guy says, no!  Give me my money or go to jail.

Patience is in short supply it seems.  Yeah, the guy gets in trouble for his lack of grace.  The master says he will go to jail until he pays the last penny.  So, he’ll be there for at least ten thousand years.  And when he gets out he will have nothing.  And be really old.

We wait for what we don’t see with patience.  That’s what Paul says in the passage I chose to show.  Wait for what?  Wait for what we hope for.  And what’s that exactly?  Well, um, I dunno.  What do you hope for?  Paul is want us to be hoping for a new world.  A different reality.  The Reign of God.  The Kingdom of Heaven.  That’s what we’re waiting for.  But not some abstract strumming harps on clouds kind of thing.  No, this is a new earth too.  It is a better way of living.  A way of trusting and caring.  It’s a way of working collaboratively and way of honoring those who think and act and look differently.  About acceptance and inclusion, not about name calling and finger pointing, not about sending home those who might be a different shade, not about so narrowly defining love of nation that unless you want exactly what I want then you must hate my country, not about finding things to complain about in others when someone tries to hold you accountable for your words and actions.  We are hoping for something better than what we see in front of us every day.  We don’t see it, says Paul.  It seems to far from us, and moving farther from where we are and who we are becoming than ever before.  But still we hope.  And we wait.  With patience.

But, here’s the key.  Patience, especially waiting with patience, is not about sitting still.  About keeping your head down and waiting for the hammer to fall, the change to come and then coming out and taking our place.  No, patience is about writing.  Even though you’re behind the deadline.  Writing the best you can, working the best you can, speaking and sharing and living and giving the best you can.  Patience is not letting the lack of reign of God sightings keep us from looking for them.  And better, keep us from doing them, those sightings, those glimpses of a better world.  Others can come and wait with patience with us because they see in us the hope put into action.  They see the kingdom because they see it in us.  They hear it in us, they read it in our words, they feel it in our love.

That’s the key you know.  Patience isn’t really one of the fruits of the Spirit.  Because there is only one fruit.  Go look it up.  I’ll wait, it’s singular.  The fruit of the Spirit is ... Love.  That’s what it says.  Not the fruits of the Spirit are ....  Singular.  The fruit of the Spirit is love.  But it is love that is joyful, and love that is peaceful, and love that is patient, and it is love that is kind and generous and faithful and gentle, and it is love that is under control.  Patience isn’t a thing in and of itself, according to the Spirit anyway.  Patience is an aspect of love.  Often when we run out of patience it is because we’ve run out of love.  If we come back to love, we just might find more patience.  Remind yourself of the love you have for those who are trying your patience.  Or the love you are called to have with them.  Even when the deadlines loom and the work piles up.  Return to love.  That’s a job we can’t put off, but can’t rush either.  We wait for it with patience.


Saturday, July 27, 2019

On the Road Again

Me and Willie Nelson.  It’s in your head now, isn’t it?  “On the road again / Goin' places that I've never been / Seein' things that I may never see again / And I can't wait to get on the road again.”  That’s the second verse.  The first one says “I just can’t wait to get on the road again.”  I’m not sure I can sing that right now.  Make no mistake, I’m still loving my job in Nashville.  And I’m still loving my wife and son here in Indianapolis.  So, I’ll get on the road again to be here and then be there.  But I’m beginning to think the road thing isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.  Especially in the summer, when they thing they have to work on those roads and slow everyone down.  That gets old real quick!  Sitting bumper to bumper on an interstate somewhere along the almost 300 mile journey.  Creeping along, inch by inch, knowing that the miles are still sitting there waiting to be traveled.  I’m a science fiction fan, where are the worm holes?  Where are the transporters?  Beam me home Scotty!

Nope, gotta drive it.  Mile after mile.  And then this weekend I got home on Friday and then Saturday (today) I had to go to Kokomo for the first meeting of the Indiana Conference Delegation to General and Jurisdictional Conference!  And I took the interstate around Indy.  On a weekend.  Bad choice.  And then tomorrow, after the open house, back on the road again, to Nashville.

Oh, open house.  My brother asked about the initial house viewing last week.  As La Donna replied, they came, they saw, they left, and haven’t said a word.  To us or to our realtor.  So, photos were taken on Wednesday, there’s an open house on Sunday, then we wait.  And hope.  And clean.  Well, she cleans.  I get on the road to Nashville.  I may never be forgiven for this one.  We are hoping and praying for a quick sell.

And just now we were online looking at houses to buy.  Ones we can afford, which narrows the available ones considerably.  Some look good.  Some sound good, price wise and dimension wise, and they make us wonder what’s wrong with them.  Sorry, we’re suspicious types.  But we look and we wonder and we imagine where we will be.  I found one that I thought was great, until I checked out the map, it was halfway to Paris... Tennessee!  Well, not quite, but a long way out anyway.  So, we looked again.

There is just so much we don’t know.  So many questions we don’t have answers for.  And that can be difficult at the best of times.  So much so that there are moments where we feel like maybe we just should have stayed put.  Things would be easier.  

Genesis 12:1-4 Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. 2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." 4 So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

I had to include the last verse here.  For those, like myself, who are wondering why I’m doing this thing at my age.  I haven’t hit 75 yet, so there.  But my real reason for including this passage came at the end of the first verse: “to the land that I will show you.”  Did you catch that?  God didn’t show up at Abraham’s door with plans all in place.  He didn’t have the checklist completed and the route Google mapped.  God said, “go to the land that I will show you.”  Or in other words, we’ll figure it out as we go.  

When we sign up for this gig, this following Jesus gig, this going all in on faith gig, then there are times when we move forward without all the answers.  We take the next step because it seems like that is what God is calling us to do.  So we go, even when it is scary, even when it is frustrating, even when it costs more than we realized it was going to cost.  We take the next step.  So what is your next step?  What is God calling you to do tomorrow?  Or next week?  Or sometime soon.  Maybe it is scary, maybe it involves traveling, or maybe it means reaching out to someone nearby and healing something broken, or reviving something that has died.  Because God’s call takes all kinds of forms.  Not all of them involve changing location, but there is usually some sort of change called for, some sort of growth.  

So, though the drive doesn’t excite me right now, I’ll get on the road again tomorrow.  I’ll keep following the call and keep building a new life with Discipleship Ministries.  I am loving my job, just wish it was closer, or we were closer.  Maybe one day we’ll find our current promised land and be able to settle for a while.  Until then, I’m on the road again.

Other than venting, and keeping you all informed of the progress, what’s the point here?  Well, maybe there isn’t one.  Except for a call for prayer for us.  Maybe that’s all there is to it.  Maybe I’m including you in this little venture because things feel a little better together than they do apart.  

“Here we go, on the road again / Like a band of Gypsies we go down the highway / We're the best of friends / Insisting that the world keep turnin' our way”  

We’re on the road together, even when the world isn’t turning our way.  Or the way we imagined.  Or hoped or prayed for.  Or even if it is, we still prefer to be together. So whatever road you’re on, if you’re following your call, then we’re that band of Gypsies traveling together.  So, let’s get on the road again.