December 29, 2008

I. W. T.

Made of steel, and
a comfort to many.
Storied. Hilarious.

Be warmed, after
the long winter of
your brave demise.

December 25, 2008

Our Mirror

He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. - Hebrews 1:3

Mirrors are wonderful gifts: a simple piece of glass, with a silver backing, suitable for seeing a reflection. They reflect light from one place and shine it another. They allow you to see angles of perception otherwise unseen.

What an astonishing thing we Christians claim at Christmas: That the wailing, wrinkly, writhing baby in the well-attested manager ... the one sought by scruffy, smelly shepherds and mysterious sages from afar ... the one entrusted to an otherwise unknown little Palestinian family from across the tracks ... Our confession is that this one, in faith and in fact, is the “reflection of God’s glory.” We are bold to believe that he is our mirror.

So come to the manger; gather to the creche. Push your way to the front of the crowd, past herders and travelers, past angels and oxen, past father old and mother young. Push your way to the front and peer into the bed of straw. You’ll find there a living piece of glass, a little new life with a backing of silver.

And note the angles (not just the angels), because angles are everything with mirrors. His is 30, maybe 40 degrees, such that when you look down, expecting to see a burgeoning baby boy, you see instead the glory of the living God.
Your line of sight is miraculously redirected upward: from the lowliest of accommodations, to the splendorous wonder of God’s habitation; from a feeding trough turned crib to the exalted throne of God’s perfect judgement and more perfect mercy. You sight moves from a fledging baby, 20 minutes into the world, to the great eternal One, timeless and mighty--who was, who is, and is to come. I give to you Jesus of Nazerth -- God’s ironic and illuminating mirror for all to see.

You might ask, quite rightly: Have all these Christians who have come before us, who gave us Hebrews 1:3 and who have pointed to it ever since, do they mean to say that to see this baby is to see the real God, to see what one looks like in person is to how the other appears in eternity? Does the Divine skin favor the complexion of a 1st century Middle Eastern family?

No. God is Spirit, more real than even our fleshly reality. God is no more brown than God is white. If anything, all of our various skin tones are but mere shadows of God’s mysterious and illusive image.

Well then, do they mean to say that because we got a baby boy and not a baby girl, God is He as opposed to Thou?

Hardly. That God is “He” in our parlance is only a statement about our ridiculously limiting English pronouns. Gender is God’s gift to us, not our category forced upon God. Besides, that Jesus was a boy and not a girl is only proof that God is willing in God’s grace to condescend to the lower forms of creation in order to make known good news. “It’s a boy!” might just be another way of saying “God has to do what God has to do.”

No, look again into the mystery before us. Hear again the astonishing conviction of scripture.

Its not the skin or sex that is the mirror in the manger. It is the manner, the way, the words and deeds of deliverance of the one whose birth we remember this night that reflects back to us the real look of God. This curious little baby does his best reflecting in his living, in his dying, in his rising again.

Want to see what God looks like, what God is up to in the world, what is most true in God’s heart of hearts? Look over there, says the New Testament. Look at this long-promised messenger, look at his words and his ways: he gives eyes to the blind, legs to the lame, hearts to the heartless. Look and see the glory of God reflected among you.

Now look over there, on Friday. See the cross of Christ, as he hangs on your death nail and cries out your stricken grief. See God’s eternal word, dying before you, and see the glory of God reflecting among you. Now look again, one more time ... look to Sunday. See the empty tomb; see his astonishing new life. See the scars of your sins now no longer deathly. He is alive. Death and all its derivatives have not the final word. Look at his resurrected body, and see the glory of God reflected among us.

Teaching and healing; dying and rising. That’s what God looks like to the naked eye.

It is the mirrored mystery of our glad confession: that in Jesus of Nazareth -- particular, peculiar, perplexing Jesus of Nazareth, born this night -- that in his word and in his way we catch a living glimpse of God on the loose.

Your mirror is he.
Your angle on the mysteries of heaven.
Your silver-backed, light-reflcting, 30 degree up angle to God.

See him born this night.
See him for what he is.
See him, and believe.

December 24, 2008

A Prayer for Christmas Day

O Christ, born this night in sacred simplicity, conceive in us tomorrow a living, breathing, growing faith in you. Deliver us from holiday diversions and distractions, and in our homes and hearts bring forth in the morning gifts of awe and wonder and jubilation--that we might sing the praises of our God.

O Christ, giver of sight to the blind, open our eyes on the morrow, that we might see—not only the comfortable companions of our familiar lives—but also our neighbors in need. Remove from our lenses the cataracts of comfort and consumption, and give us eyes to see afresh the places and people and problems to whom you bid us go in lowly service.

O Christ, calmer of storms, of threatening winds and rains, speak tomorrow a word of peace—your quiet shalom—into any troubled homes and hearths. Where there is strife, speak a word of healing. Where there is pain, speak your calling to forgiveness. Where there is grief, speak words of hope. May the day be a balm for all who struggle in this life.

O Christ, present for all time in the Godhead, resident of heaven’s borough, break open our boredom and unstop our imaginations, that we might learn again to see the wonder and majesty of God’s glory—the livingness of our Lord made known in your life. May Christmas Day assault our spirit’s senses. Tune our hearts to sing your praise for all the ways you have blessed us with astonishing new life.

O Christ, lowly in your service to us yet Lord of all forever, we offer to you the Christmas Day now before us. Bless our homes with charity, bless our hearts with faith, and bless our congregation—all congregations!—with witness and work worthy of your kingdom and its goals.

This we pray for Christmas, in your good and lasting name. Amen.

December 23, 2008

Nothing Wagered, Nothing Gained

I find a get a little tense this time of year. I want to believe I’m simply being honest with myself. My wife tells me I’m just a Grinch. Could be. (I do know that if I hear Johnny Mathis sing “Sleigh Bells” one more time on my car radio I’m likely to commit a heinous crime.)

But it’s more than Muzak.

It’s these well-traveled “Christmas stories” in our Scriptures. They make me nervous. I find that Gospel readings are like small dogs: the smaller and cuter and more cuddly they appear, the more likely they are to nip you where it hurts. I worry that these gospel tales have grown so familiar to us that they no longer pop as they should.

For instance, we all love those wisemen from the East, with their Burger King crowns and boxes of bling, following the star on their well-known adventure. It’s comfy tale. But, my God! They follow God’s light right up to Herod’s doorstep, right into the throws of a murderous political machine that makes Illinois’ Governor whatever-his-name shenanigans look like kids’ play.

Is Matthew suggesting that following the light of Christ will inevitably bring us into conflict with the anxious powers of the world--when the boss suggest you cook the books, when the big kid suggests you all beat up on the little kid, when the neighborhood gossip group invites you to tear down the stranger. Is Matthew suggesting that God’s great light, while bringing warmth, also exposes darkness? “Be prepared,” say the wise men, “to grapple with all sorts of selfishness, sinfulness, and sanctimony.” What a narrative! And to this we say, “Look here, I just want to celebrate Christmas.”

But these are unsettling stories. Old Zechariah: He cannot imagine his geriatric wife giving birth to a prophet--or anyone, for that matter. So in response, God takes away his voice until John the Baptist is born. Lovely. Shepherds: minding their quiet business late into a third shift. Suddenly the sky is ripped open. Luke says, simply, “They were terrified.” You think?

And then there’s Mother Mary. Christmas would not be complete without hearing from good old Gabriel, with his soothing baritone voice, Canon in D playing lightly in the background, and 
a rose-colored gel softening the spotlight on Mary’s pristine face.

(Now you know why my wife calls me a Grinch.)

Yet my sarcasm is not about deriding Scripture, but about naming our propensity to domesticate it, to tame it, to turn salvation -- God’s dogged insistence that the world be set to right -- into a sentiment. We want to keep at bay this potent Holy Spirit that advances on Mary and turns her young life upside-down. We want a “holiday,” not a life-change, so we tend to plane off the rougher edges of Jesus’ birth until there is no more risk telling his story.

But this is a risky narrative, full of delicacy and danger: an unwed teenage mother; an intruding, insistent angel; an overcoming, overshadowing Holy Spirit.

Could there be in a sacred tale a finer line between disaster and triumph? Could there be a more dangerous announcement to young girl than an angel letting her in on the fact that you, Mary -- untutored, unknown, unwed, unsophisticated Mary -- you will be vessel for divine revelation. Could there be a more delicate venue for God’s activity than a young virgin’s womb? Consider it: The living God! Flying in low and under cover, sneaking into world under our radar, in the fuselage that is, of all things, a virginal uterus. (Even our English Bibles get in on the domestication. Note the NRSV: “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” It sounds like they’re having tea.)

Astonishing gospel! Dangerous narrative. Unbelievable God.

And yet what I respect about the Bible is its dogged insistence on presenting the story. To my laments of risk and danger I hear the Bible saying back to me: “You know what, preacher? It is a remarkably hard tale to swallow. We know that better than you do, in fact. But nothing wagered, nothing gained. Risky? Absolutely. But also righteous. And revelatory. Her little womb, a window into God’s way with the world.”

Pull up a chair in the delivery room, the OB/GYN office that is Luke 2. Take a seat and see how God’s living word brings forth impossible new life. After all, could there be any more provocative an image for what God might be up to among us than the delicate picture of God’s divine Spirit -- that same breathing, brooding Spirit present at the creation of all things, hovering over the unformed waters of chaos and nothingness of Genesis 1 -- that same Holy Spirit brooding over the wilderness of an empty tomb. (Did I say tomb? I meant womb.) Christmas and Easter … they start to look a lot alike when you begin to get their New Testament meaning: God’s love brings forth unimaginable life.

So amid all that is before you this week, amid wrapping and running and baking and driving -- right on the thick of your life, be it blessed or beleaguered -- I invite you once again into this riskiest but most righteous of confessions: Consider the dangerous possibility that the same Holy Spirit that brooded over the waters of creation, the same Holy Spirit that brooded over Mary’s waters, is the same Holy Spirit of God broods over these moments when we gather in Jesus name, and the same Spirit that broods over your bed every morning -- unbidden, unsolicited, but always inviting farther and farther down this Jesus way, toward the Father.

This same Holy Spirit hovers over your life, inviting you to consider what impossible new thing God might do with the pregnant possibilities of new day: those fertile but not-yet-realized possibilities for fresh faith, new ministry, living witness.

No matter what dangerous road God calls you down, no matter what impossible dream God invites you to dream, no matter what risky, barren wilderness God invite you to cross: Remember, God’s love brings forth unimaginable life. “Nothing will be impossible with God,” says the angel.

Our dangerous response? “Here we are, servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word.”

December 22, 2008

The Same God

Let the stable still astonish:
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, rag-wrapped laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said, "Yes,
Let the God of Heaven and Earth be born in this place."
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms of our hearts
And says, "Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth
Be born in THIS place."

Leslie Leyland Fields

December 19, 2008

Matthew 20:34

What a practical gift it is to rediscover your own contingency in God's sprawling cosmos of necessity. What a take-home prize, to stumble again into the penultimate status of your knowing what's really up with reality. Like Atlas before us, we are prone to carry around too large a burden--the shouldered heavy ball of our presumed omniscience. But we don't know all that much, really. And this could be the gift, not the curse.

After all, perceptions come and go with the day's winds, like snow that blankets one hour then melts away the next. Without some hard work on the inside, we inevitably see what we need to see when we need to see it. The life-lenses we presume are large and smudge-free are actually, quite often, rather compact and cloudy--the kind of view of things you got as a kid when you turned your father's binoculars around and looked through the wrong end. Only, if you didn't know you had them wrong-ways to your face, you'd think the world was simply distant and bulging. Normal is only lamron spelled backward.*

Most days we don't know the whole truth of things. Stumbling onto this fact is only a lurching disappointment if in the first place you imagined it was your vocation to run the world. Believing that the "reflection of God's glory" (Hebrews 1:2) can open blind eyes is bound to be the hardest for those who already think they can see. Otherwise, our contingency in the face of God's necessity is a true gift, the ground of our glad assurance. Thank the Lord that the Lord is not depending on little old me for a firm and final rendering of the day's reality. Most days I'm lucky if I get my eyes opened at all. In my blindness, the light tends to bend to fit my brokenness.

So of all the things "being saved" might mean, surely it includes being saved from myself--the tempting tyranny of my own little truths. (God help the sinner who confuses his sure faith with God's inviolable grace.) If I see at all, it is because I have been seen. My assurance of a reality firmer than my own is not finally bound up in my knowing, but in the unforeseeable promise of my being known.

People say they want to see proof of God's existence. I'd rather prefer that God envision proof of my own. At least when the looking moves in that direction, there is a good chance that the data is really real.

With deep gladness we rejoice: It turns out God's vision is much better than our own.

*To turn a phrase from F.B.

December 13, 2008

Psalm 37:7



I love snow.

I love that it sparkles.

I love how it turns on and off.

I love how it descends in slow motion.

I love how it sounds, crunching under my boot.

I love that my daughter likens it to mashed potatoes.

I love how one can long for a season never really known before.

I love how revealing one’s snow-giddiness in conversation separates the sheep from the goats.

I love how the world sounds, or doesn’t, when the snow has fallen for a time and the lawn is covered in mass and no one has come by in a while; when it feels as though the sky has unfurled over every corner of the neighborhood some long-stored-away quilt. Every yard a cot, tucked down tight for inspection.

Listen.

The world is padded in a way not so just an hour ago. Cotton. I cannot hear the neighbor kids. No howling mutts, no highway swoosh, no heat pump starts. And no news from across the seas.

A sabbath from their assumed cacophony.

I hear creation waiting stilly.

I love this sanctuary.

Comforter.

Snow.

December 10, 2008

Have a Very Daring Christmas

With Christmas comes four sets of familiar New Testament characters - some shepherds, father, some sages, and a mother. I suspect we annually underestimate just how daring their stories invite us to become.

This season, dare to believe that your otherwise diminutive position in the world matters to God. A chief challenge of modern living is the daily overload of painful world news coupled with the reality that 99.9 percent of it is beyond our control. I am not the president-elect, the pope, or the prince. What can I (we) do about a sickly Sudanese child halfway around the world? Yet remember the witness of our Advent friends the shepherds, working third shift on a hillside full of sheep. In a world of Herod the Greats and other big names, they remain nameless throughout history; yet it is they, not he, for whom the heavens are opened and God’s angels deliver their wonderfully disruptive news. “What’s this?” ask the nervous pastors and elders, “God is supposed to work through the proper channels! We have an appointment in the temple come Saturday, right?” Yet there is their God, alive and well out on the dodgy end of town, conscripting nameless herders into the ministry of good-news-telling. Shepherds? It’s a joke. Dare to believe there is work for us all to do.

This season, dare to risk public disrepute for the sake of some worthy calling. How often do we sense a divine nod in this or that new direction, a slight Spirit-filled push toward a scruffy neighbor in need, or some growing sense of call to bold new action in the world. But who wants to appear the fool? Who wants to disrupt the social patterns that have worked so well for us for so long? So instead we lay low, dressed in the warm sweater of other’s esteem. Yet remember the witness of our brother Joseph, who nine months from December finds himself in a real pickle: a pregnant fiancee and high-minded neighbors. But in the middle of the night, a messenger gives him a provocative invitation to move through the disgrace, not around it. God asks him to trust that some larger effort of goodness and grace is afoot--a ministry that will, in the end, vindicate all the public mumbling. Neighbors and their opinions come and go; the love-summons of the gospel remains for us all.

This season, dare to imagine that there is treasure worth seeking beyond what can be procured on Black Friday, or Cyber Monday. Here we are, called to practice a spirit-filled ministry in a time when Big-Box greeters are trampled to death in the mad rush toward “everyday low prices.” How much is a life worth these days? Indeed, these are strange times for us Christians on this continent: On the one hand, we are the very people who most know how to celebrate that the material treasures of this world are God’s created-good-gifts. We know the Giver and thus we name the gifts, so we should be the last people on the block who are scrooge-ish about material matters. But on the other hand, you and I make our profession in a time of hyper-abundance. Christians around the world must hold to this faith under a tyranny of oppressive powers; we hold the faith under the tyranny of Costco, Ollie’s, and Fuel Perks. What’s real treasure when credit comes (came) cheap? Can one find one’s life at the bottom of a bargain bin? What does it a profit a people to secure gifts for everyone on your list, only to sequester your soul? Remember our wise travelers “from the east,” who for reasons no one will ever truly understand, set out on a journey for some treasure more substantial than what already fills their coffers. In the end, even these elites from the east seem willing--wanting!--to lay down serious coin at the feet of an otherwise lower-class child on whom such astounding promises are attached. This season, dare to believe that you will find your God-given life in the unlikeliest of places ... like a Bethlehem barn.

This season, dare to imagine that the barren places in your life are the seedbeds for God’s next act of newness. Families sometimes falter. Marriages grow cold. Hearts are held captive, rubber-banded to broken events decades in the past. Our lives are a curious concoction of grace and wilderness. Is it any wonder that some among us come to the end of their ropes, unable to imagine anything new under the sun? Yet remember our sister Mary, the Christ-mother, whose understandable metaphysical doubt at the news of her pregnancy is met with an angel’s assurance that “nothing is impossible with God.” What a risky narrative we steward: an unwed teenage mother conscripted to surrogate the divine. It’s a tale so provocative it irritates “family value” hawks and fierce feminists alike. I say, let the scandal of Mary’s life-filled-womb rock us from our religious slumbers; let it summon you to imagine what impossible new thing God might do with the lifeless, wilderness places of your life. Don’t get hung up on the biology of her virginity (as the church has done for centuries); think as the Bible thinks: Mary the Virgin is one more willing-but-unable servant in a long line of Biblical stories wherein God makes a way where there was none before. It cannot be; it was. There was no life; there was life. He was dead; he is risen. Dare to believe there can be a bright Easter morning on your twilight Christmas Eve.

Have a very daring Christmas.

November 7, 2008

Thanks Be to God

November is, by all accounts, a month for giving thanks. Our neighbors know that as well as we do. (Let the turkey consumption and the requisite napping commence.)

Still, the holy work of being grateful is not merely in experiencing the feeling but in naming our particular blessings before the Lord. By analogy, what good does it do my beloved for me to feel grateful for her place in my life if I do not also regularly name that thanksgiving to her? Gratitude is only as good as its specified return. I imagine it is not so different with the living God (Psalm 7:17). As the old song urges, “Count your many blessings. Name them one by one. See what God has done.”

This is one of the features I appreciate about Paul’s numerous epistles. The apostle practices specificity in his thanksgiving. He names before the Lord and before his congregations the particular textures of his gratitude—the spaces and places in which he sees the Spirit of God loose and living among them.

We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers. – 1 Thessalonians 2:13

So it is, in similar fashion, we baptized folk are called to name before the Lord that which has blessed us along our way. It’s not only a November thing to do, it’s a Christian thing—year round. What follows, then, are a few samples from my own growing list of recent thanksgivings to God—gratitude about you, as a congregation, as I come to know you more and more with each passing month.

For instance, I give thanks to God for the wonderful music you make to the Lord week after week. In recent years, you have stretched yourselves—some reluctantly, some joyfully, I’m sure—to lift up to God praise that is as varied as it is vibrant. I commend you for receiving this effort, and for sticking together around a matter that would surely undo a less mature congregation.

I give thanks to God for the strong sense of “What’s next?” I feel among you, especially among your elders and deacons. You are not a congregation the seems shackled to your past; so many of you seem genuinely curious about what the Spirit might yet be up to in your midst. I celebrate what I sense as a holy expectation about the coming years. After all, I suspect God is more interested in our willingness than in our expertise. Those first disciples knew little about what was in store, only that they must go when they sensed themselves called (Matthew 4:19).

More concretely, I give thanks for our sanctuary—the look, the feel, the shape, the function. It feels traditional but not stuffy, open but not rootless. To be sure, a church is not its building, yet the four walls that surround a people’s worship and work is not incidental, either. Space matters, to the extent it helps and does not hinder our calling to be the body of Christ in this place. The first time I walked into your Sunday space (during an interview last winter), I was struck by how handsome, how Reformed (word and sacraments—front and center), and how well-cared for the room is. All this says much about a congregation. It is an honor and a delight to be lead-worshipper among you on each Lord’s Day.

I give thanks that this congregation is, to say it one way, a womb for mission. Tables and shawls and compassion are born here. It feels to me like down deep in the psyche of this place there are old, deep, missional reverberations that will not let this fellowship turn wholly inward upon itself. Key decisions in the past often appear marked with an impulse to consider how you might be, more and more, in service and witness to neighbor and world. I hear: Let the paint chip a bit on the Social Hall baseboard, let the tan tile in the bathroom go another year—there’s mission beyond these walls to consider. I love it.

Finally, more personally, I give thanks to God for the ways in which you have welcomed my family and worried over their needs. What has for months been to us a new place is fast becoming for us our new home, and your gracious “hello” (beginning with those blessed bow-ties) has helped to make it so.

- - -

As I was leading my daughter through the trick-or-treat gauntlet that is Waugh Avenue on the night before Halloween, I bumped into a pack of middle school girls from our congregation, hard at work in their annual canvas. Suddenly one of them had a revelation: “Hey,” pointing at me in fresh realization, “you go to our church, don’t you?”

Indeed I do. A fact for which I am most grateful to the Lord.

November 6, 2008

From Symbol to Service



I'm thrilled about what Mr. Obama's election represents in the way of race relations in this country. As a child of the deep South, I am especially mindful of what it will mean come January to watch a black family move into our white house. Were she still alive, my paternal grandmother would be mortified at the sight. And for all my great love for her, my feeling is she would deserve the lonely company of her own pitiful indignation. "Pride cometh before a fall."

Still, the proof of Mr. Obama's greatness will be in the pudding of his decisions. The only thing wrong with the current brand of youthful idealism that has bumped him into office is its hasty willingness to elevate symbol too far over service. Any among us who choke on his skin color should be called out for what you are, but social progressives can also be (unwittingly) condescending when they look straight through a man and only see their cause on the other side. Symbols don't save. Said Ms. Doolittle to the Professor: "Don't talk of love. Show me."

After 72 hours of happy celebration, let us remember that symbolic figures are only as helpful to the common good as the quiet decisions they make behind closed doors. Thomas Friedman, himself in awe of this week, is still right to ask, "Obama will always be our first black president. But can he be one of our few great presidents?" To his query I add my own: Will he call us all to do the hard work of rebuilding our country by tightning our belts, or will he let us continue to think we can live today on tomorrow's bill?

Given the terribly complex matters we face at home and in the world, what will matter most in the end is how Mr. Obama inhabits his new role, how he functions as a consistent tone-setter and example. Words matter a great deal, but only those who have never had to make any hard decisions out on the lonely point of leadership would impulsively, even if innocently, smother the burden of private character under the blanket of public cause.

Hopefully, four years from now, we will not have had to choose between the two.

Mr. Obama, we celebrate the skin you are in. Absolutely we do. Still, what we need now is sagacious leadership--red or yellow, black or white.

November 5, 2008

Advent Talk

Like many important efforts dependent on clear thinking and hard work, "theology" has lately suffered a bum rap at the hands of those who assume it is the sole purview of brainy elites. (A colleague of mine landed in a new church. About the previous preacher one member gushed: “He was very smart. I couldn’t understand most of what he said.”) This is distressing for those of us invested in “equipping the saints” for thinking and living the faith.

Theos = “God.” Logi = “word, speech, utterance.”

Put them together and you get God-talk, God-speech. Add “Christian” as a sacred prefix, and suddenly the church finds itself in a living God-conversation anchored in the life and witness of the scandalous New Testament Jesus. Good theology (talk) requires a brain, but loses its necessary humility if it becomes brainy. It can get along better when propelled by intelligence, but wisdom is the more necessary ingredient. It is aided by the professionals who write and publish, but their work never supersedes ours.

Good Christian theology is the primary responsibility of the same inimitable congregations wherein that faith is first lived. Like politics, it is a local affair. Theos-speech is that daring act of discussing within our ranks what the astonishing life Jesus just might have to do with our own. Together we steward a strange and wonderful story about a baby precariously born to peasant parents, tendered in a feeding trough while visited by curious herders, and promised for generations as the agent of God’s new life for the world.

Now there’s a matter up for God-discussion.

Good theology asks: What does this tale have to do with our own?

October 8, 2008

Soil Tests



They are like trees planted along the riverbank,

bearing fruit each season.

Their leaves never wither,

and they prosper in all they do.

- Psalm 1 (New Living Bible)

A chief challenge of the times in which we live is the reality that most of us are cut off from the real sources of our food. Ask a child from whence cometh apples and—no real fault of her own—she is likely to say “from the store.” Never mind the toil of those who labor in groves far away; never mind the remarkable yield of such productive creatures as fruit trees—doing their thing season after season. Fruit just happens in our world. Unlike in earlier generations more agrarian than our own, most of us (but not all of us, Mr. Johnston) are afforded no daily connection to its source.

The convenience of the produce section of Giant Eagle not withstanding, there are implications to this cutoff for our Christian faith. Spiritual fruit does not simply happen in our lives. Just as no famer would propose standing before a bare field and shouting “make fruit!” … so we cannot expect our lives to bring forth signs of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-25) without a proper planting, tending, and harvest. It turns out that modernity contains an ironic twist for believers: The more convenient the world around us, the more challenging it is to nurture within us a deep and abiding Christ faith. Last time I checked, Giant Eagle doesn’t carry piety.

Still, “those who delight in the law of the Lord, meditating on it day and night, they are like trees planted along the riverbank.” This is not mere moralizing on the Bible’s part. Think less of the psalmist wagging his finger at us and more of a disciple who has lived long enough to figure out that soil matters—where we plant our lives makes a difference. The psalmist can look back over his life and appreciate that good farming makes for “bearing fruit each season.” (Matthew 13:3-8)

Remember this background when your Stewardship Packet comes around this month. Without much reflection, we are tempted to look upon pledge cards and time commitments and the like as a narrow one-way street. “The church needs more from me,” we might sigh, scribbling down some hasty numbers. Turn it back in on Sunday, and we’re off the hook for another year.

But I invite you to eschew this flattened view of discipleship. Instead, consider this matter of stewardship as a busy two-way street. There is no doubt that a congregation needs from God’s people their time, talent, and treasure in order to do the ministry Christ is calling it to do. The arrow pointing from you to the church is clear and obvious.

But there is also an arrow flowing toward us. We need the church. We need it in our lives to call us to attention, to take notice of our walk with Jesus, to consider the soil in which we are planted. Stewardship materials are soil tests: Am I bearing any fruit? Am I growing or dying? Am I planted by streams of righteousness or by ditches of degeneracy? Am I cutoff from the true source of my life or is there living water flowing through me? (John 4:13-14) It is the difference between casually plunking a bag of apples down in your cart and spending a day in an orchard—planting, fertilizing, harvesting.

One of our Active Elders recently said it well from the pulpit: “God is not an accountant. God looks at our hearts.” This is another way of inviting us not to confuse the apple (our giving) with the tree (our lives). God desires our hearts, not our wallets; still, our wallets—perhaps more than anything else—will likely show in what kind of soil we are planted. Our fruit will tell us what is really going on with the tree, if we are open to learning.

Let us be open to learning. You could make quick work of your Stewardship materials and be done with it. That is your choice to make. But your pastor invites you to dig a little deeper. Let us all commit to take some soil samples in this new season, to remember again the source of our abundant life. Let us press beyond an easy, convenient faith to instead discover (again!) the “joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked … but [instead] delight in the law of the Lord.”

From whence cometh your fruit?

October 4, 2008

Hydration

Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. It will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life. - John 4:13



The vexing danger of dehydration lies mainly in the fact that we just don’t know how thirsty we are until someone gives us cool water to drink. Absent a good and deep well, the body struggles to find moisture where it can. Meanwhile, most of us have a tremendous capacity for convincing ourselves that we feel “just fine”—our outer assurance belying our inner starvation. A few out there imbibe whatever liquid will grant them release from their reality; many more are awash in a saccharine sweetness that, while wet, does little to sustain them. Some understand quite well that they are parched, but assume that it is simply their lot in life to whiter and die. Whatever the response to our dehydration, there is not much that can replace the simple, satisfying nourishment of water.

The liquid of the New Testament, liberally spilled out on a given Sunday morning, does not run far over dry, parched land. For this reason alone, it is reassuring to know that the spring is inexhaustible.

September 20, 2008

Notes for Jumpstarting a Challenge

Christian stewardship is, at bottom, the conviction that everything we have (our stuff, our time, our money ... even our lives themselves) are all gifts from God and thus belong to God.

Lots of people in our culture talk about "self-made" men and women, by which they mean people who have worked hard and pulled themselves up into success by their own strength and effort. We Christians respect those stories, but we do not choose to think about our lives in that way. If anything, we are God-made people: We are created by God, and whatever success we achieve in this life is ultimately a credit back to that creating God--who loans us the abilities and time, talents and strength to labor and love and live.

When you look upon your life in this way -- given by God, owned by God, blessed by God -- then giving to others in need, giving to the church's common ministry, and giving to efforts God nudges us to give to ... these become easy efforts, glad gestures. We give with a grateful, cheerful heart, because we know God is behind it all anyway.

So our theme for tomorrow - memories - is not really about memories, per se (like going to the beach, or your favorite childhood toys, etc.) but about our memory of God's faithfulness to us in the past. This includes the specific ways God has blessed you in your particular life, but it also includes those larger, all-encompassing blessings that are gifts to all of us even if we cannot yet see them as such. This world to live in; food and air and water; families to raise us; crops to feed us ... each of these, God's global gifts.

And of course, as Christians, the superlative gift that blesses us all (and which we remember each week in our gathering and sending) is the gift of Jesus as Christ. That he is a part of our history, our shared story, is our biggest clue that God loves us, that God wishes us well, and that this same God is willing to do what it takes to set our lives and the world to the right.

This is good news, because at 17 (or consider my Ella, only 4) you may say to yourself ... "I'm not certain I have any specific memories of God's blessings in my particular life." And yet, one could say that our Lord Jesus--his life, his dying, his rising--is a part of your memory, because through baptism and through your faith your are connected to HIS life, HIS story, HIS blessings. That's the mystery and blessing and burden of faith.

So stewardship (our taking care of the gifts of God in our lives) begins not with guilt (I guess I HAVE to give) or obligation (I guess I SHOULD give) but with joy (I know I CAN give ... back to God ... to those in need ... to God's church). If we think of our lives as solely our own, in that self-made sense, we are likely to be stingy and selfish. If we think of our lives as immeasurable gifts from a loving God, then we are likely to be generous with what we have. After all, we know it is a gift to us in the first place.

Consider this metaphor: When I was in high school, I might have been tempted to say to myself: "Geez ... my parents ... nothing but a nuisance and a drag with their rules and regs and expectations. I'm moving out on my own." But had I done that -- moved out on my own -- I would have quickly discovered all of those things they were doing for me that I had not really considered or taken seriously: food, roof over my head, an allowance, a sense of right/wrong, help when I was sick, encouragement when I was down, etc. It would surely not take long for the absence of these generous gifts, and the challenge of producing them by myself, to call me back home.

So upon moving back in, I would therefore be moved to live in a certain new way under their roof. I would be more grateful for all of the sacrifices they make for me, more aware of the costs they incur for me, more loving toward them and more appreciative of the fact that countless bodies around the world do not enjoy even one third of those gifts. In other words, I would seek to be a better steward of their many gifts -- both obvious and subtle -- that they give to me every day.

It is not so different with the Christian life. We are sometimes tempted to "go out on our own." "Who needs faith, what with its high expectations, commandments, and demands." But a little while on our own, absent the faith, hope, and love the undergirds our living, we are likely to come back to God with a fresh sense of gratitude for all that God for us on a daily basis -- if we would but open our eyes to see it.

So when we remember God's faithfulness in the past (as Israel is reminded to do in the Old Testament passage for tomorrow - Deuteronomy 9:7-18), we are again made aware of all that God has done for us, and we are nudged and prodded and called to live differently in the future -- with joyful hearts, with an eye toward those in need, with open hands and not tight fists.

Has there been a time when you took someone or something (or even God) for granted for awhile, only to realize the hard way that your life would be very different, likely a lot less, were it not for that person, that gift, or our God?

or

What are some of the specific ways you can look back over your life, and your family's life, and see God's gifts and blessings to you? What would your life be like had these gifts (people, things, time, etc.) not been given to you and your family by God? What decisions could you make in the future to make certain God know you are grateful for them?

or

Who is a Christian you know (in your family, neighborhood, church, etc.) who exudes gratitude? What do you know about their story that points to how God has blessed them? What do you learn from watching how they live their life?

Challenge us along these lines.

September 19, 2008

Tempest




Come, Spirit tempest. Move across our watery chaos,
bringing winds and water for disturbing your church.
Come ashore with righteous indignation: circulating
over our slumbers, troubling those firmer idolatries.

Come, Spirit tempest. Blow with Word-winds across
our complacent comfort. Shake loose from moorings
the lines of numbing entertainment; pry us free from
worship at the feet of Convenience. Unsettle us again.

Come, Spirit tempest. Scour our crowded lives with a
purifying wind. Prune away the deadwood of empty
words and easy sentiment. Gather up the life-litter we
so heedlessly overlook. Strengthen us for new living.

Come, Spirit tempest. Bring a howling, hallowed word.

Genesis 1:1-2, Acts 2:1-2

September 9, 2008

A New Day

A Psalm for Those Who Struggle

The night has now gone.
Another day has come.

In the anxious hours of the evening, I bore my soul to you.
I could hide no longer.
Even the darkness could not cover me.
Your word was heavy upon me—a yoke tightened with purpose.
The disparate elements of my soul could no longer cohere.
I felt your judgment upon me, your disappointment with my days.

Still, I opened my life to you, and you did not strike me down.
You heard my cry, witnessed my exposure.
You are—all at once—judge and redeemer.
I named my sin before you, charted the wayward courses of late.
Then I lay down in peace, unburdened.

And now comes a new day.

With the morning is a new beginning, one more Easter for living.
I do not deserve this gift, O Giver of all time and space.
Yet it has arrived, as sure as your history with me.
Help me to make the best of these unfolding hours.
Direct my steps, that each one will show your mercy.
Teach me to walk with a certain humility, grounded in your love.

The night has now gone.
Another day has come.

September 7, 2008

All Wet

“The water used for Baptism should be common to the location, and shall be applied to the person by pouring, sprinkling, or immersion. By whatever mode, the water should be applied visibly and generously.” Book of Order W-3.3605

Baptismal waters flowing down from above
Ubiquitous water. All over: a sacred mess
Generous, rich—like the grace it signs
A bath. Not a spot or a dash or a dab
Flowing freely, running liberally
Washing, cleaning, dissolving
From faucet to font to life
Marking and mending
Stained and sealed
Promise claimed
Welcoming
Home

September 6, 2008

The Privilege of Doing More

At 75, my father’s health is failing. It’s no secret. When people ask how he is doing of late, he tells them. It is what it is, and it makes him just a bit more reflective than usual.

I was recently with him for a week, and together we sat down with Richard Magg—director of our denomination’s post-Katrina recovery efforts—to talk about what Presbyterians have been doing in New Orleans this year. As we prepared to say goodbye to Richard, with a pat on the back my father encouraged him to keep up the good work. Then dad added, reflectively, “You know, it’s a real privilege to be able to do the Lord’s work. I only wish I had done more of it.”

From his vantage point, near the end of his life, he wishes he could have done more in ministry. From my vantage point, having watched his life, I know he’s done a lot. In fact, my father is likely one of the best Christian stewards I have known. He has always worked hard to provide for his family, and done well at it; still, he’s never had the sense that he is somehow a “self-made man.” When he tells his life story, it’s clear in his retelling that he knows it by God’s grace that he is who he has become. When he names his involvement in numerous ministries over many decades, you can hear a kind of boyish note of wonder in his recounting—as if to say, “I can’t believe I’ve had the privilege of being a part of something like this.” He’s always been generous with his time, talent, and treasure; quick to respond to a genuine need, great or small.

His life as I’ve watched it puts me in mind of a bit from our Book of Order:

"Those who follow the discipline of Christian stewardship will find themselves called to lives of simplicity, generosity, honesty, hospitality, compassion, receptivity, and concern for the earth and God’s creatures." W-5.5005

Indeed. Stewardship is about the privilege of being able to do more for God, for others. Stewardship is not primarily about fundraising for the church’s budget, even though supporting our common ministry financially is certainly one of our common callings. But long before we speak of your wallet or our church budget, Christian stewardship begins in our hearts. It begins the moment we look back over our lives and recognize that, were it not for God’s astonishing generosity to us, we would not be where we are today. Indeed, would we even be at all?

If one is truly a self-made man; if one can see no trace of grace whatsoever in her story; if the unfathomable generosity of God made known in the Friday-Sunday tale of Jesus does nothing to stir the soul or prick the heart—then I would say there is little to worry about regarding stewardship. You’re off the hook, because you are on your own. Don’t give if you’re not grateful. Otherwise it’s just a religious tax on your stuff, a burden instead of a blessing.

But of course we are not on our own. For baptized folk, the idea of a “self-made man” is oxymoronic. What I have learned by watching my father over the years is that giving follows gratitude. When I gaze upon what God has done—for me, for us, for the world—I am moved to give of myself, precisely because I know that the same Lord who has blessed me thus far will be the same Lord who undergirds the remainder of my living. I can give, precisely because what I have is a gift to me in the first place. Even the ability to labor in order to secure resources is itself an astonishing gift.

Those who come to the end of their lives and have the time to reflect upon that fact can teach us much about the decisions we make along our way. Will we come to our conclusion and regret never giving of ourselves? Will we face the finish line and recognize that we never really got started living in the first place? Will we spend our time and treasure on labors and loves that do not matter all that much from the perspective of Jesus? These are stewardship questions. They begin in our hearts, not our checkbooks or calendars. The first and real pledge we make is our commitment to follow Christ where he leads, through faith, hope, and love. Get that right, and the rest will follow.

Before you write any checks, before you spill any ink in your day planner, before you fill out a single pledge card … prayerfully consider what God has been up to in your life thus far. Consider what you hope to be able to look back on at the close of your days. Giving follows gratitude, and it is the glad privilege of those who have come to know God’s unfathomable blessings.

If ever the call to renewed Christian commitment and the challenge of Christian stewardship feels burdensome to you, remind yourself that it is a blessed burden. Remember the testimony of my father—and those similar examples in your own life. By God’s good grace, his only apparent regret in giving of himself in ministry to others all these years is that he has not been able to do even more.

May it be so for us as well.

July 26, 2008

This Ongoing Conversation

As I opened a carton full of packed-up books, as the first current of Lawrence County air filled the cardboard spaces, I swear I heard a sigh of relief from within. Or maybe that was me. As a self-confessed bibliophile, it is not too much to say that my volumes are to me like old friends. As such, I've been carrying around a certain measure of guilt about the more than two months they have been forced into squeezed stasis together, pinned up in cardboard havens like boatloads of refugees en route to some new world. Unpacking each box means, well, we are together again, at last, on a new shore. (Pathetic, I know.)

To say that my books are dear friends is another way of saying that each one, to a greater or lesser degree, is a partner in an ongoing conversation about the nature and purpose of Christian orthopraxy—for me, for the church. This faith we share is not a static, mechanical enterprise; not a dead commodity able to be traded as is. It is, rather, a living, breathing, audible exchange about life and love in Jesus of Nazareth, about adoring God above and neighbor beside, about being serious stewards of God's implausible mysteries.

As such, each volume on my new shelves represents one more voice that has contributed to this ongoing dialogue in my head and heart. To be sure, a few are distracting voices: books I drag along through this life because they belonged to someone important to me, even if their content has little to do with my workaday questions and answers. (From my grandmother Pauline: Spurgeon on the rapture.) Many in the collection are helpful on a some singular key point—a place to which I regularly return to reexamine some specific angle of this Christ confession. Still, the best bound conversation partners are those handful of preachers, teachers, trainers who—in print, if never in person—travel along with me on almost a daily basis. Their labors have focused my own; their lenses have colored my own; their voices reverberate around in my head as I preach, plan, and prod in every new season. These always get a shelf unto their own—some new loft with a view.

I feel for those pastor-preacher-theologians for whom this faith is a dead, stagnant enterprise. Though safer and far more predictable than the kind of hard-won fruit a robust conversation inevitably produces, still I think there can be little that is life-giving to a congregation if there are no other voices around your table other than your own ... or perhaps those yellowed, corner-curled notes from seminary—aged cues that long ago outlived their expectancy. One cannot expect to nurture any sort of living conversation in the sanctuary on Sunday morning if, in fact, there has been no conversation in the preacher’s piety throughout the week.

I can only speak for myself: For me, this bit of Jesus-news is a lively, sometimes unruly din of a conversation. It is as if some of my most helpful volumes beg to be heard. After all, to say that a man died under our weight, and that he was raised up from our burdensome demise, and that he lives and breathes in the same space as the One who casts and keeps all things ... There is surely much to talk, much conversation to be had about a confession with such starling markers.

While we celebrate when they come along certain moments of near-absolute clarity, days for making clear claims and asserting strongly old promises; still, for most of us on most days, ours is a living conversation chockablock with deep questions and tentative answers. (The answers are usually tentative, not because there is not Friday-Sunday truth to be found, but because we are deaf and dumb and mute most of the time.) One can—indeed, one should—spend the better part of a lifetime digging deeper and deeper into this strange and wonderful orthodoxy. One must gather around one's table, add to one’s shelves, more and more helpful and faithful voices as the months and years roll along—all so that this ongoing conversation is rich, and deep, and true.

Which prompts the question: Who sits at the head of the table? Who gets the best shelf?

I have long suggested to church officers in training that when we, the ordained, vow to make Scripture an "authority" in our both our lives and in the common life of the church, that to which we are committing is the bold act of leaving empty the largest seat at the head of our conversing table.

Metaphorically, each of us being a steward of God's gospel in print is not unlike a boardroom table surrounded by various inputing voices—most of which reside right within your bones. Reason is there, seated next to experience. Intuition is just across the table, looking straight on at history—both yours and the more corporate story that shapes us all. The life and times of your family of origin has a big seat at the table, as does the prevailing culture. (Their seats might be ex officio, but they are no less vocal, or compelling.) Feelings certainly have a say, as does logic; this is, if you can keep these two from scrapping with each other during the meeting. Gathered around also are trusted friends, public opinion, and—for many of us, at least—many aforementioned volumes.

In other words, every event, every existential corner, every necessary decision involved in our daily effort to be human … It all requires that we distill these myriad voices, each one vying for our utmost attention. This can be hard work; to a greater or lesser degree, each voice has its own agenda and persuasion. Occasionally, something is seated at your table that is so vocal, so demanding, it drowns all voices but its own. Such is life, then: a protracted board meeting in which one seeks consensus among a din of perspectives.

I believe, then, that to claim Christian scripture as an "authority" is to leave open for the ancient book that privileged, instrumental seat at the head of your table. "Here," we say prayerfully to the canon, "sit here. Sit here and speak. Speak clearly and with determination. Speak in such a way that you will direct and align these many other voices." When it works well, no other voice at your table is ever fully lost in the exchange, yet neither will any other voice leave the conversation unchanged. Reading scripture is an act of inclusive hierarchy.

I have long thought that having a prayerful, purposeful conversation with the bound canon is akin to sharing a conversation with your wise, old grandmother. If she is a woman of any virtue and grace, as good grandmothers always are, she will on the one hand make you feel as though you actually have some real part on the conversation. This is something of a loving trick, because on the other hand, when she speaks, the depth and breadth of her seasoned wisdom will swiftly convince you that your standing in the conversation is not nearly as important as it initially seemed.

You are touched and even a bit proud that she gives your callow ideas the time of day, but more and more you are simply happy to have her speak—to tell her story, to make her case, to lift the veil of her sacred silence long enough for you to hear what really matters to her, to God. She will treat you like a peer simply because that is her gracious way; in the end, however, you know that you are in fact not peers. By her grace, you are a player in the conversation; but by her wisdom she is the authority on most matters under the sun. As such, she deserves to sit at the head of your gathering table—a place reserved for her, not merely out of provincial respect, but because she has unequivocally earned it.

Reading scripture together; dubbing it an “authority;” it is a bit like that. The Bible will not scream at us like an impetuous child, but neither will it beg like a confused parent. We are players in the ongoing conversation—that is the grace; still, we leave for these ancient words the privileged seat the table. Those many other voices in our lives—reason, logic, story, emotion, to name but a few—they are not demolished in this ongoing conversation. We are not asked to surrender these gifts, only that we remain open to the possibility of their redemption along the way. They will not be silenced, but they will finally be subdued.

That is the surprising grace within this ongoing conversation.

July 22, 2008

Jesus' Ordinary People

Our preacher this morning was the Rev. Joan Gray, immediate past moderator of the General Assembly of the PC(USA). Her presence in our pulpit prompted in me this memory.

It was late in my senior year, and we preachers-to-be were all taken aback when our pastor-teacher encouraged us not to use the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Theresa, or John Calvin in too many of our sermon illustrations. On a first take, her strong imperative seemed counter-productive, if not heretical (at least concerning Father Calvin), but she was pretty sure of herself. 

She explained.

"Everyone already knows that Mother Theresa was a saint, a hero, the best of the best. The problem is that everyone in your pews also already knows that they will never measure up to the likes of her. They are not inspired to try; instead, they stand back in awe. They admire her from a distance, unable (unwilling?) to hear the call of that same gospel for themselves." 

It had never occurred to me that too much hero emulation in the church could turn out to be counter-productive. "Instead," she instructed us, "talk about ordinary Christians, everyday Christians. Testify in your sermons to what you see God doing in the plain folk with whom your path crosses week to week. Talk in your sermons about what it looks like to follow Jesus Christ on a normal Tuesday morning. Help your people to see what this faith looks like in their everyday, humdrum lives. That is the burden we bear."

It was good advice, not the least of which because it has stuck with me a decade later. More substantially, though, her directive resonates with the New Testament. Says Paul (who we might note is not so much invested in the self-esteem of his congregants), "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong." For Paul, there is no other recipient of the gospel besides a plain old ordinary sinner. God works in us, ordinary us, so that it will be clear who gets the credit for whatever new life flows from your story.

I'm certain Moderator Gray has a place for the great ones among us -- the Kings, the Mothers, the Reformers. Her homiletical encouragement should not be taken as a blanket disparagement of their witness. Rather, I think, she calls upon the church to thaw out its frigid hero-worship and exchange it for the more daring work of boldly imagining, week in and week out, what this Friday-Sunday bit of news might look like on a most ordinary morning day. Ordinary sinners claimed and called by an extraordinary grace. What does this look like at 10:27, Sunday evening?

That is the burden we bear.

July 7, 2008

fluorescence

already i have a preferred way into the place
not so much a doorway
a time of day
early
before shuffling and chatting arrive

the air hangs heavily all around
reposed through another night
i am first to agitate the dust
corners felt
tenuous groping
steps reveal a slumbering inside cavern

there i stand
alone
the space of this risky vocation
i
and dust
and twenty score of empty stations

all of it cloaked in some obscurity
tucked beyond reach
hidden in a still not-yet dawn

except
that curious corona
casting its gleam all about
like some great electric eye

someone has let him be
(again)

illumination
adjustment
i can see

o thank God

June 26, 2008

Bow Ties and Blessings

There is something about a sanctuary full of Presbyterians all (well, mostly all) donning bow ties that endears a pastor to his new church. Some were diminutive and others cumbersome; lots of clip-ons and yet a few really tied; most homemade just for the occasion, with a few dug out of the closet after many years. It was quite a sight: bow ties everywhere, as far as the eye could see. One young man was proud to report later that the tie he was handed at the door actually matched his summer shirt. Terrific.

It was a gutsy move, I suspect. Would the new pastor be blessed or bothered by this sweeping gesture? What will he think about us, clipped-on as we are? Will he get the joke, or will the joke be on us?

I can only speak for myself: Immediately, it was a blessing. What a gracious gesture, to reach out in my direction in fun and in love. What a brave decision, to take the lead is expressing a warm 'hello.' Some would have waited to see who made the first move; many would have held back until it was safe to advance. But a room full of bow-tie-wearing Presbyterians says much about a congregation's willingness to risk, to reach out, to bless and not to burden. (After all, it takes a person of unusual fortitude to don a bow tie!)

Isaiah 6: Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."

Bow ties remind me of blessings, and God making the first move.

We are saved and so we serve a God who has deliberately reached out and whole-heartedly made the first move; by a free act of grace, crossed the otherwise un/natural divide between us in order that we might be cleansed, claimed, and called. This is a God who does not wait for us to make a first move, does not hold back mercy until the merciless are merciful, does not avoid the risk of reaching out and lifting up. The seraph flies in our direction before ever we had wings for reciprocation. "We love," 1 John rightly concludes, "because God first loved us."

Bow ties and blessings, then. A congregation reaching out in a gracious gesture of welcome; the living God reaching out in a saving act of coal-cleansing mercy. The former, a great gift to this new pastor in a new place and among a new people. The latter: undeserving and undergirding life abundant for us all.

Thanks be to God for both.

May 7, 2008

From This Little Room

In this little room I put my pen to the paper,
To write what’s in my heart down on a page;
With every line, a silent prayer is being lifted
That the song will somehow find its way
From this little room, to your heart.

Steven Curtis Chapman


Over 750 letters in nine years. 434 Sunday sermons. 108 newsletter articles. 45 e-mail meditations. (You’re reading #46.) Numerous liturgies, lessons, and prayers. Untold e-mails, both sacred and mundane. Each and every one: a new collection of words and phrases, a fresh gathering of print and script, an attempt at blessing God’s people through lines of language.

And every bit of it, from this little room.

I am going to miss these four little walls nestled in the front corner of your fine church building—a sacred little space otherwise dubbed “the pastor’s study.” For nine important years in my life it has been my little nook, my crucible for concocting language, a cauldron of prayer, pondering, and prognosticating. Many a word has flung forth from this place in many a mode, hopefully for better and not for worse. I have been most grateful to occupy this little room for as long as I have; I am honored now to turn it over to its next occupant—one who will inhabit it soon enough, in God’s good time.

Of all the blessed muscles a pastor is called upon to flex, I think I may be most grateful for the opportunity to write to you over these years from within these four walls. The mediums have been myriad, but the task has always been the same: to write, to you, God’s people, about the various and sundry elements of walking together along this Jesus-way. It has been my great privilege to take a weekly shot at gathering enough words—and proper ones, at that—to point to and pronounce that Eternal Word that calls to us all.

What I know for certain is that I love to write, to shape living and holy words on your behalf. I cannot speak to the quality of my words. Nor can I judge the faithfulness of my writing. Both are a matter for God to take up in the end. But I do know that I love to do it, that I need to do it, that—more than any other ordained labor—it is the best way I “work out my own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) … and your salvation, too. To wonder, to inquire, to rebuke, to comfort; to dream and to hope, to vent and to pray; to wrestle with angels and demons … with only a keyboard, an open Bible, and my knowledge of your lives and mine nestled deep in my bones.

So, here at the end of our time together, I can only offer you my profound thanks: for receiving my meandering meditations in your already crowded inbox; for welcoming my Sunday morning proclamations into your already busy ears; for opening my letters and deciphering my notes and putting up with my poor speling … er, spelling.

Where there has been error or injury, please forgive me. Where there has been illumination and blessing, give thanks to God. All I can own is my earnest need to tap away on these qwerty keys before me, to write to you about this strange and wonderful gospel that has gripped our lives, to work out—letter by letter—my own feeble attempt at being a steward of God’s many astonishing mysteries (1 Corinthians 4:1).

And all of this, from this little room, to your heart.

I shall miss this space very much. And this is just another way of saying I will miss you very much. Thank you for listening and reading and receiving my words for some 466 blessed weeks.

That’s about 465 more than I deserve.

April 29, 2008

Doubling My Joy

Friendship improves happiness and abates misery,
by doubling our joy and dividing our grief.
Joseph Addison

Saying goodbye to this kirk and its people has turned out to be much harder than I had imagined.

I always knew it would be difficult. One doesn't put down a hundred months of roots and expect them to turn loose with hasty ease. But what has surprised me is just how strenuous a good goodbye can be, how much it takes out of a person. A colleague of mine recently wrote that "grief is the tax we pay on loving others." That makes sense to me right about now. It's probably why so many people in this life seem to "cut and run," because they intuitively understand that loving and just departures are hard work for the heart.

Still, it is a blessed work. If grief is indeed a tax then it is a levy well spent for me, a privilege upside-down, a measure of the bonds of friendship and partnership we have enjoyed over these years. Truth be told, I am honored to ante up here at the end. After all, my belief is that such bonds not-easily-undone are part and parcel of the gospel.

During my time as your preacher, I have tried to make a business out of preaching that very point: bonds with Jesus Christ necessarily and happily create bonds among his people. You can't have Jesus without his people, and 9 times out of 10, why would you want to? If there has been a text that has guided me in this near-decade theme, surely it has been 1 Thessalonians 2:8—We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us. (NIV)

I remember well the first time I became acquainted with this little sentiment, buried in the preface to one of Paul's major epistles. It was in seminary, in an upstairs classroom, around a table with several classmates and a theologian. The topic was "evangelism in pastoral ministry," and I had just been complaining about all the negative baggage the term "evangelism" carried for me at the time.

During my freshman year at a large university, I had joined a Christian ministry group whose favorite activity was to scour the campus dormitories knocking on doors and passing out tracts. I had joined mostly for the fellowship, but was quickly recruited for the weekly canvas. I hated every minute of it, mostly because I never could shake the feeling that we could have just as easily been selling dishwashing powder, or insurance, or drugs. It always felt to me as though Jesus—the sacred and saving Jesus that had been so interwoven into my life since infancy—was simply to us a commodity, one more product to peddle door to door. We'd gather in our monthly meetings and compare numbers, everyone patting themselves on the back for the "incredible witness" they were to their fellow students.

If that was "evangelism," then I had already had enough. But to my astonishment, our theologian—a professor of evangelism, no less—agreed with my assessment. He related his own similar experience from another era, his taking place on a beach somewhere. And when I asked in frustration what the proper antidote to all this was, he pointed me to 1 Thessalonians 2:8. "For Paul," he explained, "the gospel must always be shared in the context of genuine love, amidst growing relationships. We share the gospel; we share our lives. In the most faithful of circumstance, the two always go hand in hand."

I had never had someone put it that way before; moreover, I had never noticed Paul's little litmus test for proper faith-sharing—this little text, buried in the Thessalonian letter. Until that day, I had assumed that one had to throw the evangelism-baby out with the bathwater-experience of my undergraduate days. As such, Paul's expression of affection to the Thessalonian Christians was a Godsend to me. A new light turned on my in my theological head; suddenly I could imagine what, in fact, a robust Christian community looked like: As we share the news of Jesus, we share our lives—and vice versa. To paraphrase Joseph Addison: The grief we lay at the cross of Christ is divided among the saints who bear it with us; the joy we experience in the news of God's Easter-grace is doubled by the gift of sharing it with others. "Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery." Relationships protect the news about Jesus from collapsing into yet another commodity for selling and consuming; the gospel truth keeps our common church relationship from decaying into yet another run-of-the-mill human organization. And so it goes, hand in hand.

In more than 400 sermons over nine years, we've listened together to a lot of Biblical texts, we've collectively covered a lot of holy ground. But this New Testament theme—sharing with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well—has certainly woven itself into many a sermon on many a Sunday. As such, it seems like a fitting place to end.

I want you all to know what an inestimable privilege it has been to be your preacher and teaching elder over these many years, to be a steward among you of the good news of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. But I also want you all to know what a blessing your friendship has been to me and my family—your support, your concern, your responsiveness. On both fronts—preaching and personal—you have doubled my joy.

Altavista Presbyterian Church,

I have loved you so much that it has been my delight to share with you not only the gospel of God but my life as well, and the life of the Hawkins family, because you had become so dear to us.

I could not have said it better myself.

April 3, 2008

Impossible Resurrection

Every now and then people feel stuck. The circumstances of their lives, the sins and consequences of their own actions, or the inflictions of others' trespasses upon them create an impossible, immovable situation. A logjam. A roadblock. A room with no doors or windows – no way out. Stuck. This kind of thing is deadly.

And so the pastoral question arises: Can you imagine any way that God could be at work in this situation? Any way that God can redeem this mess?

Answer: No, I cannot imagine any way out of this. I don't see any way to go.

It would seem to me that for people in that kind of place, Easter morning is a particularly startling and happy occasion. In the most unlikely of ways, God chose to work things out for Jesus. The impossible situation of his death is turned upside by an empty tomb. And once again I am reminded that we belong to a religion whose roots lie in the odd fact that a man came back from the dead. If you are looking for a sensible faith, orthodox Christianity is not the place. Try the Unitarians, because there is nothing sensible about resurrection.

For some, the fact of Jesus' new and different Sunday-morning-life is intellectually too embarrassing to name, or empirically too impossible to believe, or socially too bizarre a thing with which to be associated. Fair point.

But for those of us "stuck" in places of deathly impossibility, cross and resurrection is the very power and presence of God. See 1 Corinthians 1 for more on this.

One theologian describes Jesus' journey to the cross as a walk into a dark room, a room with no doors or windows or perceivable ways out. The room's name is death. He took upon himself the sins of the world and it killed him. We killed him. No more and no less. We get together on "Good" Friday because it's worth sitting for a moment with the hard fact that he died. And for us, no less. (In order to feel the power and punch of Easter morning, perhaps we must pretend for a moment that we really don't know how the weekend ends up – a practiced naïveté.)

He died. And there the story ends.

[pause]

Impossible story! Dreadful ending.

[pause]

But then God does an amazing feat. Suddenly – out of nowhere, it would seem – a door appears in this deathly room. An impossible door, but a door nevertheless. It is a door through (not around) death and out to the other side, resurrection life. This same Jesus, dead before, is now restored to a similar yet better life.

"Impossible," you say. Yes. And true. The one true thing, in fact.

So let's be clear. Easter morning is not for the well ordered life. Stay home or go golfing (weather permitting) if your world is already well settled and well managed. Otherwise you'll have no need for a new-life-door and, by default, you'll have no need for Sunday.

No, Easter morning is for the lame, the paralyzed, the broken, the confused, the depressed, the stuck. Easter Sunday is for everyone who cannot see a way out of whatever room holds them captive—including that great big room that holds us all captive, hereafter referring to by the church as "sin." Easter is our morning to entrust ourselves again to following this resurrected Jesus through God's unpredictable door of new and different life.

Or, the put it Paul's way in Romans 6:

That's what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we're going in our new grace-sovereign country.

Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the Cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin's every beck and call! What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ's sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection. We know that when Jesus was raised from the dead it was a signal of the end of death-as-the-end. Never again will death have the last word. When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us. From now on, think of it this way: Sin speaks a dead language that means nothing to you; God speaks your mother tongue, and you hang on every word. You are dead to sin and alive to God. That's what Jesus did.

Blessed impossible Easter. Thanks be to God.

March 26, 2008

Resurrection Freedom

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him.
Luke 24:30

Whereas the three years of Jesus' life we know about seem marked by arduous decisions and heavy crosses (Luke 9:51; Matthew 26:39), his post-resurrection life is striking in its utter lack of difficult choices for him to make.

In his final chapter, Luke portrays our risen Jesus in three different settings. In each one, gone are the moments of arduously choosing the way of the Father, of fighting off counter claims and callings, or of grappling with the option of another way besides the cross and Good Friday. In his astonishing new life, there is now only the kingdom's way. There is no more choice to make! His struggle is over. His decisions not to exploit his status but to empty himself for others have now been redeemed and exalted by the Father.

So it is then that at the unspeakable empty tomb, at the famed Emmaus meal, and at Bethany's poignant departure, Luke's emphasis subtly shifts from the now settled matter of Jesus to the new choices facing his followers. The Christ has come to the end of his many crossroads; his followers are just beginning to set out toward theirs.

I imagine that after the resurrection to come, we will find that the daily decision to worship God and not another will no longer be demanding, difficult, or freighted with consequence. Our choices will come easily in the ineffable light of God's glory (Revelation 21:22-27). We will pray as continually as we breathe. And the current plea of the Lord's prayer – that God's will be done on earth as it already is in heaven, God's space – will finally and fully be granted. Difficult choices are a fixture only of this passing age.

That our will and God's will be in sync—this is both the goal and the promise of God's coming time. And yet the New Testament is bold to believe that the fruits of that future can be accessed even now in Christ. St. Paul urges us, in light of the resurrection hope, to be "steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." The resurrection to come takes the death out of our life-decisions even now (1 Corinthians 15:58).

He is risen! We will one day rise to bask in his glory. Even now we walk in newness and life. Thanks be to God for this first week of the Easter season.

March 25, 2008

The Harder Way

But Moses said to the LORD, "O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue."
Exodus 4:10

Occasionally, someone asks me how they can "discern God's will" for his/her life. That's a tall order. Inevitably, the prophet's words in Micah 6:8 pop into my head—a verse that was sealed in my memory during youth group days. "O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." (NLT) Over the years, this verse has invited me to imagine that, more often than not, "God's will" for us is less a strict, preset path and more often about the way we walk with Jesus Christ. In whatever work or play you choose to take up, wherever you choose to take it up, do it with justice, mercy, and humility before God.

Still, that's not what people mean when they ask. We want to know what path to choose, which course God would have us take, which route we should follow at this or that juncture in our lives. And it's a reasonable request, I think, as most of us will face more than a few difficult choices in our lifetimes.

I suppose there are the obvious guidelines for faithful discernment: Pray … a lot. Immerse yourself in Scripture, as what you read there will inevitably shape what you finally discern. Talk to people you trust; hammer out your decisions on the anvil of good, honest conversation with fellow pilgrims. After these measures, "wait patiently on the Lord" (Psalm 37:7). All of this is good advice, and I've both given it and received it over the seasons. The Lord will not turn a deaf ear to our earnest prayers for guidance (Matthew 7:7).

But still I think there is one other way for the Christian to discern God's will for his/her life. Faced with a choice of this path or that path, I suspect that the place Christ will usually call us is precisely the place that's harder to go. (I know, I know … this is not what you wanted to hear.)

But consider Moses, the stuttering leader-hero of the Hebrew slaves. Trying to run from his troubled past, God slips up on him in the enigmatic burning bush (Exodus 3-4) and summons him to return to the same Egypt from which he had earlier fled. Why? God has something he wants him to say to Pharoah (the superpower of the land, whose thumb keeps God's people from freedom). Something to say?! A stutterer? This is some kind of joke, right?! So, Moses protests … a lot. But God insists … a lot. God's will: Moses can no longer hide out there in the lonely comfort of the Midian wilderness. God's calling turns out to be the harder way, and Moses' must choose between comfort and trust. As Sara Groves sings, "I am caught between the promise and the things I know."

It is not that Christ somehow takes pleasure in our pain, or revels in the burdens of a harder path (Matthew 11:28-30). It is rather, I think, that Christ will not have us worshipping our securities. It is the will of God to keep us alive to his constant calling—our faith fresh, our responsiveness to the Spirit supple. Too often we find our sanctuary in the predictable routines of a rather settled life, not in God's sheltering grace. This will not do for a God who has audaciously set out to redeem the world (1 Corinthians 15:20-26) and invites us to lend a hand.

So, we should not be surprised when we sense a tug down a new, challenging path. After all, we bear on our lives the baptismal mark of a Jesus who is always calling his people farther down the path of discipleship (Matthew 16:24-25). The Christ way (and therefore Christ's will) often turns out to be the harder way, if for no other reason than along those Jesus-paths we learn how to trust more deeply in this saving-sanctifying-sending God. Moses goes to Pharoah; Jesus goes to the cross; we go more faithfully into our lives, looking for those moments when we are called to walk in greater trust.

March 21, 2008

Storage



A Good Friday meditation on John 19:42

Pardon us, patron of Arimathea, companion
of Jesus. We did not mean to trail on your
heels, intrude upon your generous committal.

Truth be told, we have all followed you down
this garden route, traced your secret path
down to this newly-hewn vault. Why? We’ve

heard tell of a given space for laying his body
down, and, well, it would mean a great deal
to us if we might take a look. We propose no

disrespect. We are not voyeurs, not gawkers,
not disinterested spectators. Like you, we are
his people, his lowly band, and we’d hoped to

see for ourselves this place of his resting.
What’s more, we’re hoping it is a generous
space, with plenty of corners for storing a few

items. What’s that you say? What are these
things we are carrying? Indeed. We suppose
these are why we’ve slipped here to find you,

slinking down this trail to his unlikely tomb.
You see, we’ve brought a few things with us,
some items we have cleaned out of our lives.

Most of it is junk, really. Tokens of our past,
little reminders of all the failures and fears,
deeds and deaths, sins and sorrows we sadly

cannot seem to throw away. Once we started
to dig into our cupboards, our many secret
places, we discovered buried there more than

we could really manage. These are all parts
of our stories that have no life in them, large
pieces of our lives that have languished in us.

We’d like to know if we can store these things
here, with him. We’d like to ask if we might
bury these matters alongside him, if of course

there is any extra room at all. Why here, why
now? Well, call us crazy, but we have in our
heads this strange notion: If ever there was a

place where this old junk could be put to use,
if there was ever a chance that this hopeless
stuff might be rectified, renewed, reborn—

surely it would be here, with him, today.

March 20, 2008

Another Lenten Prayer

I offer here a prayer written during this Lenten season by one of our confirmands—a seventh grader in our congregation who will, this Easter Sunday, be professing her Christian faith for the first time. It is a prayer applicable to all of our lives, regardless of our age or the length of our journey with Jesus. RWH

Dear God, Thank you for this beautiful earth you created for us. Thank you my family, friends, pets, and the opportunity to learn more about you. Thank you for food, shelter, and clothing that we have. I pray for my family, friends, and myself. I also pray for the people who are suffering from poverty and sickness. Please bless all these people. I ask that you watch over us and keep us safe. I pray that I will follow your teaching and learn from my mistakes. I also ask that you forgive my sins. Thank you for all these people who have help me get where I am today. Again, I pray for my family, that our love will grow stronger for each other every day. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen.

by Allison Mabry

March 19, 2008

Turning Sacred Corners

Elizabeth and I recently watched Waitress, an oddly endearing, sometimes bawdy story about Jenna—a poor, pregnant waitress trapped in a terrible marriage and an inexorable life. Mostly because her days already seem so controlled by others' infantile demands, the news of her first pregnancy brings her little of the customary maternal expectation and joy. In the months leading up to the birth, as she writes to the baby in a journal for expectant mothers, she apologizes in advance that she will be unable to bond with the child and, frankly, that already she resents the arrival of one more person who will take but not give. Whereas she had earlier considered leaving her controlling husband (who demands, "I want you to promise me right now that you will love me more than this baby!"), now she has to stick around and become even more dependent on a selfish spouse who is hopelessly stuck in adolescence.

Right up through the delivery, Jenna is the epitome of stoicism. She is determined not to fall for this baby, not to get entangled … that is, until she lays eyes on the child. "Oh my God," she says, as the nurse hands to her the latest unrequested demand on her energy and affection. As she cradles her lovely, helpless child, you can feel the months of resentment and fear melting away. And right there, the entire movie turns a corner: It is as if, in handing Jenna her baby, the nurse has given her a new vision for her life, and the strength to go and get that done. (You cannot help but smile as Jenna, holding her new baby, finally musters the courage to tell her monster of a spouse where he can go.)

Kerri Russell's excellent portrayal of Jenna turning her corner—fearing the pain, yet surprised by the joy—in a way reminds me of Holy Week. After all, who wants to give up a Friday night to come and hear again about the sad sufferings of a first century Jew? Who needs to be told even more bad news, yet another tale of a blessed thing ruined by the fears and insecurities of the powers that be? Who would cozy up to a story that ends, at least on Friday, in a heinous crucifixion? Every year, we Christians are tempted to pass stoically over Good Friday, holding our breath and hoping not to get entangled in the mess. (Let us note, however, that it is not really Jesus' death we fear, but our own.)

But then comes a corner, a sacred turn. You walk into church on Easter morning, and if the stunning flowers and the ardent music don't assault your senses and melt away your restraint, surely the strange and wonderful tale of an empty tomb and a living, liberated Jesus will. "I have seen the Lord," Mary exclaims to the others, and you cannot help but feel that in some real way you have, too. Even more, hearing again about the unfettered new life of Christ seems to have a way of throwing a new light on yours. Things once deemed impossible seem possible in the light of this impossible day. The faithfulness of God in raising up Jesus makes it possible to imagine the faithfulness of God amidst our own tombs—actual or symbolic. (1 Peter 1:3-9)

Concerned that Easter hope might lull Christians into a detached triumphalism, our 1998 catechism asks, Does resurrection hope mean that we don't have to take action to relieve the suffering of this world? Answer:

No. When the great hope is truly alive, small hopes arise even now for alleviating the sufferings of the present time. Reconciliation -- with God, with one another, and with oneself -- is the great hope God has given to the world. While we commit to God the needs of the whole world in our prayers, we also know that we are commissioned to be instruments of God's peace. When hostility, injustice and suffering are overcome here and now, we anticipate the end of all things -- the life that God brings out of death, which is the meaning of resurrection hope.

"The life that God brings out of death" … Turning a corner … A fresh vision for living … New life equals new courage. It is the stuff of Easter Sunday. For fictitious Jenna, it was a delivery room; for us, the sanctuary space long dedicated to telling this wild and wonderful Easter story. Maybe we should all show up this Sunday in hospital smocks, ready to practice our heavy breathing, ready for new life to appear. Perhaps the gowns would be a bit much, but know this: One good look into that empty tomb, and everything will be different. Together, we pray, "O my God." Together, we turn a sacred corner.

March 14, 2008

Lowly Entry

As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, "Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!"
Luke 19:37-38

Say what you will about Jesus, but no one can accuse him of vanity. Throughout his ministry, he regularly chooses to usurp his own status and conduct himself in a lowly, modest estate. Such a pattern causes the Apostle Paul to sing with the early Christians: "He did not regard his status as something to be exploited, but emptied himself …" (Philippians 2:6-7).

Near the end of his ministry, Jesus' final entry into Jerusalem was a significant crossroads, literally and vocationally. How would he conduct himself? How would he make his obvious entrance? How would he respond to the great attention his word and way had received?

Faced with these choices, Jesus makes surprising selections: A scruffy donkey, not a white stallion; common men's cloaks, not a rug of royalty. And instead of professional choirs or a trumpet procession, a chorus of rough rocks are his hired backup singers.

If God is indeed this Jesus' Father, then we all imagine that at his disposal is absolute power and might. But as it turns out, to the surprise of our impulsive faith, absolute power is not the greatest attribute of our Lord. His strength is in his weakness. He who judges us on high has become our servant down low. This is his decision. (Isaiah 53:4-12)

As his covenant people, we are derivative representatives of God's lowly kingdom as we daily enter the gates of our communities. How will we conduct ourselves as servants of the Servant? Will we exploit our status as "the saved" or will we empty ourselves and thereby demonstrate God's saving-weakness to all?

A blessed Palm Sunday to you all.