July 24, 2007

Sing the Faith

I conducted no scientific poll to confirm this theory, but I have a hunch that our children's favorite part of Vacation Bible School (this or any year) is the music. You can see it on their faces—they love to sing. And that's a good thing, because over a lifetime of worship and devotion to God, they'll need plenty of singing to capture the grandeur and goodness of the living God that has called them to faith.

Psalm 5:11 - "Let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy." What is it about singing that best captures our gratitude for the depth and breadth of God's love in Jesus Christ? Why is it that the good news seems most fully expressed in song? The Methodist William Willimon once suggested that on Easter Sunday, the preacher should sit down and let the choir sing another anthem or two, because the beauty and mystery of something as world-changing as Jesus' resurrection are best expressed in song, not speech.

In a recent commencement address, American poet Dana Gioia expressed a similar conviction: "Art addresses us in the fullness of our being—simultaneously speaking to our intellect, emotions, intuition, imagination, memory and physical senses. There are some truths about life that can be expressed only as stories or songs or images." Indeed, Christians have known this for centuries. The gospel travels best on notes of hearty praise.

We sing to God and with each other because finally it is singing that best captures our praise and prayer. God's all-encompassing grace touches every part of our lives; it is only natural, therefore, that we would use every part of our bodies—voice, ears, heart, brains, body, soul—to sing his praises forevermore. Whether it's a catchy Bible School tune or a high Reformation hymn, we sing because God saves.

In Jesus’ Name

He holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. -- Hebrews 7:24-25

Do your pastor a small favor, if you will: Pay attention to the way you finish your prayers, both in private and in public. Make certain you always say, "In Jesus' name I pray … Amen." This is your blessed boilerplate, and none other. Over my years in pastoral ministry, I've heard a variety of anodyne endings to prayers offered by Christians: "In Thy name we pray …" or "in your name I pray …" or even just a plain but blunt "Amen,"
thereby avoiding this whole confusing "name" business entirely. But I want to assert that anything short of Jesus' name undercuts the very promise that invites us to pray.

Now, please don't think me merely persnickety. This is not the same sort of advice as "never wear white after Labor Day" or "always clean up a lawn mower after you borrow it." Saying "in Jesus' name I pray" is not so much a matter of intoning the proper magic words as it is a regular celebration of the heart of the gospel. After all, in the logic of the book of Hebrews, that we believers can pray at all is solely because of Jesus who has opened up the channel. This would be the children's sermon: If God is on the other end of the line, then Jesus is our phone.

Hebrews assumes that between a holy God and persistent sinners there must be some sort of intermediary, someone to speak for those who cannot themselves approach such righteous God (Hebrews 5:1-4). In the old days, that meant a continual rotation of less-than-perfect high priests whose vocation was to pray on behalf of those who came to offer their worship to God. No priest = no access.

If this last part sounds a little extreme, that's just proof you are a Protestant. The Reformation recovered the promise of Hebrews 7, that there is now, once and for all, only one great high priest. Furthermore, while his feet are made of the same clay as ours, his do not walk in paths of continual folly. As such, he is our permanent priest, one who continually makes intercession for those who approach God in faith, hope, and love. "In your name we pray" is surely in the ballpark for Christians, but its imprecision obscures the fundamental promise of Hebrews. Through Jesus' name, there is life-giving access to the God whose mercies are unending.

Don't ask me to explain the mechanics of this intercession. I cannot. It is as beautiful a promise as it is deeply mysterious: Imagine the risen Son, alive in God's three-in-one life, whispering into the Father's ear what it is like to be, well … us. He echoes our prayers because he himself has lived them with us (Hebrews 4:14-16). When he speaks, all of God listens.

So when after our prayers we say "in Jesus' name we pray," it is much more than just a proper religious suffix. We are claiming one of the richest promises of the New Testament: God's beloved Christ, granting us access to the Father's own ear. By themselves, my prayers are surely too anemic to puncture the hidden heavens (Psalm 89:46). Who am I to get God's busy attention? But alas, I do not pray in my own stead, I pray through one who has loaned me—loaned us all!—his heavenly name. And his is a name that gets God's attention.

Beloved, let us speak with the precision so graciously afforded to us; let us always borrow that name that grants us a hearing in God's triune life; let us always makes our prayers in Jesus' permanent name.

July 7, 2007

Point A to Point B

I just love my little grey car, my diminutive Ford wagon. Over the years it's been dubbed the "Witness Wagon"—I suppose a light-hearted nod at my vocation. Others have called it a "clown car," which I can only assume is funny because of its size compared to mine (as opposed to my big, circus nose).

I'll admit, there's reason to chuckle: one of my seatbelts won't retract, the A/C quit years ago, the wipers no longer return to rest on their own, the heater blower squeals like a herd of trapped pigs, my right door bears the mark of an unwelcomed bumper, and (as many of you have taken the time to point out) my rear brake lights each take seasonal vacations (rusty sockets, in case you're wondering).

No cruise, no CD, no tint—not exactly your high-end ride. (Lately, however, my allegiance has been vindicated. If given the choice, Ella prefers to ride in "daddy's car" over "mommy's car"—which is still nearly new and has all the trimmings. "I no like your car, mommy. We ride in daddy's car." Score one for the Witness Wagon.)

Bottom line: The WW gets me from A to B. That's what cars are really all about.

This brings me to resurrection. There is a wide array of theological issues and matters of Christian practice over which I'm willing to negotiate. Like the missing or broken bells and whistles on my car, I could live without them if I had to. Lately I'm interested in a growing movement of folks in the wider church who are striving for a "generous orthodoxy"—unity in essentials, liberty in peripherals, charity undergirding it all. Some of the left-right, liberal-conservative debates that have dogged American Christianity for a century are showing signs of weary fray. I believe this is a season for us to consider again those most basic New Testament confessions, to hear again those reverberations of faith on their own terms.

What matters most is that we get from A to B, less so the accoutrements of the ride. Let us remember that in the logic of the New Testament, the Christian journey is made possible because of Easter's good news. That first Sunday morning announcement of Jesus' astonishing new life is at the very heart of the matter; it is the original and oldest Christian announcement. No resurrection, no faith (argues Paul in 1 Corinthians). Conversely, if Jesus is alive, everything in heaven and on earth is different. (Luke 24 and 1 Corinthians 15.)

Of course, there is much more to this faith than simply one Easter Sunday a year, such as the distinctives of our Presbyterian-Reformed roots and the peculiar challenges to our faith that spring from the strange times in which we live. These both continue to matter a great deal. But I feel as though our Reformed distinctives and our present challenges are the blood coursing through our veins from a heart that beats because of the resurrection news—not the other way around. We need both heart and blood in the body of Christ right about now, and we need them in their proper order of importance. The one pushes the other along.

That he was raised up by the Father after dying our death; that the resurrection promise now hangs securely in the future after our death has died; that there is even now some of that resurrection power and newness available through the brooding presence of the Spirit—these promises of God are what get us from A to B, from death to astonishing new life. Now that's a ride.

A Certain Humility

Reading widely keeps a man humble. If one's only reference point is one's own world, in every matter under heaven a person feels as though he is a pioneer. Yet there are few things new under the sun, and this is a certain relief. I like the possibility that I do not have to save the world, comprehend all of its brooding mysteries, communicate all of its higher meanings. It is only for me to be a faithful steward of this particular season, and good stewardship invites a person to know what has gone before him. That the book of Proverbs, for instance, includes a dialogue between a skeptic on the brink and an orthodox on the straight and narrow reminds me that my deep doubts and robust faith—and the frequent internal dialogue between them—are not so original after all. Though it will certainly mean the loss of paperback memior deals down the road, I would do well to fall in behind them and learn from their ways.

Natural Theology?

Rustling dull-green grass bending in breezes
Awkward little fraziers aimlessly unkempt
Spindly pines all tight like too much family

It is a natural mess
Amazing to behold
Its own little world

Question: Do I exist for it or it for me?

And where is Jesus in all this green and brown?

Camp Hat Creek—Brookneal, Virginia—June 2007

Keeping Time

Gothic and sturdy it sits

Perched on a manicured mound

Strangely massive, given how small

Built by believers now long gone

Next door, the sprawling university hums along

Chemists create their cultures

Thespians play with the past

Engineers rewire the world

Meanwhile, the modest chapel overlooks it all

An older, wiser sister judging sibling frenzy

Her towered bell gently pervades next door

Each clang suggesting ancient tensions

How shall we mark the time?

chronos or chairos?

July 5, 2007

Come Out of Hiding

Better is open rebuke than hidden love.  – Proverbs 27:5

Hidden love is surely akin to fat-free chocolate ice cream or voluntary taxes. 

What's the point? 

Love is, by Biblical definition, not a static feeling of veiled emotion but an active, outward engagement of the will.  How Jesus felt about God's people is beside the point; the good news is that he up and travelled to the cross.  So by "hidden love" Proverbs is not thinking here of the clandestine romantic lover, who holds his affection in secret for fear of rejection. (For more on that kind of love, see Song of Songs in the Old Testament.  Wow—who knew that kind of stuff was in the Bible?!)  No, the context for 27:5 is good old-fashioned, right as rain, everyday friendship—a kind of love to which we are all called in this Christian life (1 John 3:18). 

Aside: Let us note, however, that friendship and romance do have something to do with one another:  Lovers better be friends as well, else when all that heat chills for a time (and it will, quite naturally), without friendship they'll have nothing but old embers to keep them warm in the cold.  Friends, however, see it through.  Friendship undergirds most every other kind of relationship, including passion.

So Proverbs 27:5 says, in effect: It's better to have a friend who offers you  constructive criticism in the open than a friend who never demonstrates any love in the first place.  Words of correction (what the Bible calls "rebuke") must always be measured against history.  If a strange bloke fresh off the street catches me after church and says "that was a bad sermon," I'm inclined to send him packing, opinions and all.  But if my colleague and mentor Bill Youmans—a friend of 15 years—offers the same conclusion, I'll swallow my pride, listen closely, and take it to heart.  The difference?  Trust born of history.  I know Bill loves me, so I'll heed his rebuke because his love has never been hidden over the years.

The reality is that there will likely come a day when your relationship will call for hard words of truth, justice, or concern.  Such a correction will go down much easier if your friend (companion, coworker, cousin … whomever) has a history with you—an experience of your love.  (When in Luke 13:34-35 Jesus dismisses the people of Jerusalem for their rejection of his ways, it is clear to the reader that his rebuke is born out of love, not hate.  We can feel the pathos of "they should have known better."  He's loved them all along.)

Bottom line: Don't hold back your love with those you love, either your words or your actions.  Let it flow.  Look for ways to bless your spouse, your children, your friends, with signs and seals of what they mean to you.  Be brave and express and/or demonstrate it in whatever ways come naturally to you.  I've never heard of a person who at the end of his life had regrets because he loved too much or expressed it too often.  Make sure those you love know where they stand with you. 

Come on out of your hiding, Christian, because waiting for the other to make the first move might just make it too late.  Christ's love for you is all you need to love another in this way (1 John 4:19).

Percy’s Bee

A pathetic looking bee
is trapped in my screen

His perpetual buzzing
bounce reveals a gene

All he longs is for escape
Freedom beyond a catch

Rest Then pound away
some more Never quits

Out of easy compassion I
spin a crank of salvation

Great Screen surrenders
There is an Exodus road

Still the pounding buzz
continues Not yet loose

Though a way now exists
the captive sees only bars

He presses ahead in vain
until rest reveals newness

There is open sky below
It had been so for a time

The happening matters little
until the ear hears the news

Many Moods

So many moods
And they change
By the hour, week

One day, all despair
Hope anew the next
Third, all is ordinary

Thank God there is a
God who if he bends
Bends only in grace

July 4, 2007


A modest bluebird perched on a standard stick
Engaged in a routine maintenance of feathers
Expert scratches interrupted by knowing looks

Off he goes to another post
In a timing obvious only to him

Never Stop Learning

The mind of one who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly. Proverbs 15:14

I have a dear ministerial colleague who years ago ambled home on his collegiate spring break, eager to tell his family all the fascinating facts he was learning about the scriptures while earning his liberal arts degree. Visibly threatened by his progeny's new-fangled education, his grandfather protested loudly: "I don't need to know all that stuff. If the King James Bible was good enough for Paul, it's good enough for me!" Nice try, gramps.

I'm always just a little sadder when someone pits Christian faith against education and learning. To be clear, no one is suggesting that salvation can be found in knowledge alone (We're not Gnostics.); neither is anyone one endorsing a kind of "education" that simply goes around debunking faith for the sheer fun on of it. (We're not cynics.) But the attitude that all learning is a de facto threat to our Christ-faith—that's a position born mostly of fear, not of faith.

This summer, we're preaching our way through the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Of the many threads of wisdom running through this inspired collection of sayings, one of them is this: The wise believer is eager to learn, "to seek knowledge," to grow not only in heart but also in mind. Foolish persons are satisfied with "folly," with whatever pedestrian madness is in vogue on this day or that. But the wise one is hungry to learn, to know more, to scratch the surface of things, and to dig a little deeper. And note that this hunger is not in spite of faith, it is because of faith: If God has made the world, then there is an order and purpose to things, and the wise person searches to know and understand that blessed order better. The president of my Christian liberal arts college used to say in chapel that we should use our minds to inquire deeply into all things, precisely because we are Christians. We should strive to learn in the confidence that "there was no rock we could turn over from which something would surface and devour God."

An intelligent mind acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge. — Proverbs 18:15

One of the features I most enjoy about the gospels' accounts of Jesus' ministry is how Jesus seems always one step ahead of his disciples. He is frequently leading them somewhere (Mark 9:2), usually leaving them with more questions than answers (Matthew 13:13), and often tuned in to realities they have not yet perceived (John 20:14). While Jesus is much more than a teacher (Messiah, Lord, Beloved of God, etc.) he is no less than a teacher, and a consummate one at that. He is always out ahead of his disciples, teaching them faith, hope, and love in the Father. The gospels make it clear that one cannot be a follower of Jesus and stay in the same place.

Indeed, long before disciple took on extra Christian weight, it simply meant student, or one who receives instruction from another. Thus to follow Jesus throughout our lives is to not only believe in him as Lord but also to learn from him as teacher—to grow in understanding, maturity, and insight. Although sin is surely a sign we are off of the Jesus-path, so perhaps is boredom. Christ not only saves our soul, he also renews our minds (Romans 12:2). One who follows him to the Father is promised "speech and knowledge of every kind" (1 Corinthians 1:4-7).

A scoffer seeks wisdom in vain, but knowledge is easy for one who understands. — Proverbs 14:6

A few weeks ago, one of our senior church members bounced into my study and, with the giddiness of schoolgirl, announced that she had "just finished the most marvelous book!" You could hear in her telling her joy concerning all the new insights and fresh thoughts that this book had disclosed to her. I was deeply moved: It was clear that one is never too old (or young!) to keep asking and learning, seeking and finding. Although our Christ-faith should satisfy our deepest hungers for salvation, it should also make us hungrier to learn, to see, to know. Saying "yes" to Christ is only the glorious beginning to a lifetime of new insights about the ways of God's world, the ways of God's people, and the ways of God.

Presbyterians, I urge you: keep reading, keep wondering, keep learning for as long as you live. Don't have much time? Read and ponder and learn when you can, where you can. Small bites are better than no bites at all. Devour the scriptures (Revelation 10:9) and hold them in your mind as you ingest others bits of wisdom along the way. Keep looking to learn all you can, until at last in a time still to come, what we see now only dimly will be made clear as we see face-to-face (1 Corinthians 13:12). The old hymn O Word of God Incarnate prays for us all:

O make Your church, dear Savior,
A lamp of purest gold
To bear before the nations
Your true light, as of old;
O teach Your wandering pilgrims
By this our path to trace,
Till, clouds and storms thus ended,
We see You face to face.

Private Questions

Matthew 17 tells the extraordinary story of a father who brings his possessed son to Jesus in order that he might be healed. As he hands Jesus his boy, he also hands him this report: "I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him." Jesus mutters something about the faithlessness of his followers and then—mercifully!—heals the boy in a flash. What interests me just now in this tale is what happens a little later: "The disciples came to Jesus privately and said, Why could we not cast it out?" (v. 19)

Private why questions—along with the disciples, most of us have them. There exist for many of us persistent questions about ourselves, our lot in life, or about the nature of things, questions that we only reveal under the blanket of assured privacy, if then. The disciples had failed the boy publically, so they must query Jesus about their bankruptcy privately. Not dissimilarly, many a Christian seems to feel a great burden to wear a cool, confident and consistent faith out in the open, but in private is quite riddled with questions and uncertainties. More subtly, I notice pastorally how often someone precedes their heartfelt, quite legitimate question of faith with the self-deprecating sidebar, "I know this is a stupid question, but …" Even more troubling: "I know we are not supposed to question things, but …" (I hear this one most often around matters of grief and sorrow.)

But a pastor must ask: When did why questions become off limits for the people of Jesus-faith? When did the earnest query become a marker for doubting disbelief? When did trusting Christ as Lord and Savior stop meaning that one is a "steward of God's mysteries" (1 Corinthians 4:1, emphasis mine) and start meaning that one must have all matters of reality, justice, and truth sown up tightly in one's understanding? It just seems to me that a person who never has a why question is a person either no longer living or no longer paying attention. Of all the things circling around Blacksburg these days, only weeks after the terrible events of April 16, certainly some of them are questions of why? And I would hope that the Christians of that village are leading the way in those prayers, even as they also minister to many hurts.

To be sure, I can appreciate what folks are worried about with why questions. No one wants to get stuck in an endless loop of disheartening uncertainty. Furthermore, there is a kind of questioning of God that is not so interested in answers as it is in entrenching doubt. Frigid, encrusted questions shot at heaven out of cynicism or despair; questions born, not of faith, but of spiritual frostiness. When a scoffer asks a believer, "Why would a good God allow this to happen?" it is important to determine if she really wants to know or if she is simply hoping it will make you squirm. We Christians are sympathetic to the former, but not the latter.

And of course neither do I have in view here the kind of questioning that assumes one has a leg up on God. Our prayers are not about the business of trapping God, as if such a thing were even possible. I suspect one reason people sequester their why questions is to avoid provoking God's very righteous reply. No one wants to be old Job, who has to endure God's billowing responses from the "whirlwind" to his queries (see Job 38-40). I once asked someone if they were struggling with any why questions after a personal tragedy. "I have them, but I'm not asking them. I am afraid I might get an answer." Fair enough.

But there is a kind of why question that is a deep prayer of trust and hope, not a threat either to our faith or to God's infinitude. I notice in the Psalter that why questions appear almost three dozen times (Ps. 2:1; 10:1, 13; 22:1; 42:5, 9, 11; 43:2, 5; 44:23f; 49:5; 52:1; 68:16; 74:1, 11; 79:10; 80:12; 88:14; 114:5; 115:2). The Psalter—that canonized collection of prayers intended to be the language we borrow to engage the living God. That the whys would be canonized in our Old Testament suggests remarkable permission to pray in a mode that asks God what in the world is going on—literally. Furthermore, I notice that the disciples fervently ask Jesus why he was a sleeping during the horrendous storm in Mark 4, and I notice a dozen other examples of the disciples bringing their queries to the Lord (Matt. 13:10; 17:10, 19; 26:8; Mk. 9:28; Jn. 4:27, to name a few). Bottom line: I believe it is permissible to join the psalmist and the disciples in making our why questions a matter of deep prayer and pondering.

Why, O Lord, did the Tech shooter have to take so many lives down with him? How can a person become so lost, so ill as to undercut your indelible gift of life? Why do these events always feel so hopelessly random? Why are these actions allowed to transpire at all? Why must tragedy transpire in order for people to rise to the calling of community and compassion?

To pray in this way is not to "question" God's power or providence, it is in fact to trust very deeply in it. I heap up all my whys to the living God because I know that the Godhead is the proper place for them. I heap them to God, already aware that there are in fact answers to my questions—in God's life, if nowhere else. The one who gives me life, and life abundant in Christ Jesus, is surely the only proper one to receive and hear my pleas for understanding and wisdom. Furthermore, if the church is indeed a priesthood of all believers, then that priesthood moves in two directions: yes, the more obvious mediating of God's word to one another and to the world, but also the mediating of the world's questions of why (along with everyone other kind of prayer on behalf of others). It is because of our trust in God that we ask, not because we doubt God's goodness or grace in the first place.

As a child asks why to a parent in order to grow in understanding and wisdom, so the church prays why in order to mature as God's covenant people, and to be better stewards of our witness to Christ and his presence among those who suffer. After a tragedy that shakes our confidence, the chief difference between a God-scoffer and God-child is not so much the content of our questions as it is the disposition of our heart, the posture of our prayers. The derider might be asking why to distance himself from God; I'm asking why to draw even closer.

Will answers come to our questions as we pray them? Maybe not. Some questions run as deep and long as the history of humanity. But then again, maybe they do. I can bear witness to the truth that earnest prayer, coupled with diligent reading of the scripture, bathed in a mode of worship and praise, can in fact ferret out new insights and a palpable peace. (Once, while wrestling in my mind over the state of the world's madness, overcome with worry, I stumbled onto 1 Peter 3:9. Suddenly, I was swept up in a certain new peace. Even more, I found new insight into what the Lord might be up to in allowing the creation to languish a little longer: Had the Lord not delayed this long, you and I would not know God's grace.) Yet even if answers do not come so readily, our prayers and ponderings are still important. First, to squelch our genuine questions is not only to hide them from God—impossible!—but also to hide them from ourselves. It's just good to be honest with ourselves, lest our faith become mostly about convincing ourselves we are in control and less about trusting God alone. But second, it's good to the keep the channels open, the pathway cleared between the church and the Triune God. Praying is simply what we do, and our ponderous questions about the nature of things are but one way we open our ourselves before the reality of God. Whether we pray …

Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression? Rise up, come to our help. Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love. (Psalm 44)


Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me. (Psalm 23)

… either way, we are praying to the Lord alone.

Sisters and brothers, we look forward to a day when God will be all in all, when the troubles and trials that threaten the church and creation are subdued by God's lasting peace, and when our why questions of God (Why do these things happen?) will fully and finally give way to God's why questions of us (Why do you look for the living among the dead?). The day of resurrection, the day of the Lord—God's final answer to all our pressing questions.