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.