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.