December 31, 2007

By the Light of Your Word

It is you who light my lamp;
the Lord, my God, lights up my darkness.

Psalm 18:28

Not too long ago, the Hawkins household was enjoying one of those nights when our otherwise precious little girl simply would not go to sleep. "Back in bed, Ella!" was the parental mantra of the evening. After about the third round of this not-so-endearing little game, I opened the door to her darkened bedroom. It took my eyes a minute to adjust to the low light. Not in her bed, I carefully scanned the room, only to find her sitting huddled against the opposite wall. She had a picture book open in her lap, its pages cocked outward so that the diminutive nightlight in the nearby outlet would illuminate her reading. At the risk of melodrama, it had the feel of some poignant scene from a prison movie—the inmate grasping at all available light, reading for hope's sake.

After all, one has to go where the light is.

This month your teaching elder is headed back to Austin, Texas, to our Presbyterian seminary there, for the third of seven courses in my Doctor of Ministry program. Every time the plane leaves the runway, headed southwest for one more course, I reflect again on what a privilege it is to be able to study more deeply the Christian tradition in general and the Scriptures in particular. Advanced study is a privilege most Christians in the world never enjoy, not mention most pastors. As such, I am mindful of what a great gift this program is for me in this season of my pastoral ministry, and my frequent prayer is that the Lord will help me to be a good steward of this time in prayer and study.

All that being said, I am also aware that a doctoral program is hardly necessary for God's illuminating word to become a light to our paths. Advanced degrees and continued education certainly serve to elucidate a few dark places in our working knowledge of the Christian landscape, but the kind of wisdom and understanding the Bible most prizes is by and large a study born of life lived in Christ and grace received therein (cf. Proverbs 1:7). "Light my lamp, O Lord," should be our prayer every time we crack open our Bibles, sit down to hear another sermon, or reciprocate a conversation of any depth with people who matter in our lives. "Light up the dark places in my life with the brightness of Christ."

There is no doubt that often we can find in the Bible specific answers to some specific questions. Someone called me at home several months ago, wanted to know where in the Bible it says "don't tattoo your body." I said to my friend on the line: "I bet you're not just wanting to know because you are curious. Let me guess: Your grandchild wants to get a tattoo?" Bingo.

(And we found it: Leviticus 19:28. Jot that one down, just in case one of your offspring comes home and announces she wants to get so-and-so inked on her arm. And simply back up one verse if she's also thinking about shaving her head!)

You get the point: sometimes the Bible comes through for us in that way.

And yet my own experience of the Bible and praying for illumination is teaching me that, often enough, illumination is less about specific answers to specific questions and more about learning how to walk in the Jesus way. Answers to many of our sacred questions abound in Scripture, to be sure. But perhaps more than simple tit-for-tat answers, what we are most often praying for is direction—light for the Jesus-path and the will to walk it. Micah 6:8 comes to mind, wherein the prophet reminds us that God's "will" for our lives is often not so much a fatalistic, unbendable plan to decode as it is a certain way of living with God and with neighbor:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

Occasionally someone confides in me that they are struggling to find God's will for their life. What I find they often mean is, specifically, what I am to do for a living, where I am to live, who I am to marry, etc. These are sacred questions, to be sure, and always worthy of prayer and pondering. But with passages like Micah 6:8 (and Mark 12:29-31) burning in my ear, I'm prone to say: "Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God. Love the Lord and love your neighbor. Whatever else you need to do in order to get that done, go for it. God's will for your life may indeed include certain specifics, but it may just as easily be about how you walk where you walk in this life." The Lord is never so concerned with the former as to neglect the latter. Christian faith is as much about the way we make this Christ-journey as it is about checking off certain divine-waypoints off our itinerary. And the Scriptures illuminate that way of walking in almost every passage. So sings the psalmist (119):

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.

A little girl in the darkness huddled near a nightlight, carefully turning each page of her book by its illumination: not a bad image for the church, I think. I would say that the best resolution you can make in this new year now upon us is to resolve to make prayerful conversation with the scriptures a regular part of your walking through any given week. There is plenty of darkness in this world—and often enough, within us—to encroach upon our lives and threaten to cause us to stumble. That much is certain. But thanks be to God for his everlasting Word—Christ Jesus and the scriptures that bear witness to him. The word of God pushes back the darkness and makes God's way known to us all.

As such, we huddle closely, lean in to its light, and carefully turn the pages of our lives.

Grace and peace to you, beloved, in this new year.

December 27, 2007

Dear Nicholas

As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him.
Luke 17:12


Dear Nicholas,

Grace and peace to you in Jesus' name. Allow us to introduce ourselves. We are Altavista Presbyterian Church. As of today, we are your sisters and brothers in Christ. Though it will be some time before you can say presbyterian, much less church, we hope it will not be too long before you come to experience the strong bonds that tie us together in God's grace. We want you to know that we are honored to be here with you today.

For indeed, today is a great day in your life. We appreciate the fact that for you, right now, it probably feels like just another day after just another night. After all, how can you know the substantial promises soon to be attached to your little life? You cannot. Indeed, you will spend a lifetime coming to understand the height and depth of God's love. But for today, it is enough that we know, or at least that we are learning to know. And so we are here, in part, to be excited for you, to hear on your behalf, and we vow today to begin telling you about those promises as soon as you are able to hear them for yourself. Your parents vow to do the same.

This telling is important, because today is the day of your baptism, and everything is different from this point forward. What is baptism, you ask? Wow—where to begin? So many things to say. For now, it's enough to know that baptism is about being marked—by water, by us, by God. When you are a little older, no doubt there will be things you will want to mark—a lunchbox, a jacket, the walls. (Don't do the last one.) You'll want to mark things that belong to you so that everyone will know that this is Nicholas' lunchbox, Nicholas' jacket.

That's what baptism is: a mark with water that you belong to God, through Jesus, who makes such a marking possible. From now on, everyone will know that this one belongs to God. From now on, the story of your life is marked by the story of Jesus' life—your life is now connected to his, and his to yours. Whatever else may turn out to be true in your life, the truth of his life and love, and the truth that he is Lord—these will be the truest things about you. And so, a part of what we hope to help you learn to do is to get to know Jesus' story. Because, as you come to know his story, you'll come to know your own—and vice versa. (Good luck figuring that one out.) But don't over-think it. Just promise us you will live into it.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Speaking of Jesus' story becoming your story, one of the stories about Jesus we love has to do with ten lepers—ten men who were all afflicted with a terrible disease. When Jesus came into their village, they cried out to him for healing and hope. We love this story because, like so many other moments in Jesus' ministry, he was moved with compassion and promised to heal them. He told them to go, and as they went they were made well. Wow—what a scene! We are always amazed when we remember what can happen when Jesus comes into our village, into our lives. Everything can be different. Stories like this one have taught us that God can make all things new again.

Nicholas: As of today, Jesus has come into your village. That is to say, as of today, that same power and promise that blessed those ten lepers is now applied to your life. And so we pray to God today that prayer they prayed so long ago: Jesus, Master, have mercy on Nicholas! And he will, Nicholas. Indeed, the powerful mystery of his grace is that he already has. He will be merciful to you, because he loves you. He will stay in your village—that is to say, he will stay in your life—until the very end, and even beyond. He will make all things new.

So welcome to Altavista Presbyterian Church. Even better, welcome to God's family of faith. Know that your story is now marked by Jesus' story forevermore. And so we'll be talking to you again in a few years.

Until then, the peace of the Lord be with you.


Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.
Luke 17:15


Dear Nicholas,

Grace and peace to you in Jesus' name. Today is an important day, do you know why? Thirteen years ago today we baptized you. My how time flies; my how you've grown. Seems like just yesterday you were a little infant sitting so quietly between your parents. You never made a sound. (Okay, so that has changed just a bit!) But we want you to know what a privilege it has been to watch you grow during these years. No longer are you an infant, that's for certain. Now you are a young man. And that means that today, on the day of your baptism, it is time for you to begin claiming that story that claimed you 13 years ago. We and your parents have tried our best during these years to tell you about Jesus. Now it is time for you to tell us, to tell us is to whom you belong, who it is that has marked you as his own, who it is that will lead you and guide you as you grow into a man. Tell us, Nicholas, about your trust in Jesus Christ.

But, before you do that, do you remember that story we first told you about Jesus? The one about him going into the village and healing ten lepers? There's another part we never told you: Even though Jesus healed all ten of them, the story goes that only one of them came back to thank him. Jesus was surprised. After all, he had healed them all. Yet only one came back to praise God. Jesus said to him, "Your faith has made you well." What a great thing, to know that it is well with you.

Nicholas, you are a teenager now, you are old enough to understand that, much like those other nine lepers, it seems that many people never come back to praise God for his blessings. People get involved in all kinds of things in this life, some of it pretty bad stuff. Although God's grace is there for them, it seems so many people never turn back to the Lord. But not you, dear Nicholas, not now. You've been baptized in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You've been marked as belonging to Jesus.

You've had water poured over you and the Holy Spirit poured into you. Your story belongs inside Jesus' story. And, young friend, on your baptism day plus 13, come back and thank Jesus, return to him and praise the Lord, be that 10th leper … the one who knelt down and thanked Jesus. We want you to kneel, but we also want you to stand. Stand up before us and before the world and say whose story is shaping your own. Talk to us about Jesus, your life and your Lord. We promise: He will see you through to the end.

Thanks for listening, and for speaking.

The peace of the Lord be with you.

December 24, 2007

From Trough to Table

It never quite occurred to me, sweet Jesus,
that by manger the good book means to say
a gutter for feeding the livestock. (I guess I've
always thought the hay was just to help you

sleep.) But there you lay, O Lord, napping in
a trough built to nourish the bleating sheep
and the cantankerous cattle. It seems an
inadequate throne for the Prince of Peace;

not to mention the pleasant aroma. Manger
has such a nicer ring; a thing exceptional,
golden, fallen out of heaven just for your
sacred sake. (Yes, I like my memory much

better than your reality.) Maybe I have not
noticed this conspicuous trough because I
have not wanted to notice it. Do we want
to see your first bed so pristine because we

long to see our lives so spotless? Just look at
us! Topped-off tummies and starving souls.
I think the lowly estate of your birth eats at
my innocence the way a good solvent works

on rusty parts. Your actual humility frees me
from my false pride; when I am free from my
own life, I notice such details about yours: A
modest birthday trough turns out to be the

first of many feeding places that seem to mark
the timeline of your life like courses in a gala
meal. Manger gives way to multitudes, loaves
and fish abound; wine for Cana, bread for the

hungry—both in body and soul; at table with
saints and sinners, priests and prostitutes. You
nourished so many in such need so well with so
little that some in their sanctimony even called

you a chowhound—frivolous, they said, with
the holiness of God's banquet. (They must have
been starving, too.) And at the end of it all, on
another big Eve (just not Christmas) again you

broke bread amidst our hunger. This is I; my
body, your bread—my life in yours. Take and
eat, you said: I am the manger sent to feed the
world. Food for the journey to the Father's final

meal. So here we are, tabled Jesus, once again:
your starving saints, your satiated sinners. On
this sacred night, move us again from trough
to table, from that holy hay to this holy meal,

from our lowly dying to your glorious living.

December 19, 2007

Dear Preacher

The vitality of a church’s worship will come and go, it will wax and wane in a pattern unpredictable to the naked eye.

Some Sundays it will be dead—you and they alike. End of story, except that grace abounds.

Many Sundays will be quite normal and familiar, and this is probably a good thing: a steady diet of meat and potatoes. After all, it is not necessary to remember what one ate a year ago Sunday. What matters is that one was sustained, meal by meal, until today.

Sadly, a few times a year, the congregation will be alive in the Spirit and you will be dead in yourself. This is a sad misfortune, a waste of precious time, but until sanctification is some day complete in you there is likely not much that can be done about it.

What you celebrate and embrace are those non-Easter Resurrection Days, when both you and God’s people are alive in the Spirit—hearts are pliable, minds are open, spirits are intertwined in a kind of sweetness and weight as palpable as it is inexplicable. Embrace these living Sundays when they come, but don’t hold on to them too tightly. Expecting them every week is likely expecting too much, and not at all charitable to others.

First of all, the Holy Spirit is busy brooding over a dying world.

Secondly, fresh water does so much more for a thirsty body.

December 18, 2007

Mere Hospitality

She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

For many of us, a lifetime of hearing the Christmas story has cast the manger scene of Jesus' birth in a rather sentimental light—perhaps a soft shade of blue. (He was a boy, after all.) We imagine Mother Mary there, some angels fluttering about, and some kindly sheep and asses standing well-behaved in the background. (The latter always made us kids giggle when Rev. Charlie mentioned them from the pulpit.) And on the flank of our mind's eye are herders, sages, and proud papa Joe.

It's all very lovely.

Except that it wasn't. In point of fact, God-With-Us comes to us via a family with too few resources and connections even to secure a decent night's lodging. Both mom and dad have caught a vision of God's special task for them, but they cannot catch of break from anyone with decent shelter. This is the night when eternity steps into time, and no one will let them step across their threshold. Finally, Joseph—certainly dispirited by now—secures a manger for the birth. Phatne in Greek, let's be clear that a "manger" is a rough-hewn feeding trough for domestic animals (see Luke 13:15). Now there's a royal welcome.

It would have been cold, it would have smelled, and it would have been demoralizing for any of us. Sometime later, the gospel writer John will interpret the birth this way: "The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory." That may be true, but his glory was surely not obvious this night—not in a barn, not in a trough. Tabernacle choirs in tall steeples will again sing his praises this Xmas Eve, but on the night when all this Christianity business began, the gushing of proud parents competed with the bleats and blahs of livestock—themselves, I'm sure, simply trying to stay warm. And all this because inn-keepers and hostel-hosts could not find it in themselves to make a little extra room for a wandering family on a dark night.

I am a believer that kindness is the front door to the gospel. I believe that genuine hospitality is an undergirding necessity if people are to see the living Christ in us. I do not believe that being a Christian is simply about being nice to people, as if good manners were enough and Messiah … well, just religious detail. What I do believe is that being nice to people is the ground floor in a rather large house of faith—a building as tall and spacious as the heavens, yet as accessible as a hearty "welcome" offered in Jesus' name. And I believe God is a surprising God, showing up as much in strangers as in sanctuaries. After all, one never knows when a simple moment of hospitality may in fact be a divine appointment (see Luke 24:28-32). Hebrews is none too subtle:

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.
Hebrews 13:2

I blame Jesus' abysmal accoutrements on a lack of local hospitality, but the truth is that the God behind all this messiah-business probably had as much to do with the lean lodging as anyone. It is Luke who serves up this little detail of full-up inns and necessary mangers (2:7), and it will be Luke more than any other gospel writer who will show us how a grown-up Jesus sought out the poor, the rejected, and the outcast. (Try Luke 6:20-26 for a hint of with whom this God likes to hang out.) This theme running through Jesus' ministry makes the sticky, smelly stall of his birth something of a sacrament: a sign of whom this Christ has mostly come to bless (Luke 9:58). How sneaky of God to pop up among us that way. In Emmanuel's homelessness, God sides straightaway with those most in need of safe shelter—literally, spiritually, and otherwise.

I alert you to this theme of hospitality right about now, not so much to introduce a little free-floating guilt into your holiday revelry, but rather to invite your attentiveness in this season to divine appointments that may come knocking on your door. After all, at least half of Biblical hospitality is simply taking notice. We tend to think of mission as taking Christ to other people. More often than not, however, the exalted Christ probably brings his lowly people right to us. We need only to open the way. And hospitality is surely the front door to the kingdom of God, wherein wandering families and wandering faith find a home at last.

Knock, knock. Is there any room?

December 11, 2007


And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod,
they left for their own country by another road.

Matthew 2:12

What Christmas season would be complete without remembering the fabled wise men of Matthew 2:1-12? Every nativity set one can buy has at least three of them included, often accompanied by the necessary camels on which the ancient elite usually strode. Our sages sweetly travel from afar with their well-known threefold gifts for the baby Jesus, but suddenly find themselves swept up in a drama as fiercely political as it is blessedly divine. Like most God-hatched journeys, it is at once inspired and improbable.

Consider the challenges: First, there's spotting, interpreting, and following a certain gaseous mass from point A to point J, taking them across taxing terrain and through various nationalities—many of them not so friendly to passers-by. And the fact that they stumble into Jerusalem and not Jesus' actual hometown is surely a poke at these high-standing sages: Like most of us on most days, they are only mildly in control of their situation! (Someone should buy them one of the GPS doohickeys for next Christmas.)

Furthermore, they unwittingly knock on the wrong door (v. 2). Asking King Herod where to find a baby "born to be king of the Jews" is like asking Donald Trump where to find a good realtor (or barber)—you're liable to have your head chewed off. Turns out Herod is a bit more passive-aggressive than that: He finds out where this baby is to be born (King of the Jews he is and he doesn't know where the promised messiah is to be born!) and then sends the sages packing, with his henchmen in close pursuit. Bottom line: Our sagacious friends once again skirt disaster, and even do so a third time when "warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road." Between the treacherous star-lit journey and Herod's gerrymandering, it is astounding that they make it to Jesus at all.

Question: How often do you prayerfully pause long enough to consider the absolute improbability of your life, the way it has unfolded thus far? Do you ever have that ponderous feeling that certain blessings could have just as easily turned out another way? It is a hunch worth noting. When I reread the tale of the wise men with adult eyes, I find myself thinking, "Were it not for the enigmatic grace of God, these guys would have been goners!"

What's more, when I stop to look over my own life—to really dig deep in my own story, taking seriously my fits and failures as much as the blessings and bargains—I find I feel just about the same way: Were it not for the inscrutable grace of God interwoven into my story, I am not at all certain I would be where I am, who I am, today. Indeed, I am not even certain I would be (exist) at all. The improbability of my own journey is itself a sign pointing to Christ, that peculiar guiding light of God illuminating the admittedly serpentine path I have taken (see 1 Corinthians 15:8-10; Psalm 124).

I find that when I listen to acquaintances who do not know or do not believe the gospel, I quietly wish and pray that they would soon see a providential star of some sort and follow its light to the risen Christ. There is a journey to be made to the living God, and there is light for that path (John 1:3-5). But I also find that when I am with cheeky Christians—those triumphalistic types for whom it appears the kingdom has already come—I want those folks to be just a little more appreciative of how downright improbable the Christ journey can be … for wise men … for us. Somewhere in between—flanked by not starting out and thinking one has arrived—there is a blessed via media, with Jesus' light shining low and bright on the horizon.

That we are still walking such a path, still seeing such a certain Light—these are gifts both as improbable as they are inspired. Every now and then, stop to consider what an absolute disaster your life could have turned out to be.

There but for the grace of God go we.

November 27, 2007

Advent Cometh

Sweep the walk.
Vacuum the living room.
Clean up the bathroom.
Finish preparing another casserole.
Put fresh sheets on the bed in the guest bedroom.

Most of us—But we might note, not all of us!—have worked our way down this sort of mental list before. Preparing for guests in your home is no small task. There is always much to do. That is, of course, if you plan to treat your expected visitors as special guests, to go beyond what you would normally do for yourself. Then again, 'special guests' is surely a tautology. Is there another kind of guest other than special? (Okay … other than your in-laws.)

I suppose one could choose not to prepare for guests at all: "Come on in, friends. Sit on our couch all hairy with cat hair. Rest your feet on our crummy rug. Enjoy some tasty leftovers. Come, get some rest on the same sheets you used during your last visit."

Of course not! None of us would think twice about welcoming a friend or family member into that kind of house if we could help it. We would go out of our way to make sure that all is ready. Special guests deserve at least that much.

Perhaps it is not so different for the season of Advent. In his book Worship Is a Verb, Robert Webber likens Advent to a time when we anticipate a special guest coming to visit our home. Much hard work and preparation spans several weeks. But the real burden of that work is offset by the hopeful expectancy of spending time with someone special.

I am sure that you, like me, have spent weeks preparing for a visit by loved ones, knowing full well that when they come you will be ready to relax and enjoy their presence. This change in mood from preparing to enjoying is not unlike the shift in spiritual mood from Advent to Christmas. Simply put, Christmas is a season of joy, festivity, and fun. It's a twelve-day festival from December twenty-fifth to January sixth, the day of Epiphany. And our spiritual experience during this time should be similar to that of enjoying a visit from someone special. It is a time of celebration, of singing Christmas carols, of giving and receiving gifts, of enjoying fellowship with friends and loved ones...during this time we are truly alive and free in the presence of our Guest. And the good news of Jesus Christ deserves a shout, a party, a frolic!

If we are not careful, our Advent and Christmas traditions can easily slip into the realm of the purely sentimental: something good to celebrate if one so chooses, but not altogether necessary for the soul. Yet preparing to receive the Savior is hardly a sentimental trip. By remembering Christ's advent (coming) in the past, we learn to "remember the future"— to ready ourselves for the good and great day of the Lord. Webber's analogy of preparing for a guest reminds us that there is indeed work to be done – soul work, you might call it. We are learning, year by year, to live in the expectancy of God's promised future.

Preparing the heart and mind for the advent of Christ is as important a task as preparing for Christmas guests in your home. Are our hearts ready for the coming of one who resides among us by his Holy Spirit? Perhaps the five candles of our traditional Advent wreath – the wreath that always adorns our sanctuary in this season – will serve as a kind of spiritual to do list for preparing for Christ. With each new candle lighting there is new reason to have good hope. Let us then prepare, expect, worship, and wait with all that we have to give. Advent cometh. May God grant us an Advent season full of hope and peace.

November 14, 2007

Unless the Lord

It is quite an experience to walk up on Saturday morning to a grassless lot with only a bare foundation standing on it, only to return Sunday afternoon to discover a finished home—fully landscaped and ready for carpet, paint, and trim. Amazing!

Yet this sort of weekend-transformation goes on all the time around the country, wherever local Habitat for Humanity affiliates undertake what is affectionately known in the ministry as "Blitz Builds." Altavista's Habitat affiliate undertook its first Blitz Build this past weekend, partnering with a family in need of sustainable housing to construct a new home with them in only 48 hours. We did it! (Take a moment to check out our pictures here.)

As a Habitat board member representing our church (together with Doug Hecht and Bob Steele), needless to say I had home-building on my mind all weekend. I kept thinking about Psalm 127, which begins:

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.

For me, there has always been an indelible mystery tied up in how it is God promises to work through our efforts to bless the world. The psalmist does not explain how it is God does this, only that is so. I wonder if we often assume too great a dichotomy between our works and God's, as if one either struggles anxiously (trusting in oneself) or relaxes nonchalantly (turning over everything to the Lord). "Let go and let God" was a popular Christian bumper sticker a generation ago, but I'm not certain the Psalmist would agree.

"There is building to be done by you," I hear Psalm 127 saying. That much is true. "Get busy with your life. But know this: Unless the Lord builds with you, through you, in you, don't expect much in the way of serious return."

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.

Rather than the endless "grace vs. works" debates of the Protestant Reformation, it may be time for us to reconsider how it is that graced people work—not to earn our salvation, but in glad response to it. After all, God's grace is not a free pass from life's labors. Salvation does not change the quantity of our labors so much as it transforms their quality. Rather than laboring in "anxious toil," we labor in love. Perhaps our bumper stickers could read: "Let God work through you."

My beloved … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. - Philippians 2:12-13

And right there is where a ministry like Habitat for Humanity serves as a beautiful metaphor for the Christian life. Building a house requires diligent labor. Christian goodwill and good intentions are not enough. There is real work to be done. Yet all weekend long at the Blitz Build I noticed a certain joy in the air, an unspoken sense that this project was somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone seemed to intuit that there was a generous grace at work all around; without the Lord's blessing, this house would not turn into a home. Without Jesus' second commandment ringing in our ears, this would have been just another vacant lot under development. Grace makes all the difference.

And so it is for us, I think, whatever our "building" may be—home, marriage, family, vocation, church, or community. God will not normally do for us what we can do for ourselves, yet what we do in this life will mean little if God's grace is not somehow woven deep into the effort. This is an indelible mystery that is difficult to explain, but so easy to experience.

Sisters and brothers, I invite you to dedicate all your labors—great and small, public and private—to the glory of Father, in the manner of the Son, and for the blessing of others.

After all , those who build for the Lord never build in vain.

November 7, 2007

Bless You

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever.
Psalm 145

Maybe you've heard the one about the American couple touring through Germany. They enter a shop full of collectibles and, overcome by the dust, the wife sneezes. "Gesundheit," says the shopkeeper, politely. "Oh thank goodness," replies the husband. "Finally, someone who speaks English!"

Stocky words like gesundheit ("good health") often turn feeble from over usage, but a dull word is about as useful as a dull blade. Both hack and saw and chop, but hardly expose much worth tasting. Words too easily pass over our lips that have not passed through our awareness.

I fear "bless you" may suffer from a similar fate. One is liable to hear plenty of "bless you's" this time of year, what with cold season now right on its way. And for those of us who have grown up in the South, it seems we've been trained from birth to lead our latest gossip with "bless his/her heart." Folks from other parts soon discover this is often little nothing more than code language for "I'm giving myself permission to say what I otherwise would never say about him/her." Turns out, it may just be the speaker's heart that needs the blessing. (But that's a meditation for another day.)

What is in the Biblical tradition a rich and compelling verb—to bless—tends to be shopworn in our everyday usage. Like the gesundheit in the joke, we have lost sight of its grand origins. Behind its usage in the Bible, especially in the Psalms, is a deep conviction that words have power (Psalm 34:13). Words matter, because God has endowed us with the impressive ability to bespeak what we think, feel, and perceive (James 3:5). Words are like dynamite: They can either blast away obstructions so that living water can flow, or they can tear down precious structures that are difficult to rebuild. Either we bless or we curse, but in both cases there is great power in play. Words matter. No wonder that the gospel of John imagines the Father speaking the world into existence through the Son (John 1:1-4, the "Word").

So "to bless the name of the Lord" is to point the power of our praise and awe in the direction of God, who is worthy of both. In our singing and our praying, on Sunday or on any day, we offer potent words to celebrate what we have come to know of God's grace. Worship is not merely a cerebral nod in the general direction of a benevolent cosmic force. Christian worship is the bold act of passing powerful, specific words of thanks and wonder across our lips, directing them always to the ears of the great Triune God—that One who is Speaker, Word, and Breath. "Bless you, O Lord," is not a response to a Divine Sneeze, were such a thing even to exist; it is our most basic form of celebration for who God is, has been, and will always be (Psalm 103).


Take a little time each evening, just before your living gives way to resting, to bless the Lord for the graces and gifts of the day now gone (Psalm 96:2). Be specific. Be bold. Bespeak a true blessing. Gather up a few words of thanks for the one who has so generously given you another day. Even better, bless the only Lord of Life who will surely see you through another night. After all, it is not for great sneezes that we bless the Lord, but for so great a salvation.

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.
Psalm 103:2

October 31, 2007

Baptismal Renewal

This article was submitted to our denomination's Office of Theology and Worship after a request for stories from local congregations about attempts to bring renewal to our sacramental practice. Read other examples of submissions here.

I serve a kirk of 140 active members, with 80-100 in worship every week. Over the years we've made a lot of small and subtle changes to bring baptism to the forefront of the congregation's worship. I was touched to have one of my older members say last year, "You know, I never knew there was so much to know about our baptism until these recent years. Who knew?!" 

One easy change we have made has to do with involving the congregation immediately after the baptism. I've never been a big fan of pastors "parading" a child up and down the aisle, as if it were a beauty pageant with the pastor as Master of Ceremonies. Among other issues, this seems only to reinforce the common idea that what we are really celebrating is the sweetness and light of infants.  Besides, would a pastor hike a newly baptized adult in his arms and carry him/her up and down the aisle?  Of course not. Yet this dichotomy illustrates how we tend to view infant and adult baptism as two separate and different acts. 

I thought for a long time about how to flip the show-and-tell-moment over, preserving the intended act of celebration but shedding the pageantry and solo role of the pastor. So, instead of the pastor taking the initiative and parading the child back and forth (plus the problem of having no corresponding action for baptized adults), immediately following the prayer and laying on of hands I invite the congregation to come forward, row by row, to greet the newly baptized child (or adult.) I place our large and generous wooden font in the aisle just before the family and child, such that each member must come forward, come into contact with the font (I usually invite them to dip their hand in the water and "remember" their own baptism), then move to greet the child.

I begin this whole effort by saying to the child: "____, this is the body of Christ."  Then to the congregation I say, "Body of Christ, this is ____.  Let us welcome ___ in the name of our Lord Jesus." 

The first few times, I helped the congregation understand my expectation of them by describing it as being similar to sharing in communion by Intinction:  Come forward to the font (table), greet (partake), and return to your pew. This makes for a simple yet deliberate action. As people are coming forward to greet, we usually sing Baptized in Water or some other appropriate hymn. And rather than returning to their pews, I normally have them leave the font and take a place around the perimeter of the inside walls forming a large circle for more singing, further prayer, and/or the charge and benediction.

What the congregation has come to love is that they now get to take the initiative to come and greet. Instead of the pastor being the star, they get to be the stars, so to speak.  That is to say, they are able to enact what they have just promised instead of just sitting and watching.  Best of all, this practice works just as well with adults, who are greeted with handshakes, hugs, and warm well wishes.

This practice goes a long way towards preserving the unity of infant and adult baptism, not to mention getting us away from the more passive role of a traditional Reformed congregation: holy onlookers. Our congregation has come to love this part of baptism, looking forward to it and getting pretend-angry with me if I tinker with the logistics of it too much! 

For All the Saints

O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

—William Walsham How, 1864

I miss my grandfather. I miss him a lot.

I miss his gentle demeanor, his conciliatory style. He had to be this way, I imagine, to put up with the likes of my fiery, dispensationalist grandmother. People often looked to him in moments of conflict. His even-tempered, Big Easy style was a balm to many in tense times.

I miss his quiet, consistent Christian example. He was a Presbyterian's Presbyterian. The more decent and orderly the worship service, the more Christian it seemed to him. He liked being Clerk of his Session, giving glory to God with every little dotted "i" and crossed "t." And he was a pragmatist: Show me what this looks like in real life, preacher. His gospel was that of the ordinary man, the everyman, which more than anything else accounts for why he had the respect of those who daily worked below him. Probably because he believed, he never got too big for his britches. Still, he dressed to the nines on Sunday morning—an hourly warehouse manager at home among the double-breasted suits of 1950s midtown New Orleans. How is it that a man can fill out a sport coat with both humility and pride?

I miss him a great deal, and that pathos is made more poignant by the fact that I never had the chance to meet him. His heart gave out nearly two decades before my birth. Add to this loss the fact that I bear his name.

Call me crazy, but when over the years the going has gotten rough for me, I've found myself opening up my laptop and tapping away more than a few letters to him. What should I do? What's the right and wrong here? Did you ever get discouraged? confused? Of course I've never sent these notes anywhere, nor do I imagine he is necessarily on the "other end" of my pretend communications. Mostly I just find it helps a little to dabble in his memory. I'd like to think that somehow I am an inheritor of his Christian faith as much as I am his faded royal blue recliner that sits under wraps in my basement, badly in need of new upholstery.

Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us … (Hebrews 12:1)

I've never quite been certain what Hebrews means, metaphysically speaking, by a "cloud of witnesses." The precise architecture of the rest known to those who die in Christ is not known to me, though I am acquainted with the provocative Biblical clues. Yet the promise in 12:1 that we are not alone in this pilgrimage, that those faith-travelers who have walked before us somehow cheer us on even now, this is more than a bit encouraging to me. I know this much: I feel a strong and personal connection to a man I never met, and this bond is tied up more in our shared Christ-faith than in the simple fact of our shared biology. His example encourages me in desperate hours; his consistency gives me something for which to strive. His legacy surrounds me like a brooding cloud.

To be sure, the feet of those saints who have gone on before us were made of just as much clay as our own. It is not our place to idealize them, much less worship them. To whitewash their brokenness only obscures the very gospel many of them sought to teach us. What we give thanks for in our remembering, I think, are those rays of God's suffusing grace that shine through their lingering clouds of witness. We see through them, as it were, to catch here and there a glimpse of the living Christ and his good way.

Ralph Acey Hawkins was his name. He was yet another sinner-turned-saint by the inscrutable grace of God—made by the Father, claimed by the Son, sustained by the Spirit between them. We never met, he and I. Yet, strangely and wonderfully, we share a lasting bond, mostly because we share a living Lord. I very much look forward to meeting him in the promised resurrection to come.

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thursday is All Saints Day. Take more than a moment to thank the living God for the indelible gift of those family and friends who have gone on before you, especially those who have left faith, hope, and love in their wake. If you can name even one, you have much to treasure on the morrow.

October 25, 2007

Stewardship Fires

The topic at hand was the destructive fires currently raging in Southern California. Someone in the group posed a provocative question: If you had only ten minutes to return to your home before it burned to the ground, what would you take from it?

That question stayed with me all day, and it started me thinking about what would be in my own arms if I emerged from my house after 10 minutes of choosing what was most important to me. I further considered that the contents of my armload of possessions would certainly say a lot about who I am. Take a moment and ask yourself: What would you run in for if you knew everything else was going away? After all, there's nothing like a crisis for making tough but quick stewardship decisions.

The question of how we believers should treat our "stuff" is a tricky one. It seems to me that Christianity has historically had trouble deciding whether or not followers of Jesus should be ascetics. An ascetic is one who deliberately chooses to shun material goods and possessions for the sake of religious devotion. I note that many of us are prone to admire ascetics when we come upon them in history—monks, nuns, certain missionaries, the Amish, etc.—but I suspect few of us would actually be willing to live as one! (Maybe ascetics, like lions, are best viewed from afar.)

But then again, maybe we are not all called to shun possessions. To be sure, Jesus' response to the rich young ruler in Mark 10 rings vociferously in our ears of faith—"Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." But I think this command must be balanced against the psalmists' gratitude for all of God's good gifts, as in Psalm 8 and similar prayers:

You have given [us] dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Generally, the Bible celebrates God's good provision in our lives, even while warning against hoarding, excess, and idolatry. As such, I think we Christians can celebrate with the Psalmist and embrace the good material gifts God entrusts to us without worshipping or hoarding those good gifts in a way that would prompt Jesus' strong Mark 10 command. It is not possessions, per se, but the worship of those possessions, our grasping them too tightly, that makes it hard to follow the Jesus-way. So, yes, run into your home and scoop up those possessions that are most essential to the stewardship of your life, loves, and labors. What you emerge holding may in fact be signs and symbols of God's grace in your life.

Asceticism, if a Christian feels called to it, is a good and right response to the gospel, no doubt. But a lively and generous stewardship and sharing of what we do possess can be just as faithful, for our worship of God in Christ necessarily loosens our tight grip on things as we learn to trust in God and God's gifts for labor, love, and life. Thus Paul can remind us: God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)

So when about this time of year we start talking again about stewardship season, we are not simply referring to the money we need to run the church. This is a crucial part of it, to be sure, but only a part. Stewardship is, more basically, that daily act of Christians whereby we consider all the gifts Christ entrusts to us—time, talent, treasure, etc.—and make good decisions on what to keep, what to share, and what to give away. It is, finally, an act of worship as much as it is an act of the wallet.

God forbid any of us ever be faced with the rush of a 10 minute decision because our home is being threatened by the abhorrent elements. Still, the mental exercise of deciding "what we would grab" may be worth it every now and then, if nothing else to remind us of what truly is important in this God-given, God-saved, God-blessed life.

October 24, 2007

Acorns Abound

He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. - Matthew 13

About this time of year, my yard is riddled with the presuming spread of the nearest oak tree. And with each bothersome crunch under my foot, I cannot decide if my tall, wooded friend is supremely arrogant or merely hedging his bets. Either way, he casts a blanket of minuscule abundance all over my lawn—a thousand and one little deposits in a future not yet come to pass. Surely he sees the marvelous joke in all of this: one of these (looking up) from one of those (looking down)? Please. Only small things come in small packages. Where’s my rake?

And yet. Maybe the joke’s on me. Maybe in ways I am only just learning, those annoying little seeds are parables cracking open under foot. Maybe the germs of God’s great and final purposes litter our lives today.

It’s the great joke of the New Testament: Call us Jesus’ little band of nuts, slowly but surely taking root in a different kind of soil. One day soon: trees of life.

Now that’s funny.

October 11, 2007

How Good and Pleasant It Is

Last Sunday, October 7, was World Communion Sunday. In the evening on that day, some five dozen Christians from various congregations across our little community gathered for what we pastors have dubbed the Altavista Area Church Leadership Summit. In its fifth year, it is a time of worship, fellowship, and learning for all those leaders in our local congregations other than pastors. After all, “ministry” is not what preachers do; ministry is what Christians do together. Even better: Ministry is what the living God does. (His people are simply lucky enough to be included.) So it is, then, that we pastors gather our church leaders once a year and hope to bless them with encouragement and empowerment for the awesome tasks they have been given as stewards of Christ’s body.

What occurs to me is just how pleasant it is when Christians get together and don’t fight. No, really. Between getting my hair cut and reading my e-mails, sometimes I think the only thing I hear about churches is that they are falling apart. Christ’s body: riddled with triangular aches and pains. It’s not really always that bad, of course. But sometimes it can feel that way. (I occassionaly wonder if the sharers of such bad news somehow need it to be that bad.)

So imagine what a delight it is when seven different Christian denomination sit down around the Lord’s table together, break open the Word and break apart some Bread, and spend an evening talking about what makes for better leadership, and therefore better ministry. Differences among us? To be sure. There are plenty. From tastes in music to trends in worship to understandings on every major facet of Christian conviction—many of them passionately held. I’m certain there is plenty to keep us squirming and squabbling for some time.

But how much more generous is God’s gift of communion when, precisely in light of those many differences, God’s covenant family gathers for worship and work? It is not so much about the sometimes tired slogan of “unity within diversity.” Honestly, I think this gift appears more readily when there is maturity within humility. Finally, however, sweet communion is not something we can force into being. It is a pleasant gift from a gracious God. No wonder the Psalmist can break out in celebration as he does:

How very good and pleasant it is
when kindred live together in unity!
Psalm 133:1

Pictures and Conversations—Part 2

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”

—from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Several weeks ago, I pulled up to a stop light behind a car that had a leather-bound Bible wedged between its back headrests and the rear window. The book’s cover had been dulled by the sun to the point of nearly matching the faded upholstery in the car. Clearly, it had not moved from its shelf in quite some time. That’s a shame.

Whenever someone concludes that the Bible is a rather useless book—whether such a conclusion is actually declared or simply evidenced by an unworn cover and crisp pages—I can always tell that this person has never actually read it. After all, no one who has seriously walked in these extraordinary pages could ever be so dismissive. Between the true-to-life narratives in the Old Testament, the from-the-gut prayers of the psalmists, the in-your-face demands of the prophets, the curiously-quirky parables of Jesus, and the practical how-to bits in the epistles, I imagine that no one could truly engage this book and walk away unaffected. Yet in these frenzied times, too many possess Alice’s short attention span: One hasty glance and a snap decision is made as to the usefulness of a thing.

A Bible makes a poor window dressing, but its content makes for great conversation. And in fact, sprinkled throughout the canon are some truly great conversations. Surely this would delight Alice, whose attention, if not caught by glossy pictures, will at least be held by the back-and-forth of a good tête-à-tête. Indeed, a good conversation is a like playing a good tennis match: After a while of back-and-forth, back-and-forth, it’s not so much that you are playing a good game as it is a good game is playing you. It draws you in, changes you, affects you. A good conversation makes all the difference in a relationship. Just ask your spouse.

So, here are three conversations in the Bible that have captured and held my faith-imagination. I pray they will bless you as they have blessed me.

Joshua 24 – My grandmother Pauline stitched for every one of her Hawkins grandchildren a needlepoint of Joshua’s bold statement in this famous chapter of the Old Testament. Not certain if the people are really up to faith in this holiest of Gods, Joshua differentiates and at least speaks for himself: “… but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (24:15). Such words hang near the front of the manse.

Chapter 24 is a long conversation between Joshua and the people of Israel. Joshua’s time as their leader-pastor is growing short, and he knows it. He also knows that they have some serious decisions to make. He recounts for them God’s miraculous history in their midst, reminding them from whence they have come. Joshua almost paraphrases Francis Schaeffer’s famous question to the contemporary church: How should we then live? Indeed, faith in God always requires decisions. One cannot remain neutral before this God. There is no holiness in ambivalence. As such, what choices will we make this very day?

Read for yourself and listen to what resonates for you in Joshua 24.

Ezekiel 37 – As I’ve suggested in several sermons, I don’t think we Christians have much use for optimism, at least not when it is confused with hope. Optimism is often about trying to reinterpret reality with a positive spin. The danger comes when too much optimism gives birth to denial, and we are no longer in touch with what needs to be changed, mended, or transformed by God’s grace. Obsessive optimism makes one too numb to hurt … and therefore too numb to hope.

Round about Ezekiel chapter 37 in the Old Testament, things are bad for Israel. Really bad. The nation is decimated and in exile; they are deported from their homeland and demoralized in spirit. The prophet catches a vision from God, who promptly takes him “down in the valley.” (Don’t think geology here, think theology.) Ezekiel sees tired old Israel as a heaping pile of bones in a valley of death. After taking it all in, God eventually asks the obvious but haunting question: “Can these bones live again?” Ezekiel wonders. This is no time for the prophet to be cheeky-optimistic. Reality says no way! Hope says maybe! Wise Ezekiel turns the entire matter over to God (v. 3).

How many of us at one point or another have stood over some heap of rubble-bones in our lives and quietly asked (prayed), “Can this live again?” Sure: One can try to be positive, try to think the best, try to spin the matter this way or that … or one can pray, naming the truth of death but hoping (trusting! believing!) in the promise of new life. Old Ezekiel chooses the latter, and the results are incredible. rattle-rattle-rattle. snap-snap-snap. Israel is reborn. This is the Bible’s first glimpse of resurrection faith.

Read for yourself and listen to what resonates for you in Ezekiel 37.

John 3 – The biggest danger in a significant conversation comes when two people think they are “on the same page,” but later turn out not to be. Unmended misunderstanding only leads to further confusion and complication. When an exchange really matters, when there is much at stake in our speech, we would be wise always to take a moment and mirror back what we think we are hearing. “I hear you saying … Is that right?” One can never be too certain about this kind of accuracy.

Nicodemus thought he was on the same page with Jesus. After all, he was a wise old Jew, no dummy; one the best among the Pharisees of the day. How hard could it be to talk to a rabbi about his signs and wonders (v. 2)? But when Jesus informs him that “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (sometimes rendered ‘born again’), Nicodemus assumes Jesus is talking obstetrics, not obedience. It is hard to tell whether old Nicky chuckles or chokes on the mental image of an old man like him crawling back into his mother’s womb (v. 4). Either way, he is now irreparably off-track in this most important conversation. After all, there is hearing and there is hearing, seeing and seeing. In gospel of John, Jesus is always dealing in the latter, while those around him seem hopelessly stuck in the former. Jesus speaks in the Spirit; people seem prone to hear in the flesh. Look closely Nicodemus, church: “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness rather than light.” Beloved, let us learn to see while the seeing is good. Let us listen, not with eardrum alone, but with our whole lives. Let us be born from above.

Read for yourself and listen to what resonates for you in John 3.

October 10, 2007


--one who with some unmerited regularity is granted visions of world imbued with grace in every color and dimension now known, only to be called upon to replicate such visions with mere pencil and scratch paper.

One rests in the comfort of the Spirit's guiding hand.

During most of the week, I feast at a table adorned with the richest of narratives. Sunday morning comes, and I can only invite this flock to sit at table with my vocal bread and water.

One rests in the comfort of the Spirit’s knack for spices.

Is there a word for me?

Narrow steps ascended
Papers checked in care
Throat cleared, readied

Meanwhile they wait in
the impossible hope that
something of what will

soon come forth is really
a word from this heaven
they cannot even see. A

glance at their faces: one
sees a lifetime of asking

October 5, 2007

Pictures and Conversations—Part 1

Lewis Carroll's fanciful classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?"

Alice is probably right, at least about the pictures. Admit it: We love to look at images first, only later, if ever, moving on to text. It's the stuff of waiting rooms and magazine racks. Indeed, it was two decades before I came to appreciate that my father's monthly Trains magazine was in fact full of text to read, not merely about the big glossies I loved to scan as a kid.

Recently stumbling again upon Carroll's humorous opener got me thinking about the Bible in this light. Would young Alice find it engaging or not? On the one hand, the Bible is a big book chock full of provocative conversations (a subject for next week's MwM). So that's useful enough, at least according to her standards.

But on the other hand: no pictures. That's a downer for a little girl. (I say no pictures, but in fact I do possess a "Children's Bible" from my childhood that has artist's renderings of well-known Biblical stories sprinkled throughout it. Looking at it now, it seems so hopelessly stuck in the 60's! Jesus looks more like a washed-out poet from Soho than a first-century Jew.) So alas, dear Alice, the Bible is picture-free. It comes to us unadorned.

And yet: Inspired writing can surely paint pictures in the mind, if nowhere else. Time spent with a Biblical passage—especially stories, parables, or visions—can often create lasting mental images that fuel great faith. And I find it also works in reverse: a glance at a certain scene in a painting, a picture, or in person quickly calls to mind a certain Biblical narrative. This is, admittedly, not quite what Alice (and many others) yearn for, but it is nevertheless worth our while to consider this indirect gift of the Word.

Toward that end, I offer to you this week three examples from my own picture-taking past that have helped me to reflect on certain Biblical motifs. All three were snapped by me and appear here unedited, except for adding a frame. And which came first—the mental or the actual picture—I do not know. All I know is that I have come to appreciate these scenes both for their own beauty and for how they resonate prophetically in me. If nothing else, I pray that a moment lingering over these pictures and ideas will be a reprieve from your otherwise busy day.

 I snapped this photo at Smith Mt. Lake State Park on an overcast day in November. Almost immediately, I thought of what for me is the most provocative line in the Lord's Prayer: … on earth as it is in heaven. When the Bible speaks endlessly about "heaven and earth," I tend not to hear it talking so much about geography as much as I hear theology. Heaven is God's space; the earth, ours. Whereas for generations Christianity has often been assumed to be mostly an escapist religion, Jesus-faith turns out to be rooted firmly in the sod of the here-and-now. His prayer, after all, is not that his followers would be whisked away while Rome burns, but rather that what is already true in God's space—truth, beauty, grace—would in fact become true in ours. We preach neither collusion nor escape; we preach transformation—God in us, God through us (Romans 12:2; 2 Corinthians 3:18). Dark, spindly pine branches bathed in such intrusive light resonate that vision for me. What do you see?

 You have to work to notice the little bystander in the corner of this photo, and maybe that's the point. Snapped on the Outer Banks two years ago, this sky spread out like a rippled blanket always makes me think of Psalm 8. The Message, albeit a bit verbose, renders verses 3-4 nicely:

I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous,
your handmade sky-jewelry,
Moon and stars mounted in their settings.
Then I look at my micro-self and wonder,
Why do you bother with us?
Why take a second look our way?

Carl Sagan, certainly no friend to Christianity, once asked: "Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people." Fair enough, Carl, at least from the thin view of pure physics. And I think the psalmist understands you when you speak of our smallness. What is the beach-walker, really, when compared to that expansive, rippling sky? Yet for the psalmist in the Old Testament (Psalm 8:5) and the Apostle Paul in the New (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31), our obvious littleness in the universe is precisely the punch line of God's unlikely grace. Consider the humor: I snapped the photo, but do not know the man on the beach from Adam. God has created the sweeping heavens and seas, yet knows this stranger better than the man likely knows himself. (Now that's funny.) On this beach, grace seems to me both massive and microscopic. What do you see?

 Finally, looking over this scene of the sun setting at Cadillac Mountain in Maine last summer brings to mind for me the closing chapters of Revelation. The last book of the Bible is surely a perilous one, with its bizarre visions of slain lambs, hell-horses, and expectant mothers clothed in the sun (huh?). Most decent Presbyterians give up by chapter 3. But to those brave souls that endure to the end (indeed—maybe the difficult reading is itself a parable), one discovers in chapter 24 a truly beatific vision. The craziness of apocalypse (such as Revelation 10) yields to the tenderness of hope (Revelation 21-22). John sees a vision of a new city: a new place of work, worship, and wonder. Only this time,

the city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. (21:23)

There are days when such Revelation-hope seems to me like a foolish, embarrassing pipe-dream. There are also many days when my life is so comfortable in the here-and-now that such a bold promise matters very little. But there are just as many days when the vision of a fresh city, a new country, a resurrected time—one brought forth by an Easter-morning-God out of the transformed ruins of our demise—gives me strength and courage to live better than I otherwise would. Would that there be a time soon to come when even the potent sun will be obsolete; God's luminous glory quite enough. This most grand hope, in a descending ball over the hills of Maine. What do you see?

Next week, for Alice's sake, three of my favorite Biblical conversations.

September 27, 2007

With My Song I Give Thanks

The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him. The LORD is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed.

-- Psalm 28:7-8 NRSV

The little gears in my head that usually begin turning on Tuesday, eventually causing my fingers to tap out a meditation on Wednesday, were turning rather slowly this week. Perhaps I am in need of oiling. Some fits and starts, to be sure, but nothing worth inflicting on others. I had resigned myself to skip this e-mail this week and start again post-Monday.

Then I returned home late in the afternoon yesterday, only to be greeted by a surprising message on my phone. It is always pleasant when the blinking "1" on your machine announces elation instead of sorrow. A familiar voice beamed through the tiny speaker:

"Ralph. This is Murrell Routon. I hope you and your family are well."

In my head: Thanks Murrell. You too.

"Do you know where you were a year ago today?"

Suddenly a rolodex of year-old memories began spinning in my mind, and for a brief instant, I wondered if I was in some kind of trouble! Let's see … a year ago today … September … Then it hit me. Of course!

But Murrell's message beat me to the punch:

"You were at UVA Medical Center praying for me with my family …"

My how time flies. It is hard to believe that Murrell's terrible tractor accident—an event I trust most of you remember—was twelve months ago. (And right there in my kitchen I had yet another of those moments we all seem to have a few times a year, when one realizes just how much time has passed by in a flurry.) My thoughts quickly went back to that long and dreadful night in Charlottesville, when our friend's life hung in the balance. For hours, I had expected the worst even as we prayed for the best. It would be several days before I knew if our congregation would ever greet Murrell again. It would be weeks before Murrell could even be awakened. What a frightening time for his wife and family.

The end of Murrell's brief message jarred me from my heavy remembering and brought me back to my kitchen:

"I just called to thank you and to say how grateful I am to God to be alive."

Indeed. Thanks be to God.

Novelist Walker Percy, himself a Christian (in the Roman Catholic tradition), once observed that whether or not the gospel is good news largely depends on your situation. If one sees nothing wrong with the way things are, nothing threatening or calamitous in this life, then there is really no news to tell (or better: no news you'll be able to hear). But when one knows himself to be "stranded on a island," when one has known even a bit of the disorientation that this fallen-short life can bring, then the gospel becomes "good news from across the seas." Only those who have known themselves to be stranded can properly celebrate a rescue; only those who have known good grace learn to sing good songs of thanks.

Murrell wasn't actually singing on my machine last evening, else I might have mistaken his call for a crank advertisement for payday loans. (I hate those.) And yet, in quite another way, he was singing oh so loudly. One could hear in his voice the glad "exulting of his heart" about which the psalmist sings. One could hear echoes of Psalm 28: "The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts … and with my song I give thanks to him." And the nice thing about other's songs of thanks is that they get us singing as well. For a few moments, my eyes watered with thoughts of what could have been and—mercifully!—what turned out to be. What a gift he gave us!

To be sure, other days and other messages bring news of distress, disorientation, disaster. There is a certain mystery in that fact. But we baptized folk have learned always to pause and give thanks to the great Giver of Life when in fact it is good news that comes across the wire, from across the seas.

The psalmists, and good friends like Murrell, have taught us so.

September 22, 2007

Remember Me

“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

I am deeply moved by these words of the oft-quoted criminal on the cross: his humble yet fervent request that, despite his obvious iniquities, he not be forgotten by the living God in a potent time yet to come.

Remember me. Do not let me be forgotten. Are these not the prayers that rest at the very bottom of all our praying, the secret hope of not being lost that drives so much of our living? … that we would be known, remembered, loved by the One who first made us, by the one who shapes and brings an otherwise impossible future.

It seems that so often we are prone to make that earnest petition of things or people that cannot answer it, that cannot remember us in any lasting way. And so we hang there in proximity to the dying Lord, asking that, despite ourselves and our choices, we might not be forgotten.

And do you know the good news? It turns out to be surprise even to those who ask for it: The Lord of life has chosen to hang there with us in our dying--beside us, for us--and to offer a sequence of simple words that become our eternal life.

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

September 19, 2007

Never In Vain

Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

-- 1 Corinthians 15:58

Just now, another night of rest has given way to one more underserved morning. It turns out that with each day of our living, both realities—the night at the end of a day; the dawn that so generously comes with each morning—provide opportunities to remember our finitude and to give thanks for the good resurrection hope. This gratitude is good daily practice, because at the end of all our days (our final "night"), hopefully we will have learned to rest soundly in the gracious promise that even the apparent finality of death will not be the final word. God has promised it so (Romans 8:37-39). As it was with Jesus, so it will be with us: one more surprising, generous morning. And this very last good morning will be a permanent one; one final Sunday morning gift called resurrection (Luke 24:1-12; Revelation 21-22-27).

It is fascinating to me that after spending 57 verses extolling the many features of our promised resurrection hope, the Apostle Paul finishes chapter 15 of his massive Corinthian letter with verse 58 (noted above). Given all this talk about our future, one might think the final apostolic word would be something like this: Don't bother with all the details of this life. It's all passing away anyhow. Hang loose, brother.
Don't sweat the small stuff. None of this present effort will matter much when we come out in the wash.

(Note that we expect this kind of ending because we regularly confuse salvation with escape. Either die or flee—those are the only outcomes we can imagine in our despair. Yet over and over again, the New Testament easily imagines God being in the transformation business: taking the broken pieces of this creation and making them whole (see Matthew 11:1-5). God neither resuscitates or abandons. God resurrects and transforms.)

So along with the warm sun and those chirping birds outside your window (the latter either lovely or annoying, depending on your mood), today's new morning greets us with a provocative stewardship question: Will we excel in our work for the Lord, knowing that the resurrection promises that our labor is never in vain? Paul sees our present work as the very stuff God will raise up and transform in the world to come.

Every good and gracious act, every thoughtful and encouraging word; every public act of virtue and every private act of service; every attempt to build up what others have torn down, every effort to make God's good creation a better place for neighbor and naysayer alike; every act of blessing you bestow on your family, friends, fellowship … even on your enemies—none of these labors will be lost in the resurrection. No act offered in faith, hope, and love will be passed over by our transforming God on that final Sunday morning. Even if in this life one never sees a tree of good labor bear any workable fruit, the believer lays down to rest at night knowing that in the resurrection to come there will be fruit a-plenty. God does not abandon; God transforms.

With a sigh on her lips and grief in her voice, a friend once confessed to me that she didn't see the point in visiting her aged loved one in the nursing home since, "no one else ever comes anymore and my mother doesn't even know if I'm there or not." I appreciated her deep frustration. Most of us have sighed to the heavens and asked what difference any of our efforts make. But with 1 Corinthians 15:58 in my mind, I tried to gently remind her of one little comforting fact: "Remember that someone does know if you've come or not: the brooding Holy Spirit. So trust that your labors of love are never in vain. Even if no one else ever sees, God sees. And that's enough to matter."

Precisely because of our future hope in Christ, this present life matters today. What labors in this day now before you can you offer to Lord? Whatever they may be, great or small, be steadfast, immovable in all your hard work. As you labor on in love this day, remember that "in the Lord" your work is never in vain.

September 6, 2007


With adult Sunday School starting up again this Sunday, and as I plan a new batch of sermons for this fall, I've been thinking about the essential role of the Bible in our Christian lives. As a pastor, I recognize just how dependent I am on this strange and wonderful book. Take it away and I am like a fireman without water, a banker without money, or a waiter without food. It is my stock and trade.

But even more compelling is just what the Bible means to you and me as believers in God through Jesus Christ. Take away the Bible from our personal or common life and we are like a football team without a playbook, stage players without a script, a people without a purpose. It is our comfort, our correction, and our cause. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 2 Timothy 3:16-17)

I want to invite each of you to find ways this fall to renew your engagement with the scriptures, and in doing so I want to introduce you to a wonderful term in our tradition: perspicuity. (What a great word! Try it out on your coworkers at the water cooler, on your family at the dinner table. Watch their heads turn!) It means "clear, lucid, and understandable." Of the many beliefs we have inherited from the 16th Protestant Reformers like John Calvin, one of them is their insistence on the perspicuity of the Bible. In the words of Eugene Peterson, it is the belief that "the Bible is substantially intelligible to the common person and requires neither pope nor professor to interpret it."** Most of us, on most days, should have no problem with most passages.

In the stiff English of 1647, the Westminster Confession of Faith freely admits that "all things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all." That's true, especially if you have ever tried to read through, say, the hurly-burley books of Daniel or Revelation! Yet, even so,

… those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. (WCF I. vii.)

And in this we rejoice, that the Bible is essentially open to our understanding without having always to lean on academics or clerics. To be sure, sometimes a passage leaves us more confused than before, but more often than not the simple meaning of the Bible comes through with prayer and patience. We're grateful for the experts' help when the going gets rough, but we must not think we need them in the room every time we crack the cover.

"God's word is simple and clear, and no one should let himself be turned from a direct uninhibited contact with the word, or allow his contact with it to be dimmed and dulled, by problems and mental reservations aroused by the thought that scholars interpret a text quite differently and more accurately than he can."

Hans Urs von Balthasar (a great Swiss theologian whose dramatic name is fun to say out loud in the shower!) wrote those words in 1963, and they still ring out with truth for us today. In fact, Presbyterians have always taught a truth that is grounded in the lived experience of Christians in every era: When a person wants to get serious about being "more spiritual," a person should get serious about reading the Bible. Notes Peterson, "All our masters in spirituality were and are master [readers of the Bible]."** And not only should we read it for our correction and comfort, with its plentiful perspicuity we give thanks to God that we even can. The best way to begin is, well, simply to begin. We learn how to do it as we do it.

Sunday School cranks up again this week. Before long, our Tuesday night Bible study will return. Every Lord's Day bulletin has both readings for each weekday and readings for the next Sunday. Study Bibles and Bible studies abound, both online and in your bookstore of choice. And of course your pastor always delights in having conversation about these matters with you in person. (That's why I'm here, after all.) Bottom line: We live in plenteous times, with ample resources for enjoying the generous perspicuity of the Bible. I invite you to renew your commitment to listen for the word of the Lord with me—day by day, Sunday by Sunday, season to season.

Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
Psalm 119

Presbyterians, may the Holy Spirit brood over your week, blessing you with imagination and energy for living out who you already are: a child of God, saved and sent by his grace.

**Eugene Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, pages 49-55

September 5, 2007

Abundant Life

A Meditation on John 10:10
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.


Shepherd Jesus, Guardian of our lives, Gate to God,

What do you mean, exactly, when you say "life abundant"?
We are not altogether sure.

Life – being alive! – is already such an inexplicable gift,
already such a remarkable endowment.

Yet all around us these days is much chatter about "rights"
– a right to life, a right to death.

Perhaps. But there are no rights with you.
It is not a thing to be demanded, grasped. There is only gift.

So then, Gift-Giver, Life-Giver,
to your already supreme bequest,
why do you add abundant?

Why would you qualify the noun of our existence
with this adjective of your grace?

What is this holy grammar you employ?
We are not altogether sure.


Your writers have named it perissos in the Greek.

That which surpasses usual expectation.
Extraordinary. Remarkable!

Is this what you desire for your ordinary flock?
Is it for extraordinariness that you have come?

If so, then forgive us for our remarkably low expectations.
Of life. Of ourselves. Of you.

That we are bored and depressed, insular and immovable –
is it because we expect too little?

How could we have underplayed your grace?
How can our sight shrink so dim?

You have spun the planets, named the stars.
You have sighted the blind, unstopped the deaf.

You have striven with the angels
and wrestled with our demons.

You have born our lowest banishment
and were raised up on extravagant Easter wings.

Perissos. An amount that exceeds necessity.

You have come that we might have life,
and have it in excess of necessity.


What does this say about us, O Christ,
about the lives you have entrusted to our care?

Truth be told, we cannot always make
the connections you make. It is hard to see what you see.

What does your thick life of profusion
have to do with our thin lives of dearth?

Give us eyes to see what you so readily saw:
the extravagance of Abba, the abundance of Immanuel.

If we are the sheep, and if you are the Shepherd,
then the pastures to which you call us

Must be ripe-green with grace, free and wide in mercy,
rustled about by Holy Spirit winds.

We want to see such abundance as you saw.
We want to know what you know.

I know this:

I know I notice moments – here and there, now and then –
when I sense your abundance.

Moments above and beyond
the bony language of rights and demands.

Moments saturated with more life than is necessary,
yet just enough to awe me to heaven.

Watching two people forgive and forget.
Unprompted thoughtfulness, none too soon.

The quiet, anonymous generosity of those who truly give.
The ecstasy of covenant embrace.

There is such unnecessary beauty in Bach.
There is remarkable peace in lasting friendship.

I do not deserve to be dismantled and rebuilt
by your preachers and prophets and poets.

… And then there is laughter. Laughter!
That highest of abundance. That proof of your existence.

For what more surpassing gift could you give
than uncontainable, expressible joy?

The sound of my child's original mirth
was more than my life deserved. perissos.


You say you came for life. That we might have it and hold it.
And to do so in abundance.

Are these little moments of extra your other sacraments?
Are they touchstones of your grace?

Are they the thin places where heaven and earth collide,
commingle, if only for a moment?

Are they circulating trailers – previews –
for the resurrection life to come, when you will be all in all?


O Shepherd Sublime, Swinging Gate to Extraordinary life,

I imagine that what I most appreciate a
out your kind words of abundance

Is what they suggest about the shape of your heart divine.

That it is your nature to call forth a little extra,
to speak into existence more life than necessary.

That your determined grace
not only welcomes home the prodigal,
you pull out all the stops.

That you find pleasure in our finding pleasure,
you delight in our delight.

That your consuming fire of judgment, just and necessary,
is nevertheless a tool to fashion our praise.

That you are not only "pro-life",
you are in protesting-support of abundant life.

Mercy. Justice. Reconciliation. Shalom.
Awe. Wonder. Praise.

These are more than we deserve.
More than is necessary to get by.
Yet this is precisely who you are.


Forgive us for choking the life out of your life,
for hanging your extravagance on our greedy crosses.

Forgive your church for its vacuous moralisms,
its too-cerebral dogma, and its smug nostalgia.

We are sorry for trading your substantial abundance
for sentimental drivel, the claptrap of our times.

Pardon us for hoarding your plenty
and wasting your waste, forgetting

That your abundance is abundant precisely
that it might be shared, profusely, liberally, and well.

Shepherd of perissos, Extraordinary Lord,

Make us not to want any more
than what you have already lavishly given.

Grant us that kind of Acts-abundance so obvious
in our earliest mothers and fathers of faith:

Wonder, awe, generosity. Laughter and life.
A common koinonia. Faith, hope, and love.

Make us to lie down in your green pastures.

Lead us beside your still waters.

Restore our souls.


I have come that you may have life, and have it abundantly.

Thanks be to God.


August 29, 2007

Throned Above

Well, Mr. Gonzalez has resigned amid much murkiness, Mr. Vick has apologized for killing dogs, and Mr. Bean has made another cornball movie. Yes, my friends, it's another exciting week here on planet earth. And yet,

God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.
God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne.

Psalm 47:6-8

I suppose this is silly, but sometimes on Sunday mornings, during worship, I like to imagine that there are great holes in our sanctuary roof. You know, punctures … so we can see, and breathe—like how a kid punches holes in a metal lid, such that his newly-caught specimens can respire in their new glass dwelling. (I guess, by inference, we are God's little bugs!)

Like I was saying: holes in the roof. And when we sing, especially when we are singing well—in one of those magical Sunday morning moments when, even if just for an instant, it all comes together: mind, heart, and body—I guess I like to imagine that each of our words mingle together in shared song and sort of waft their way right up through those apertures—upward, heavenward, toward God. I guess this is why, by the time I finish singing the Gloria Patri with you, inevitably I find I am staring at the rafters. It's not so much that I like the color brown; it is almost as if I can see right through them. It is as if for a moment I can see what is really real in this life.

What I most want to see, what I think I am looking for up there, Sunday to Sunday, on the other side of our brown board ceiling, is a vision of God grand and gracious enough to grab my preoccupied attention again, one stout enough to lift my eyes above all the strangeness and silliness of these times. In a world suffused with governments' shortcomings, with the rise and sudden fall of superhero after superhero, with the antics of cheap entertainment (I'll confess though, I love Mr. Bean), I guess I need my eyes raised up just a bit. I need to see that which is eternal in the heavens—he who is above all this folly, more lasting than whatever chattering news update comes off the ticker hour by hour.

"Alberto-Vick-BeanAlberto-Vick-Bean Alberto-Vick-Bean" Enough already. Show me, please, the life of another trinity, a far better consortium, one offering far better news. Let me see the Lord—Speaker, Word, and Breath—high above all this predictable press. Let the songs of my mouth arise to God alone.

Sing praises with a psalm. God sits on his holy throne.

Mr. Gonzalez, Mr. Vick, Mr. Bean … and for that matter, Mr. Hawkins as well: look up and look alive. See the One who sits enthroned above all this curious chatter, all this nebulous noise. Look up through the holes in your roof and see One who will not pass away, whose word outlasts even the cable news, and to whom all good and glad praises are due.

Look up to him … and live.