December 24, 2009

Welcome Christmas Child

"Welcome Christmas, Christmas Day"

"Fah who for-aze — Dah who dor-aze"

Of course, adorable as they are
and with all due affection for their creator-physician Seuss
we, here, are not the Whos down in Whoville

On the corner of Market and Maple this night,
perhaps our prayer is “Welcome Christmas, Christmas Child

Welcome child
While we stand
Heart to heart
And hand in hand

Christmas news is in our grasp
as long as we have hands to clasp

And what news, exactly, are we clasping?

Middle-aged Joe
Teenage Mary
commonplace Jews

who welcome parallel angels
that bring provocative signals
that hang providential shingles



a birth to be
an unexpected expectancy
a divine intrusion
an unwelcomed welcome

a baby messenger ... teacher ... deliverer
the well-known stranger
born for all, known by many, followed well by few
(surely not well by me)

Welcome, welcome, Christmas child

And so it is, then, we Who-Christians
all around this Who-world

when the weather turns chilly
and the days grow short in the month of 12
and the kids come home from expensive educations

we gather in our who-churches
and sing the oddest of who-songs
with the strangest of who-words

Silent night, holy night! Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace.

Christmas words, at once
familiar as the snow
right as rain

a refrain as orienting this time of year
as your neighbor’s pumpkin roll

And yet, upon reflection, their meaning
is as obtuse to us as the person they praise

So, on the one hand:

Welcome, Familiar Friend

After all, do we not see ourselves in this Bethlehem baby:

squeals and fits of life
naked before God

He is we. We are he, Seuss might say.

And so we assume we know all about him. Our Who-savior.

Yet when a little later he opens his mouth
his holy babble is not recognizable to our who-ears,
invested as we can be in our who-world and its who-ways

He says:

Just as the Lord has forgiven you, you also should forgive.
Want to take hold of your life? Let it go, for God’s sake.
Want to live? Take up your cross and follow me to mine.

What words are these?
What Seusical nonsense does he rhyme?
From what planet is this babbling-baby-Lord?

It may as well be
Dah who dor-aze
Fah who for-aze

Word now breaking heaven’s silence
Long-awaited, familiar stranger
Welcome, holy other

He comes from a place, from a grace, we cannot comprehend
His origin is beyond our telling
His purpose, beyond our control

Yet upon his arrival,
he looks as though he could be your cousin’s child,
from Greensburg
(Nice people, in fact. As long you don’t talk football.)

Welcome, confounding mystery

How can your Deoxyribonucleic acid be both ours, and God’s?
How is it you speak our who-language,
yet you know first-hand the one who is?
How are you both my brother and my God?

Fragile finger sent to heal us

Tender brow prepared for thorn

Tiny heart whose blood will save us

Welcome, splendorous mystery
Welcome, holy child

Welcome to our church, our homes, our block
Welcome to our time, our space, our mess
Welcome to this corner, this service, these hearts

Take your place
amid packages, homecomings, and fantastic fudge
amid sledding and sautéing and secret sobbing
amid new who-scooters, new who-boyfriends, new who-disappointments

Gather with our great Aunt Ellen
Gather at our great big meals
Gather up our great hunger
for justice
for renewal
for life
for all

Welcome, welcome, Christmas child
to this season of deep gladness
to those who know departing sadness
to this era of ambivalent madness

Wrap our injured flesh around You

Breathe our air and walk our sod

Rob our sin and make us holy

Welcome, child of God.

Born to expire that in dying we might live
Sent from high to serve down low,
that those bent low might stand up tall
Word of God now disturbing heaven’s long quiet

Your Christmas grace is within our grasp
Give us hands, and hearts, to clasp

Welcome, holy child

Welcome to our world

(some words above from Welcome to our World by Chris Rice)

December 12, 2009

Advent prayer

Break forth, O beauteous heavenly light,

And usher in the morning;

O shepherds, shrink not with afright,

But hear the angel’s warning.

This Child, now weak in infancy,

Our confidence and joy shall be,

The power of Satan breaking,

Our peace eternal making.

Break forth, O beautiful heavenly light. Break forth around us and illuminate the world in which we live. Give us eyes to see what you see, O Lord: a world broken, rent, in a thousand cross-like ways; yet a world, being reconciled and redeemed by your love—with a million resurrection possibilities.

We come to worship this Advent morning with six days of living on our hearts: 144 hours of walking in the Way while walking in your world. 8600 minutes is long enough to gather a week’s worth of intercessions, our fervent prayers for those we know in need—for neighbors, strangers, lovers, friends, coworkers, roommates … even our enemies. We pray for them now …

Break forth, O beautiful heavenly light. Break forth into the lives of those who are today covered in the darkness of grief, mourning the death of someone they love. We pray for all we know who are shadowed in grief …

Break forth, O beautiful healing light. Break forth into places of struggle and illness. Shine on those in need of healing and hope, cause cells to grow and hearts to heal and spirits to quicken. Shine upon those we name now …

Break forth, O beautiful Christ-refracted light. Break forth into the lives and homes and places of all those who walk in darkness—the darkness of doubt, of despair, of disappointment and dread. From the smallest family to the largest nation, where there is bad blood, bring healing; hatred, peace; resentment, freedom; wreckage of relationships, healing and new life. Shine your light, O Christ, in the places we name now …

How we thank you O Lord that we need not shudder in fear.
How we thank you for the angelic message of purposeful hope.
How we thank you that Christ shares our weaknesses
and makes buoyant our confident joy.

December 11, 2009

Nothing Accursed

And the one who was seated on the throne said,
“See, I am making all things new.”
-- Revelation 21

R. and her husband spent forty plus years in the business of helping people find just the right place—a place for shelter, a place for family, a place for living. After all, as they say: “Location, location, location.” I bet a great many of us occupy our places of habitation because of their guidance and transaction.

This is what I want to say this morning: We who have loved someone and then lost someone … We who have felt the ache of imagining the world without a father, mother, or a loved-one in it ... We who grieve … We are, in our heart of hearts, looking for – longing for – just the right place—a place of refuge, a place of release from suffering, a place for life eternal. We are in the business of hoping. Our hearts cry out to God:

Location, location, O blessed new location.
O for a place, for a time,
where and when God’s creation
and God’s children within it
are no longer threatened
by advancing time,
by encroaching tumors,
by goodbyes, untimely.

It is to those who grieve, to those who ache for another place, to those who struggle with the brokenness of the world that the news of Revelation 21 comes, a sweeping vision a place soon to be unveiled. It is a large, living picture of time soon on its way. It is, if I may, the New Testament’s best property listing. It is a sacred prospectus. It is a glimpse of God’s future, the precise details of which are beyond telling, beyond technical description.

Contra the cable TV preachers, Revelation 21 is not interested in vacating the mystery of how it will be. It is simply interested in the news that it will be. Not because we can explain it, decode it … but because God has promised it.

A new heaven and earth. No more sun or moon: God is the light of all. No more temples or sanctuaries, as handsome and helpful as they are: God is all in all. No more tears: God has remade creation, from top to bottom. In fact, “nothing accursed will be found there.”

No disease,
no departures,
no despair.

R’s baptism is the mark that she is sealed in this vision. Her profession of faith was her own indication that she was confident in this living hope. And so we name today the good news that she is bound up in this sweeping promise; she is already glimpsing the leading edge of this stunning vision; she will, together with all of creation, together with all the saints of God—not by their virtue but by God’s grace—she will be raised up holy and whole. And until then, she is held safe in God’s good care until it fully and completely unfolds.

This bold New Testament faith does not cancel out our grief, or sequester it, or judge it … as if, one either believes the good news or one grieves. Christian hope in the vision of Revelation 21 honors our grief, gathers up each precious tear, affirms every ache of the heart. Because, every lament is a prayer for a new location, every tear is a bold request for a new time, every sign is a plea for a coming time when God will be all in all.

In honor of her roots, we borrow four questions and answers Episcopalian catechism, from The Book of Common Prayer:

Q. What is the Christian hope? 
A. The Christian hope is to live with confidence in newness and fullness of life, and to await the coming of Christ in glory, and the completion of God's purpose for the world.

Q. What do we mean by the resurrection of the body? 
A. We mean that God will raise us from death in the fullness of our being, that we may live with Christ in the communion of the saints.

Q. What is the communion of saints? 
A. The communion of saints is the whole family of God, the living and the dead, those whom we love and those whom we hurt, bound together in Christ by sacrament, prayer, and praise.

Q. What, then, is our assurance as Christians? 
A. Our assurance as Christians is that nothing, not even death, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thanks be to God.

December 1, 2009

Out on the (Holy) Periphery

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them … -- Luke 2

Who doesn’t enjoy the Christmastime tale of the sheep-herders abiding in the fields, and who hasn’t dressed up a child in a bathrobe and towel for herding in a pageant full of cardboard sheep? The shepherds of Luke 2 are a holiday staple. Hearing their story again brings a sense that all is right-side-up with the world.
Yet God is turning the world upside down.

It must be so, if we are to believe Luke’s account that it is to shepherds, of all people, that the messengers of heaven make their explosive appearance. “God’s chosen fellow has come!” they sing out. Only, let us observe that this choral anthem is delivered, not from the choir loft of the downtown temple, or from the steps of the royal city hall, or on the stage of the popular amphitheater. The song rings out in the outskirts of town, out in the fields, on the periphery of the world’s typical attention. The first hearers of God’s gospel: third-trick sheep-tenders whose names we are never even told. Not preachers, not priests, not theologians. Shepherds. Sideliners.

It could be that one of the body’s finer attributes is the eye’s peripheral vision—the ability to notice the sidelines, what’s afoot off center. “Who’s that coming up behind me? Is that my turn there? Watch out … here comes a fast ball out of nowhere!” There is a lot happening on the margins of our existence, and, similarly, it is the account of Luke more than any other gospel that summons us to imagine God busily at work in the margins of the world.

Consider Luke’s cast of characters. Father Joe: a first-century Jewish everyman. Mother Mary: an otherwise unknown teenager from the lower ranks of society. She herself gets the joke inherent in God visiting her, of all people (Luke 1:48). Fisherman. Tax collectors. Hemorrhaging women and leprous men. In this tale, old women get pregnant (1:18) and even dependent children are welcomed in to the fellowship of those of follow God’s unlikely messiah (18:16). Luke presents us with a shepherd willing to risk the safety of the centered hoard to secure the protection of one stuck in the margins (15:4). This is God, out on the holy periphery.

So then, insists Luke, Christmas is a time for clearing our tangential vision. Rub your eyes and pay attention all-around, because if God is whimsical enough to dispatch a sky-splitting singing telegram to a band of third-shift animal wrestlers out on the edges of reality, then this God is just as likely to be up to something marvelous and life-altering out along the margins of your life, too.

Some stranger speaks truth. Some coincidence smells of providence. Some impossible dream will not go away. Some forgotten piece of your story jostles for attention. Some summons to serve keeps popping up in the oddest of places. Some hint of resurrection tickles your imagination. Each could be dismissed as the ordinary weirdness of the world; each could be embraced as the movement of God. Meanwhile, all the Bible knows how to do is to demand that you your seatbelts are fastened and your tray tables are locked, because one is never quite sure what improbable, peripheral means God might use to invade and heal the world, and your life in it (1 Corinthians 1:28).

So have the merriest of Christmases. He is born in Bethlehem.

Oh, and watch your flank.
We serve a sneaky God.
(Just ask the shepherds.)

November 1, 2009

Burst the Bubble

Come, ye thankful people, come,
raise the song of harvest home;
all is safely gathered in,
ere the winter storms begin.
God our Maker doth provide
for our wants to be supplied;
come to God's own temple, come,
raise the song of harvest home.

-- Henry Alford, 1810-1871

November. Turkey and stuffing cometh. Thanks be to God.

Families differ, of course, on their habits and hang-ups around the Thanksgiving table. But in one form or another, there is often a kind of bubble that hovers over the big meal: a certain pressure to keep the conversation light, keep it general, keep it not-about-us in ways other than who is hoarding the potatoes. After all, there is national politics to debate, football losses to thrash out, workplace woes to deconstruct.

(No bubble over your table? Then thanks be to God. No need for what follows.)

Imogen Heap has a nice little ballad about a child at the feasting table that keeps hoping (praying?) that her family will steer out of its predictable skid of holiday arguments and tensions by actually naming their love for one another. The chorus, her prayer:

It's that time of year
Leave all our hopelessness's aside
If just for a little while
tears stop right here
I know we've all had a bumpy ride.
I'm secretly on your side

My simple November charge is to burst the bubble, whatever it may be. Take the lead and take a moment to name the goodness and greatness of God you have known in your life this year. “Raise a song of harvest home,” Alford might say. Don’t worry so much about whether others will follow suit, or how they will feel about it. Just worry about whether you can trace the lines of God’s generosity in your own continually-unfolding narrative of baptized faith. And for that matter, go ahead and trace the lines of your love for those around your table. Sure, they already know how you feel. But they need to hear it, and we need to name it.

Bubbles remain intact in families because, by and large, we worry too much about honoring old habits of silence or protecting familiar discomforts. To be sure: No one is suggesting a diatribe, or a lecture. Merely a little testimony: that blessed first-person singular song of gratitude whereby at Thanksgiving one surpasses turkey-passing for a little truth-telling—the truth of God’s way with you, how it is that “all is safely gathered in” in your life this very year.

Raise a glass. Raise of song of thanks to God. Burst the bubble.

October 15, 2009


Speaking not as a preacher but as a son, and on behalf of my two older siblings — to whom I have looked up all my life – it is an honor to offer for my family words of remembrance about our dear father, now departed.

And, of course, there is only one appropriate way to begin: To make a long story short …

Indeed, the old man could tell a story — lots of them, and they could spring forth at any given moment. If you asked John to turn on the light switch in the living room, inevitably you would become the beneficiary of a 20-minute recounting of the time he visited the Thomas Edison Museum. “110 volts, 60 hertz!” he would explain, with that gleam in his eye. Even if you couldn’t care less about Mr. Edison’s preferred voltage, you had to admit you had a good time learning just a bit more about it.

Repetition was such feature of his storytelling that we often threatened to number his tales (1, 2, 3, and so on) thereby saving everyone a great deal of time. “You remember, number 14 …” and we’d all laugh. “That’s a good one.” Now, amid the silence, I suspect we’d give anything to hear him tell one again, in full.

Dad was a masterful storyteller, not by any formal training in the craft, but simply because he paid attention to the world around him—especially to people, and the funny things we do, our endearing folly.

His stories reveled in the everyman, because he was one himself, and he knew it. Everyday fellows like Otis, our grandfather’s yardman, who when told by his boss to “take the handle off the lawnmower and put it in the trunk” for servicing across the lake, Otis did just what he was told. Dad always said: “The joke was on Papa. He arrived in New Orleans, opened the trunk, and found – what else? – the handle!” Dad loved that story.

He also loved to tell about the man who called the local Cleco office with an electrical problem. “Mr. Hawkins, your company is sending too much electricity to my house and you’ve ruined my electric blanket.” “How do you know this?” dad asked. “Well, when my wife and I get into bed at night we get a big shock.” (This is a true story.) “Don’t believe me? You should come by and experience it for yourself.” (Incidentally, through a process of elimination, Electrical Engineer Hawkins determined that the culprit was not Cleco, but fuzzy slippers on shag carpet—plain ole static.)

Then there was the story about the two teenage girls at a Covington Presbyterian Church picnic years ago. “Mr. John! What kind of ice cream are you making in your ice cream machine?” Without missing a beat, the old man said: “Spinach.”

He told tales about the past, about his beloved New Orleans during the war, about presidents he remembered hearing on the radio, about the Army in Kansas and atomic bomb tests in Nevada. He had an insatiable appetite for history, biography, politics, and street-level philosophy. Jack and I spent an evening with him in St. Tammany hospital this summer, and all he wanted to do was talk about the 700-page biography of Winston Churchill he was reading … again. This hunger to learn all he could about the world around him has been bequeathed to his daughter in the form of a strong academic rigor and a fierce curiosity of the mind.

He told tales about machines: boilers and Buicks and Baldwin locomotives. Hear him recall the story of getting a stubborn substation back online after a hurricane and you’d swear it was a page torn from Homer’s Odyssey. He liked machines, and how they work, and why it matters. In the care of his eldest son, he has left an impressive mechanical aptitude, and a passion for it, and with those gifts: a strength of character to keep the whole matter of machines quite human.

In the end, however, the stories that loomed the largest in his imagination turned out to be from the Biblical narrative, and he studied the scriptures with an engineer’s precision. Just last week, his life ebbing away, he told me he was looking forward to teaching again the woman’s Bible study one more time. (Hey, my father was no fool.) He especially loved the Old Testament. He was fascinated by King David and loved to read about the old patriarchs – their blessings and their curses.

This summer, after a brief but endearing visit with dad in the hospital over Father’s Day, I found myself writing about Laban – an obscure Old Testament family head, remembered mostly for his final blessing.

Allow me to finish with these words, honest as they are about dad’s recent health struggles. I offer this episode as a testimony to dad’s best legacy for his children and theirs – a living faith in Christ Jesus.

- - -

June 22, 2009

My father has every reason to be self-centered these days.

His legs no longer move him from here to there. He is fifty pounds less the man he was just a season ago. His bones press outward under his dermis like knobby sticks in a pile. He cannot put on a shirt without ready assistance. He is dying, adagio.

If ever there were a time for self-absorption, for pity and loathing heaped on his own head, this would be it. And yet.

We all held hands around his hospital room — an impromptu sanctuary consecrated amid hoses, drips, and medicinal odors. The bubbling water in the little tank on the wall provided our only prelude music—its watery gurgle, a baptismal reminder.
We were all there, but it was drawing to a close, and it seemed good and right that we pray. I was all set to do my part as the family preacher, when suddenly a sacramental query fired across my brain: What if the victim here was instead the host?

“Dad, will you pray for us?”

No hesitation. He cleared his throat, moistened his tongue with a sip of water. The way he dropped his head to pray suggested that he would have fallen prostrate, would his body have allowed him the ancient gesture. His voice was strangely high-pitched, high up in his throat, as if suddenly he was in a different way, a holy way.

“Dear Lord, we just want to thank you, for your love in our lives.”

“Lord, you have been so good to us, blessed us in so many ways.”

“Father, we thank you for our family, for being here with us now.”

I broke the old rules and opened my eyes, looked up and across the room. The words came forth from his broken-down frame like a Sunday song, in an artful cadence not to be expected from a man who spent his life working square electrical equations and smiling on objective facts. They were not those overly pious words born of denial, those prayers we sling to God in order to convince ourselves. His words were more solid than that, more substantial. It was as though they had been waiting to be spoken for some time.

Midway through this Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, he turned the tables on us. He began praying for his children and grandchildren, including those not present. He blessed each one of us, by name, and by his grammar it was not clear if he was talking to his family or to God. I remember thinking that this was prayer at its finest imprecision. Over his grandchildren, he prayed:

“May God give you good health, help you make good grades, and work that matters in the world. May the Lord bless you as you raise your own families with love and faith. May God guide you in the way you should go. May you trust in the Lord always.”

This went on for some time.

The length was not so much because the old man was rambling—a preferred mode of speech, as we all know. No, he went on and on because he could, because there was time to take, because it was his time to take it. If not then, when? If not there, where?

It was a thing worth getting right, this prayer. It was one last equation to be solved. It was fastidiousness born of love. It was his Christ-shaped shot across the bow his stubborn demise.

It was his blessing, on the cusp of departure.

Genesis 31:55 says, “Early in the morning old Laban rose up, and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he departed and returned home.”

Ironic, really: Because of our concern for him, we had gathered to his bedside. But because of who he was – who he had become, by God’s grace – he chose to make the moment about us.

Goodbye, Laban. Go in peace. Thanks for the stories.

You looked sharp, you stayed tight.
You did good.
You got it right.

October 1, 2009


A resident of Covington, Louisiana, since 1979, John C. Hawkins, Sr. was the beloved husband of Lucile (Puddin) Smart Hawkins. He is also survived by his children, Dr. Sarah H. Ross (Dennis), John (Jack) C. Hawkins, Jr. (Diane), and The Rev. Ralph W. Hawkins (Elizabeth); grandchildren, Andrew Ross (Miriam), Ainsley Ross, Michelle Hawkins, John Hawkins III, Lonnie Hawkins, Ella Hawkins; sister, Mary Hawkins, M.D. of Flora, MS; sister-in-law, Lane Smart of Covington; and many cousins, nieces, and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents, Ralph and Pauline Hawkins.

Born in New Orleans on September 26, 1933, he served in the US Army from 1952 to 1954 and took part in the Upshot-Keyhole Atomic Test in Nevada in 1953. After discharge as an E-5, sergeant, he was a member of the American Legion Post 16 in Covington. He graduated with a BSEE from LSU in 1958 and an MAS from the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 1975. Employed for over 40 years in the electric utility industry, he retired from Cleco in 1998. He was a registered Professional Electrical Engineer in Louisiana and five other states.

He was ordained as an Elder at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, AL in 1965 and repeatedly served on the Session of Covington Presbyterian Church. He also served on the Committee on Ministry for the Presbytery of South Louisiana for five years and acted as Commissioner to the General Assemblies of 1977 and 2002. In 2004 he was Lay Supply Pastor at the 3rd Presbyterian Church, New Orleans. He also served at various times as Moderator of the Sessions at Carrollton, Berean, and Gentilly Presbyterian Churches in New Orleans and 1st Presbyterian Church in Ponchatoula.

Relatives and friends of the family are invited to attend the funeral services on Friday, October 2, 2009 at 11:00 AM from at Covington Presbyterian Church, 222 Jefferson Ave., Covington, LA 70433; visitation AT THE CHURCH will begin at 9:00 AM on Friday.

Graveside services with Military Honors will follow at Pinecrest Memorial Gardens.

The family would prefer donations to Covington Presbyterian Church.

September 3, 2009

Dazzling Difference

Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. – Mark 9

When the motel alarm blasted its harsh news at four in the morning, I immediately began second-guessing my ambitious plan to be on top of the mountain for sunrise. My spouse had no second thoughts on the matter, mostly because she had concluded from the get go it was a fool’s errand. Still, like groggy recruits at boot camp revile, we rolled out of bed and filed out to the car. At the top of Cadillac Mountain, now 4:40 a.m., I was astonished to discover three score of tourists strewn along the eastward rocks of the parking lot. Turns out we were not the only wearisome pilgrims.

We found an unclaimed boulder and settled in for the show. It was chilly, with a blanket-worthy breeze moving across the pavement. We must have looked a bit disheveled from the hasty ascent, as the man next to us held out his large open yellow box and inquired, “Cheerios?” (Nothing like toasted whole goodness at 1500 feet.)

All around us people were waiting, chatting about this or that: When should we swim today? Popovers at Jordan Pond? Did you call the kennel now that we are staying one more day? … the stuff of middle-class vacations. Each little huddle: a little world unto itself.

And then it started.

It’s a funny thing: I spent at least a week anticipating being “one of the first in the nation to see the sun rise,” and when it finally commenced all I wanted to do was look at the faces all around me. Those illuminated faces. Everyone, awash in the purest pinkish-orange I have ever noticed. Even my own little flesh-and-blood—already so vital in her toddler years—looked more alive than ever. And no one said a word, awash as we were in the stunning newness of another day.

What a difference the sun makes.

I like to imagine that the disciples in Mark 9 were not keen on making the hike up the high hill with Jesus. Indeed, when the goal is to seek the Lord, we are not always motivated to move upward either. First, there’s the hike itself, arduous and bumpy. But there is also the real possibility that we will be changed by the encounter—“bleached by light” as Mark suggests. That’s enough to keep a pilgrim down below, on the solid ground of “normal.”

Even so, at the summit, everything was made new again for Peter, James, and John—Jesus’ “Three Amigos”. Sacred solitude, up above the world. Engulfing light. Changing garments. And by the end, the divine voice of reaffirmation and summons (verse 7): “This is my beloved. Listen!” It must have been the case that the view from the top of this mountain affected their view of life back down below. Surely the vision of God’s beloved—illuminated, reaffirmed, sent forward—affected the way these fellows led their lives in the days that followed. Surely the bright light of God’s glory on their faces retrained their eyes to see God’s glory awash in the world. A new day.

What a difference the son makes.

It is for each of us, and together as a congregation, to know the grace of higher ground, of transfigured perspective. Let us regularly get up to a higher place—for prayer, for peace, for perspective. The hope is not merely for a reorganized to-do list, or that we would later put our shoulder more boldly the grindstone of life. The hope—indeed, the promise—is for illumination. We look and long for the bright light of the risen son, casting its gaze upon all our laboring, loving, and living.

Ready to climb?

June 23, 2009

Presbyterian Gifts

Rooted in Tradition ...

Christ alone is head of the church, and his example is one of service. Church leadership is spread around so that Christ alone is lifted up and honored in all matters.

Salvation is not an end unto itself, nor merely a matter of eternal destiny, but also a calling to humble service and loving stewardship in the here and now.

Baptism, not ordination, is the marker for ministry. All of God’s people are called to love the Lord their God, love neighbor as self, and to practice faith, hope, and love.

We ordain some to three offices needed to nourish, guide, and serve the church in its common ministry. Pastors, Elders, and Deacons exist not for their own sake, but to provide for the ministry of all God’s people in the world.

As the Jesuits have done within the Roman Catholic tradition, so Presbyterians have blessed the Protestant churches with gifts of acumen and learning, with a “faith seeking understanding.” Faith is more than intelligence, but it includes intelligence.

“The great ends of the church are the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind; the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God; the maintenance of divine worship; the preservation of the truth; the promotion of social righteousness; and the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.”

Growing in faith …

We are a Christian tradition reformed from the excesses of the medieval church, and in every subsequent era we are always subject to reformation according to the word of God.

Scripture and Sacraments are the primary means by which God forms and reforms us as faithful people. These are fundamental, and all other elements of worship are in service to them.

Though there is fruit in it for us, worship is foremost about the living God.

While our officers vow to be stewards of Reformed-Presbyterian way, no one is excluded from membership in the body of believers for any other reason peripheral to faith in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, to be Presbyterian is to be ecumenical.

One generation of believers passes on to the next its better interpretations of scripture (in confessions and creeds), but those interpretations are never equated with scripture.

"In gratitude to God, empowered by the Spirit, we strive to serve Christ in our daily tasks and to live holy and joyful lives, even as we watch for God's new heaven and new earth.”

June 22, 2009


My father has every reason to be self-centered these days.

His legs no longer move him from here to there. He is fifty pounds less the man he was just a short season ago. His bones press outward under his dermis like knobby sticks in a pile. He cannot put on a shirt without ready assistance. He is dying, adagio.

If ever there were a time for self-absorption, for pity and loathing heaped on his own head, this would be it.

We all held hands around his hospital room -- an impromptu sanctuary consecrated amid hoses, drips, and medicinal odors. The bubbling water in the little tank on the wall provided our only prelude music—its gurgle, I suspect, a baptismal image. It seemed good and right that we pray.

I was all set to do my part as the “family preacher” -- an office as ambiguous as it is honorable. Then a sacramental query fired across my brain: What if the victim was also the host?

“Dad, will you start us off?”

No hesitation. He cleared his throat, moistened his tongue with a sip of water. The way he dropped his head to pray suggested that he would have fallen prostrate, would his body have allowed him the ancient gesture. His voice was strangely high-pitched, high up in his throat, as if suddenly he was in a different way.

Dear Lord, we just want to thank you, for your love in our lives.
Dear Lord, you have been so good to us, blessed us in so many ways.
O Lord, we thank you for our family, for being here with us now.

I broke the old rules and opened my eyes, looked up and across the room. The words came forth from his broken-down frame like a Sunday song, an artful cadence not to be expected from a man who spent his life working electrical equations and smiling upon solid facts. They were not those pious prayer-words born of denial, those praises we sling to God in order to convince ourselves. The words were more solid than that, more substantial. It was as though they had been waiting to be spoken for a little while.

Midway through the Great Prayer, he turned a corner. He began praying for his children and grandchildren, one at a time. He named each of us, even those not present, and the posture of his voice was such that one could not be sure if he was talk-ing to his family or to God. It occurred to me that this was prayer at its finest imprecision.

May God give each of you good health, good grades, and work that matters in the world. May the Lord bless you, that you might raise your own families with love and faith. May Jesus guide you in the way he would have you go, leading you always.

This went on for some time.

The length was not so much because the old man was rambling -- a mode of speech he is fond of, as we all know. No, he went on and on because he could, because there was time to take, because it was his time to take it. If not then, when? If not there, where?

It felt like a thing worth getting right, this prayer. It was fastidiousness born of love. It was one last beautiful equation to be worked out. It was his Christ-shaped shot across the bow of his stubborn demise.

It was his blessing, on the cusp of departure.

Ironic, really:
We had gathered about him in our concern;
in his courage he made it about us.

Early in the morning Laban rose up, and kissed his grandchildren and his daughters and blessed them. Then he departed and returned home.
- Genesis 31:55

Goodbye, Laban. Go in peace.

June 14, 2009

High Green

Roll on, over flatlands, foothills, and bogs
Roll on, ‘cross gulleys, creeks, and channels
Roll on, past fields, hamlets, and boroughs

Shuffle through ribbon bends in the line
Blast over road crossings where they wait
Chug away from platform-stops, siding-rests

Roll on, from the brisk rain to the arid sun
Roll on, from headwaters down to gulf lands
Roll on, past the hulks of labor’s great past

Shoot by locals, shifters, sisters in the hole
Thump over diamonds and other rows to hoe
Squeal ‘round tight changes in your course

Roll on, keeping the pace and making up time
Roll on, with the seasoned and virgins alike
Roll on, with lives aboard as varied as the run

From one high green to another
It's your time to move

Roll on

June 13, 2009

One Pneumatic Year

pneumatic |n(y)oōˈmatik| (adjective) 1. containing or operated by air under pressure, 2. of or relating to the spirit.

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” – John 20:21-22

For the privilege of living and working among you these last twelve months as your latest pastor, I offer you my heartfelt thanks—even as I also raise up to God grateful songs. Albeit swift, it has been for me a rich and substantive year. Allow me a singular anniversary article in which to name three places of vocational gladness and three prayers for continued Spirit-breathed growth for our church.

I am humbled to be your Teaching Elder at such a time as this. Preaching in particular and the shaping of Sunday worship in general are the strongest burdens I feel in my ministry. So many of you have communicated to me your glad response to this emphasis, which has had the effect of confirming my sense of call here and prompting me to pray—fervent prayers for the Spirit to blow vigorously in me and in you, filling our scripture-shaped worship in the days ahead. Working with our worship staff week to week has been most stimulating for me, and I am so grateful for the competence and commitment they bring to every Lord’s Day service. Still, my most fervent prayers are for you, congregation, as we together worship week to week: Can we sense the Spirit of God in-spiring our worship? Where is the Lord sending us in scripture to grow in knowledge and wisdom? Do we know that pneumatic peace of God in the way those early disciples did? None of us can respond to Jesus if we do not know Jesus, so in every season of a church’s life its prayerful engagement with scripture is a vital concern. Pray for your preachers, even as your preachers pray for you. I am grateful to be one of them.

I am appreciative of the opportunity to be your Moderator and a Head of Staff, working with your officers and staff to equip this flock for its work. My interest in these two formal titles, and the fact that I refer to them from time to time, is not rooted in their potential for vanity but in the urgent function associated with them. Whether with officers or staff, my burden is to bring scripture and the Presbyterian way to bear on our common work of “equipping the saints (you) for the work of ministry.” Presbyterians have a wonderful tradition of spreading church leadership around, so as to avoid the personality cult or the one-person show. Elders lead the flock, Deacons serve those in need, Trustees steward our facility, Staff support and direct our ministry, and Pastors strive to imbue the entire offering with scripture and sacraments … all of this, with an eye toward blessing you to be a blessing to others. As such, it has been my privilege this year to ask all our leaders: As the Father has sent the Son, where is God sending NWPC just now? Where are we feeling the tug of the Spirit, the pneumatic push of Christ in our midst? What is the Lord up to in our ranks? I look forward to seeing how those sacred questions are met with Spirit-filled discernment.

Finally, as to relationships, I am so delighted to be your Pastor (the official title), one of your pastors (a collegial function), and your brother in Christ (a gladsome bond). You are a delightfully fascinating congregation—rich in a variety of persons and deep with spiritual gifts. The apparent simplicity of the borough in many ways belies the great breadth of your experiences, perspectives, and Christian faith. And so I might ask: Where is Christ sending you in your life? Where is the pneumatic push of the Holy Spirit for you? To what ministry within or (especially) beyond our congregation are you being called?

“Pneumatic” … filled with the Spirit … propelled into ministry by the wind of God. Grateful for small seas already crossed, I look forward to sailing with you through the next 12 months. Come Holy Spirit.


June 10, 2009

Look Back

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord, graduates. On behalf of our entire congregation, I write to convey our most fervent blessing as you make the transition into this next season of your life. Many of you have moved among this flock for many years, and beginning soon most of you will move beyond it—venturing to far-flung places for work, education, and—no doubt—much adventure along the way.

As you go out from us, we give to you this little charge: From time to time, look back and remember your baptism. Yes, we want you to remember your home church, your youth group, and the like. And surely in time you’ll find that a place like New Wilmington has a certain gravitational pull, such that you’ll be back every now and then. While we hope you do not forget us, more than anyone or anything else we want you to look back upon your own baptism. Remember who you are; remember whose you are. Your baptism is the marker of both.

To be sure, at the time of your graduation, your gaze is quite rightly fixed forward. Like a restless runner braced in a starting block, you are surely fixed upon your future and the new freedoms and opportunities that lie therein. It is a terrific time of life: looking down the long course of things now so spread out before you, this race you now run on your own two legs. What a gift, to be able to gaze out upon numerous possibilities. We know, because we’ve been in those blocks, too.

Even so, make sure that in every turn of the course you take a glance back over your life to see that truest of starting points: the baptismal waters, where you were first marked as belonging to God. Though you have by now outgrown most of the features of your childhood, by God’s grace there will never be a time when you will have outgrown the sign and seal of God’s claim upon you. Look back on this glorious fact from time to time—long enough for it to shape the way you run on ahead into the rest of your life. Commit yourself to engaging scripture, offering your prayers, serving those in need, loving your enemies, and rooting yourself in a fellowship of Christians wherever you may be. Do these things, not because you have to, but because you can. They are your glad response to the news that “you can do all things through him who strengthens you” (Philippians 4:13). Keep looking ahead, but also keep looking back upon the call of Christ.

Speaking for the entire congregation, I say for them: congratulations on concluding all your high school achievements. The peace of our Lord go with you in the seasons now before you.

June 7, 2009


Easter: God is always a step or two ahead
The angel’s rhetorical question to the women at the empty tomb – “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” – suggests that we serve a God who resides mostly in the future. God is neither buried in some remote past nor captive to the realities of this moment, but is always working in our future and calling God’s people to trust in his ability to make a way where there is no way. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8

Because of Sunday: Sing in Doxology
If our worship is built on the notion that God is master only of the status quo, only of the world as it is now, then our singing will likely be plain and listless. But Easter morning prompts us to sing in praise of the God who trumps the status quo, by fashioning new life where before there was only death. We sing in praise to one who is not bound by the Friday-dilemmas of our lives. 1 Peter 1:3-9, Matthew 28:8-10

Because of Sunday: Live in Hope
To be caught up in the mystery of the risen Christ is to live our lives in between two resurrections: Jesus’ on Easter Sunday; ours in a time yet to come. By analogy, it as though we play the “game” of faith on a field with two end zones, with two victories—one behind us, one before us. The promise of God’s “new heavens and new earth” gives shape to a life of hope in the here and now. Acts 2:24-33, Revelation 1:4-8

Because of Sunday: Take Courage
If Christ has been raised from the dead and is alive and present to the world through the Holy Spirit, and if we are “in Christ,” sharing a living bond with him, then we can have courage in ministry precisely because he has “overcome the world.” His reality in heaven is now our reality on earth. 1 Thessalonians 2:1-4, John 16:29-33

Because of Sunday: Stand in Wonder
From the vantage point of a strictly empirical point of view, belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus could appear foolish or outdated. But it could also be possible that the bright light of Easter morning calls into question the notion that scientific scrutiny is the only mode by which we can know the living God. Like Thomas, the risen Christ invites us, not to trump our critical thinking, but to transcend it—to stand in “shock and awe” before the victorious mystery of Easter Sunday. John 20:24-31

Because of Sunday: Sense your Vocation
The risen Christ greets the earliest Easter disciples with a word of shalom, then sends them out into the world inspired – literally! – with God’s spirit. For all the ways the resurrection hope colors our view of the future, perhaps the most pressing implications of Jesus’ resurrection are for the here and now—in our being sent into the world. Our vocation is shaped not merely by what we do to earn a living but by the particular places God’s spirit sends us as resurrection-peace-people. Acts 4:23-31, John 20:19-23

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Q. 46. What do you affirm when you say that "on the third day he rose again from the dead"? That our Lord could not be held by the power of death. Having died on the cross, he appeared to his followers, triumphant from the grave, in a new, exalted kind of life. In showing them his hands and his feet, the one who was crucified revealed himself to them as the Lord and Savior of the world.

Q. 47. What do you affirm when you say that "he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father"? First, that Christ has gone to be with the Father, hidden except to the eyes of faith. Second, however, that Christ is not cut off from us in the remote past, or in some place from which he cannot reach us, but is present to us here and now by grace. He reigns with divine authority, protecting us, guiding us, and interceding for us until he returns in glory.

Q. 63. What is the mission of the church? The mission of the church is to bear witness to God's love for the world in Jesus Christ.

Q. 64. What forms does this mission take? The forms are as various as the forms of God's love, yet the center is always Jesus Christ. The church is faithful to its mission when it extends mercy and forgiveness to the needy in ways that point finally to him. For in the end it is always by Christ's mercy that the needs of the needy are met.

Q. 65. Who are the needy? The hungry need bread, the homeless need a roof, the oppressed need justice, and the lonely need fellowship. At the same time -- on another and deeper level -- the hopeless need hope, sinners need forgiveness, and the world needs the gospel. On this level no one is excluded, and all the needy are one. Our mission as the church is to bring hope to a desperate world by declaring God's undying love -- as one beggar tells another where to find bread.

— 1998 Presbyterian Study Catechism

April 1, 2009

Jesus, 1x

Holy Week: Christianity in normal playback

Think of each Lord’s Day worship service we share as Christianity in fast-forward. A Sunday morning order of worship is designed to take us through a complete sweep of life in relationship to the living God—the entire faith, in 70 minutes.

In accelerated playback, it looks something like this: We are weekly confronted by the grandeur and grace of this God, which prompts our prayers for a broken world and our confession of our broken lives. That raw confession is met by a ready assurance that the Judge is also our Redeemer—and so we sing and celebrate that inexhaustible love. The world and our lives reframed by this grace, we are then ready to hear a fresh word from the Lord. It is a living word, brooding with power and possibility; we cannot help but respond to its call. And so we gather our treasures, we offer up the work of our church, and we ready ourselves to reenter the world and our lives with a new vision of what God is up to among us. All the while, throughout this weekly fast-forward, we draw widely from the breadth of scripture: a psalm here, a gospel reading there, perhaps a passage from an epistle to round the whole thing out. Scripture: here, there, and yon. This is Christianity, at 10x.

If every Sunday is one more stab at the complete package, one more race from start to finish, then think of Holy Week as our annual opportunity to playback Christianity at normal speed. One week a year, we slow down the narrative of Jesus’ life and ministry to its normal, proper pace. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday each in their own way give us the opportunity to walk with our Lord frame by frame through the divine drama: the humility of his service at the table, the betrayal by his friends in the garden, the pain of his demise on the cross, the silence of his death-absence on Saturday … the astonishing news of his victorious transformation on Sunday.

These four days are the core of our Christian confession, the building blocks we use to stack up the remainder of our belief and action as we do business with this God. Holy Week presents us Jesus, at 1x.

March 26, 2009


Friday and Sunday: Days of First Importance
The events of Friday’s cross and Sunday’s resurrection form the twin lenses through which every other facet of our faith is properly seen. We interpret our struggles and sin through his dying; we celebrate our hope and triumphs through his rising. 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Friday: The Mark of Commitment
Jesus interprets his own death as a sign that he is a “good shepherd” and not merely a “hired hand.” His willingness to enter death is a sign of his deep commitment. The good news of Friday is not that he suffered, but that he suffered. John 10:11-18

Friday: The Response of Fear
At a basic level, Jesus’ death is the culmination of his constant challenge to the ruling religious elites in his own faith family. They are fearful of losing their status, so they plot his demise. Truth shaped by love is always a threat to those invested in a broken status quo. Acts 2:22-24, Matthew 12:9-14

Friday: The Cry of Forsakenness
Jesus’ cry of lament permits and models our own crying out to God—a sign, not of unbelief, but of firm faith in God’s willingness to hear and respond. Likewise, the widow models tenacity in prayer. Judges 3:12-15, Luke 18:1-8, Mark 15:34

Friday: The Covering of Death
Paul draws on the language of Leviticus 17:11 to argue that God is the proactive agent, not the passive recipient, in Jesus’ sacrificial death that covers and contains our sin. The problem solved by the atonement of Christ’s death is not God’s (unanswered wrath) but ours (a propensity to spread our sin). Romans 3:21-26

Friday: The Ground of Sympathy
In his forsakenness on the cross, Jesus suffers the depths of human pain, thereby he is able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses—“tested in every way as we are, yet without sin.” For as much as Jesus makes known to us the living God, as a great high priest Jesus also makes known to God the struggle of humanity. Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-10

Friday: The Descent of Divinity
Jesus, from the heights of his status with God, freely descends on the cross to the depths of our plight. It is not his dying that makes him savior, but rather that as savior, his dying displays his true nature as one who came to serve, not to be served. He descends to us, that we might be raised up to God. Philippians 2:5-11

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Question 42. What do you affirm when you say that he "suffered under Pontius Pilate"? First, that our Lord was humiliated, rejected and abused by the temporal authorities of his day, both religious and political. Christ thus aligned himself with all human beings who are oppressed, tortured, or otherwise shamefully treated by those with worldly power. Second, and even more importantly, that our Lord, though innocent, submitted himself to condemnation by an earthly judge so that through him we ourselves, though guilty, might be acquitted before our Judge.

Question 43. What do you affirm when you say that he was "crucified, dead and buried"? That when our Lord passed through the door of real human death, he showed us that there is no sorrow he has not known, no grief he has not borne, and no price he was unwilling to pay in order to reconcile us to God.

Question 44. What do you affirm when you say that he "descended into hell"? That our Lord took upon himself the full consequences of our sinfulness, even the agony of abandonment by God, in order that we might be spared.

Question 45. Why did Jesus have to suffer as he did? Because grace is more abundant -- and sin more serious -- than we suppose. However cruelly we may treat one another, all sin is primarily against God. God condemns sin, yet never judges apart from grace. In giving Jesus Christ to die for us, God took the burden of our sin into God's own self to remove it once and for all. The cross in all its severity reveals an abyss of sin swallowed up by the suffering of divine love.

— 1998 Presbyterian Study Catechism

March 25, 2009

Convoluted Math

Christians have a funny way of dealing with time.

You’d think life could be a simple affair: Take each day as it comes, think only about today, make meaning from the time you are in. Easy enough, yes?

But not us. No, we’re terribly complicated people, we ecclesiastical eccentrics. We are hard folk to understand. Our meaning-making is a constant act of convolution—backwards and forwards; looking back, looking ahead. One goes to church to hear a good word for today, but the preacher spends most of her 20 minutes dabbling in 1900 year old stories, or he talks on and on about some time still to come, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” It must drive our neighbors mad, what with our heads always either stuck in an ancient book or off in some picturesque future.

But this is how it works in the fellowship of those who walk in the Jesus way. We make meaning for the moment by first making sense of God’s past, which then begs our imagination of the future, a future that inevitably presses upon the present with its gravitational pull. (See what I mean? Bonkers.)

Scripture teaches us to take our best shot at what God might be up to with our today by playing back the narrative of what God has been up to in our past, which is the ground for imagining what God will be up to in the future ... in the light of which we live today. (Check out something like Joshua 4 for how this works. “Remember: God made a way across this river. Imagine: There will come a time when your kids will inquire. Therefore: Pick up some sacramental rocks and walk on.)

It’s canonical algebra: God did x. God has promised to do z. So get busy today doing y. Turns out x = z = y.

This is why your grandmothers and/or your Sunday School teachers wanted you to learn your 12 tribes, your 10 commandments, and your 12 apostles (and in each case, the narrative that cradles them). The stuff of the canonical narrative is the raw material for rightly imagining a God-shaped future, the frame of which brackets the day now before us.

He died/was raised. He will appear again. Live in-between, live now. X = Z = Y.

Ludicrous from the outside looking in. Life-giving from the inside living out.

March 1, 2009

Tell Me More, Grandmother

On stretching our ability to listen to Scripture

On the hunt for a specific answer to a particular dilemma? Sometimes it can feel as though the Bible elicits from you more frustration than faith. Maybe you are continually vexed by a troublesome in-law. You look up “in-laws” in the small concordance or index in the back of your study Bible. Likely you’ll get a few “hits,” and perhaps some of the verses noted shed some diffuse light on your situation. (If nothing else, you’ll get a chuckle out of reading about some of the more interesting in-laws of antiquity, like Moses’ father-in-law: quick with the advice in Exodus 18.)

But sometimes even when your topic-of-need appears in the Bible, none of the cited verses hit you square between the eyes. They are not far off, perhaps, but they are not spot on, either. So you set down your Bible with a sigh, having hoped that in clear tones it would simply tell you what to do the next time your mother-in-law comments on the relative cleanliness of your living room. (Why can’t she just keep quiet?)

If there is a downside to the mass production of personal Bibles in the last century, it may be the prevalent notion that the Bible can readily answer all of our immediate life questions when we need it to. (Remember those black “8 ball” toys from a generation ago? Ask it a question, shake it up, and see what answer floats to the top of its murky interior. How handy!) Yet a hasty scramble through the Bible to look up quick wisdom about “money” or “fear” or “other religions” often plunks you down in the middle of some strange narrative that calls for more setup and study than you have time.

In 15 years of teaching adult Sunday School and Bible studies, I have noticed that the most helpful sections of many a person’s Bible seem to be the study notes and sidebar mini-commentaries found in numerous recent versions. It’s an understandable trend: At least these notes, written in this century, go a ways toward making the Bible more relevant to our workaday lives. When I graduated from high school, the Ladies Circle of my church gave us each a book of “Precious Bible Promises”—individual verses plucked from their context and arranged by relevant life-topic (peace, promiscuity, prayer, etc.). It was a lovely gesture, but such books send a not-so-subtle message: By its crude self—unaided, unedited—the Bible will frustrate your quick search for solutions.

To be clear, there are solid answers to our problems in the Bible. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,” Jesus counsels us in Matthew 6 … “what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” He’s right, of course, and his words surely place our current problems, whatever they are, in better perspective. (I remember a certain night when, as a much younger man, I was wrestling with a rather poor decision in my past. I hastily flipped open a nearby Bible and randomly discovered for the first time Psalm 32, with its summons to confession and its assurance of God’s lasting pardon. It was exactly what I needed.) Aided by the Holy Spirit, the Bible will do its best to be there for us when we need it. (Psalm 124)

But what about those moments when it is not, when it feels like your questions and its answers are not synced up, not on the same page? What about when it feels like you and the Bible are in two different conversations? (Psalm 10) More precisely, how can we stretch our ability to listen more closely to scripture, to balance our ways of asking with its way of answering? How can we be present to it, even as we hope it will be present to us?

Consider your grandmother.

If you are (or were) lucky enough to have a wise and thoughtful grandparent, from time to time you would likely go to her for some practical advice. “Grandma, I have to decide if I want to play basketball or be in the band. Why can’t I do both? What should I do?” If she loves you and wishes you well, she’ll probably make some helpful suggestions—this, despite that fact that she knows little about basketballs or bassoons. Indeed, for a child, a good grandparent is a sturdy, fixed point in a fast-paced, haggard world. One can always be counted on in a pinch. So over the years, you come and go from her house—in from one event, off to another, with brief chatting in between. And all the while she’s there, ready to hear all about the trials and tribulations of being a modern kid. Graciously, she’s even willing to sprinkle some of her sagacity over the life and times of your story. (Proverbs 2:1-15)

Now on the one hand, you could look upon her as merely someone who will always give advice and counsel when you need it. You could see her as existing mostly for you, and not expect much more from your relationship. It’s likely she won’t complain about this, because at least this way she gets to see you once and awhile.

But on the other hand, what would happen if one afternoon you lingered in her living room long enough to stoke her story, to hear her tale? “Grandma, tell me what it was like when you were a kid.” Or maybe in response to some odd piece of counsel she gives you, you ask, “Grandma, how can do you feel that way? That’s not quite the answer I need. I don’t understand how you could see it that way.”

Inevitably, a narrative begins.

“It was 1933, and my parents were broke. Back then, you see, people had to struggle to make ends meet. Why, we didn’t even own a car until …” What follows is more of her story than you’ve ever heard before. And the more she tells, the more a new world begins to take shape in your imagination. As she tells you about war, the price of meat, and walking to school both ways, it is as though some portal opens to a strange time, to some distant country, some other world. “When the sirens went off at night, we all had to go to the basement and wait for them to stop.”

If nothing else, before long, there is a twinge in your tummy that signals a new truth: Maybe you don’t know quite as much as you thought you knew. Maybe your life-questions, though still pressing, are not quite as urgent as they seemed an hour ago.

Eventually, she brings the whole story back to your situation. “So you see, that’s why I think the way I do, why I feel the way I feel. But of course you have to make this decision for yourself.” Learning to listen to the Bible is like this: The more we appreciate its own story, the more our questions are reshaped to hear its answers.

So, yes, go to the Bible with your urgent questions and vexations. In moments of confusion and doubt, pray for illumination and trust that the Holy Spirit will meet you somewhere in the pages of your gold-leafed Bible from Barnes & Noble. It will be so.

But your Teaching Elder invites you to stretch your ability to listen to Scripture on its own terms. One can search for plausible answers in its pages, yes; but we can also search for the proper questions. Aided by the Holy Spirit and furthered by our patience, over time the Bible will teach us how to listen as it speaks to us in its own terms. Truth be told, the Bible is less interested in making itself relevant to our world than we care to admit. It wants to name another world, another reality. It wants to tell its own story on its own terms, in its own time. It startles us by asking us in our search, “How relevant are you to me?” (Mark 10:17-22)

Here’s how it seems to work: You run to the Bible for help with this or that quandary. “Absolutely. Glad to help out,” say its pages. “Nice to see you again. Pull up a chair. Let’s see … where to begin? Ah yes, here we are: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people …”

At this point, the restless, impetuous pilgrim interrupts the conversation. “What? This has nothing to do with my situation! Forget it.” A pregnant pause commences, after which I can imagine the Bible looking back across the table in knowing confusion. “But you wanted to know how best to solve your problem. This is how. It begins here.” It begins in some strange narrative. (Mark 1:1, Luke 1:1-4, John 1:1-18)

If you’ve stuck with me this long, my contention is this: In the way that taking the time to hear your grandmother’s story on its own terms brings her person and advice to life, similarly, learning to listen to the Bible on its own terms brings its Creator and counsel to life in us. It will assist in solving our personal problems, but it will not let those problems dictate how its truth is to be told.

After all, at the end of all our quests for counsel is a call to conversion. For as much as we need solutions, we also need a savior: the truth of an eternal God enfleshed in our not-so-eternal midst. When Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” he’s not just giving preachers fodder for sermons on other religions. It is his way of saying that the solutions we seek, the counsel we crave, the advice for which we grope in the pages of scripture is more alive than we could ever imagine. The answer is animated, alive … arisen! It is so alive, in fact, that it will even transform our questions, even turn our quest for advice on its head. It turns out that we belong to a living law, an enfleshed answer, a risen reason for our living. The patient pilgrim traveling these pages comes to see that our lives and our problems will never fully find their proper perspective until we are immersed in his life and his promises. “Take up your cross and follow me,” says Jesus, as if to announce that only in following down his path to Sunday will our Friday challenges make any sense.

The Methodist bishop William Willimon makes this claim more baldly than I:

The Bible intends to be more for us than just a book of rules, a repository of helpful principles for better living. Attempts to use the Bible like that are bound to be frustrated by the nature of the Bible’s way with the truth. Scripture is an attempt to construct a new world, to stoke, fund and fuel our imaginations. The Bible is an ongoing debate about what is real and who is in charge and where we’re all headed. So the person who emerged from church one Sunday muttering, “That’s the trouble with you preachers. You just never speak to anything that relates to my world,” makes a good point. To which the Bible replies, “How on earth did you get the idea that I want to speak to your world? I want to rock, remake, deconstruct and rework your world!”

So when someone says that Scripture is impractical and unrealistic, tell them that what they probably mean is that Scripture is difficult and demanding. When we read Scripture, allowing it to have its authoritative way with us, submitting to its peculiar way of naming the world, we are being changed, transformed, sanctified in the hearing. God is breathing an enlivening Holy Spirit upon us, Jesus is speaking directly to us, and a new world is being created by the Word. It’s Genesis 1 all over again.

Thus when we read Scripture, we’re not simply to ask, “Does this make sense to me?” or “How can I use this to make my life less miserable?” but rather we are to ask, “How would I have to be changed in order to make this Scripture work?” Every text is a potential invitation to conversion, transformation, and growth in grace.

“How would I have to be changed in order to make this Scripture work?” That’s learning to listen to the Bible on its own terns. By analogy, it’s like asking, “How do I need to grow up in order to be more like my grandmother?” You came to her mostly to hit her up for some advice; you leave her with a fresh vision of another world, and a summons to see your own reality in a new light. So it is with scripture. It will answer some of our questions, to be sure. But the Bible does its best work in reorienting our questions and transforming our lives. (Luke 24:5)

This is why our sustained reading and studying of scripture are so vital to our growth as God’s people. One has to spend enough time with its way of speaking for it to do its long, slow thing—for it to have its way with our vexing questions and our cherished assumptions. Sunday morning classes, Bible study groups, sermons in worship, and our own personal Scripture engagement during week are all at their best when they stretch our scripture-listening capacities. These appointments with the Bible are God-breathed to the extent that they slow us down long enough to linger a while in the living room of our Lord. “Tell me more,” you might say to your grandmother as she spins her vivid tales. And to the Bible we collectively say show us more. “Teach us to see what you see, teach us to hear what you hear.” With the turn of every page, our prayer becomes that of those seekers in John 12:21 – “We wish to see Jesus.”

February 6, 2009


More and more as the years roll along, I find my best energy for pastoral ministry wells up from two primary pools of labor. The first is the planning and leading of Lord’s Day worship, especially the preaching of scripture and the sharing of the sacraments--both with an eye toward empowering a congregation for Christ’s ministry in the world. The second pool is the ongoing development of leaders from among a church’s ranks--equipping the church for its ministry by equipping its officers to lead in that ministry. “Presbyterian” (led by elders) is a great way to be a church, precisely because it’s setup of pastors and officers leading together provides for a church’s growth and prevents it from becoming a one-person show or, worse, a cult of personality. We share in leadership just as we share in ministry--both, stoked and steered by the Holy Spirit.

January 29, 2009


A handful of stints and setbacks.
Before you know it your world is
reduced to capsules, frustration.
Kingdoms given over for others

to reign; the monarch has taken
his first exit. Still, one comes on
every odd day to grant him a few
more. For a time it was one big

procedure after another. Turns
out he lives thanks to five dollar
plastic tubing. Still, it is living.
A walk forward into resignation

and fresh faith. Independence
lost in a parked car; old bonds
recast in each new “love you.”
A fair trade, perhaps, in a new

economy of hasty demise. Is the
slight gurgle in the throat more
fluid or more feeling? It is not
clear. Somehow the end brings

immunity from old hesitations.
This much is clear: There is the
muscle’s failure. There is a good
Lord. And there is each new day.

He could fill them with a pouting
regret, but he seems to move on
ahead. The days are for making a
few last moves, new cane in hand.

His stoop has the clearest sermon:
Welcome the grace of letting them
do for you the things that always
signaled you were still in the game.

Do what you can do, control what
you can control. As for the rest, the
old haunts, the comforting rituals,
the efforts of another, younger era,

let them go,
in peace.

January 28, 2009

Breathing In, Breathing Out

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. – Jesus in Mark 12

“[They’re] second nature to me now.
Like breathing out and breathing in.”

– Professor Higgins, lyrics from My Fair Lady

Place your reading on hold for just a moment and pay attention to your breathing. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Breathing in, breathing out. It is the basic labor of living—breathing—and yet how easily we neglect its indispensable nature in the bumbling rush of another day. Consider, for instance, how essential it is that both actions work in concert. What happens to us if we only exhale and do not inhale is obvious to all: We pass out from lack a lack of air! Exhaling needs inhaling in order to replenish what has just been given up. But no less important, if not as apparent, is the reverse: Take in a deep, full breath. Your lungs are now replete with life-giving oxygen. Now hold it. What happens? After a time, you are (again) in danger of passing out. Even satiated lungs need exhalation in order to make room for fresh wind. All day long your body takes care of this rhythm for you. Breathing in, breathing out: the reciprocal gift of life.

So it is, I believe, with the church’s life of gathering in and going out. Each week, dependent as we are on the Holy Spirit, we take in to our lungs of faith the fresh air of scripture. “Love the Lord your God,” Jesus commanded us, and scripture is the chief way we take God’s life into our own. The same wind that hovered over the still-unformed creation, the same wind that blew through those first astonished disciples—it is the same wind that blows through us as we engage the Jesus tale. Scripture feeds us, forms us, and firms up our relationship with the living God. “Take a deep breath,” your doctor is prone to say at a checkup. Your preacher might just as well say the same thing on Sunday mornings.

Yet even scripture alone is not all that we need. The crisp air of the Bible’s witness is likely to burn in our lungs if, after a time, we do let it out into the world. The word of the Lord urges our sure response, and so we cannot help but spend the next six days or so exhaling God’s life wherever we go. “Love your neighbor,” Jesus commanded us, and so we breathe out acts of service: actions (and sometimes words) that point beyond ourselves or our church to the goodness of God. Come Saturday, if its been a week worthy of God’s grace in our lives, we’ve just about exhausted our air supply. And so once again we gather together for Sunday inhalation. Breathing in, breathing out: the reciprocal gift of life.

We need both: Scripture and Service. The congregation that excels at service in the world but does not attend to Scripture and its derivative practices (worship, prayer, reflection, etc.) will likely do much for God and neighbor, but end up exhausted and depressed in the end—virtuous asphyxiation. The body can only go so long without oxygen. Similarly, the flock that gives ample time to engaging its Bible, but does not look for ways to be in service to others (public or private, formal or informal) will find its lungs quite full but its muscles quite atrophied—holy hyperventilation. It is possible, after all, to pass out from too much air. Scripture and Service need one another in the same way that we must breathe in and breathe out in order to live. Over time, our prayer is that of the good professor Higgins. We hope that this sacred rhythm, this holy respiratory cycle, will become “second nature” to us—as effortless as our body’s own life-giving breathing.

If this analogy works for you at all, then you might consider with me the role of your Session—your pastors and elders together in leadership. If, in fact, a congregation is called to engage Scripture (breathing in) and practice service (breathing out), then it is possible to imagine our Session as a group of respiratory therapists. The old Scottish Presbyterians liked to call active elders “Ruling Elders,” by which they meant not ruling with a heavy hand, but “ruling” in the sense of measurement and gauge. As a first act of leadership in any season, a Session is charged to ask of itself and its congregation: How is it with our breathing? Are we prayerfully engaging Scripture together? Are we joyfully sharing in service together? As to our effectiveness: How does this or that program, plan, or personnel decision help our congregation breathe in more deeply the wind of Scripture and/or breathe out more effectively the service to which our Lord calls us? If it does neither, is it really ours to take up? How well are we equipping our children and adults to breathe in and out on their own? Are our lungs clear, free of any obstructions past or present?

I invite you to ask of your own life what our elders are asking of our congregation’s: How is it with your breathing? Are you able to breathe in the word of God and breathe out God’s life in your own? Let’s work—pray—to keep the oxygen flowing, until, by God’s grace, it is second nature to us all.

January 27, 2009

Crowded Ear

In these shrill times,
with our thick filters
and anxious lobes, in
this season of proud

religion and excitable
doubt, when the only
measure of ‘truthful’
is my own tickled ear,

in the emptiness of a
cacophonous era, in
the vanity of my own
precious convictions,

speak, O Lord. Speak.