December 20, 2012

Advent Mashup

Truth is, among Christian folk of various stripes, Advent is a mess.

Some say it is the season for preparing for Christmas day, for celebrating the big Birth. In that way, it looks backwards. Others have taught that it is a big block of time for looking forward to what the Bible calls, in the New Testament’s great Greek, the parousia -- a second appearing (some say coming) of the Lord.

Some have said: No carols, no sentiment, no festive celebrations. “Not until Christmas!” Advent is for penitent preparation, a Christian holding-back against the world’s excessive consumption. Fair point. Still others: “Ring the bells, throw your parties, pull out the old familiar tunes sooner than later! Why should Christmas wait until, well, Christmas?” I suppose.

Backward or forward? Restrained or festive? In the words of that great holiday philosopher, Charlie Brown: “We're obviously separated by denominational differences.” 

From the Latin adventus, the word basically means “coming.” The implied arrival indicates a spacial movement that is intended to fire the Christian imagination. “Come, Lord Jesus,” cries the ancient bidding prayer. Whether one imagines the familiar first coming (the nativity scene) or an inexplicable second (the world yet to come), the point of Advent is this: He comes from a place quite other than our own. “[Let it be here] on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray each week in the Jesus-taught prayer. Implication: What is already true there, where he is, is not yet thoroughly true here. 

That fact remains baldly obvious in Newtown, Connecticut; sometimes more subtle in our town, Pennsylvania. But whether there or here, whether wounds are gaping or closed or somewhere in between, still we Advent believers learn to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus. Make it so in our space what must surely be real in yours.”

For what’s left of Advent: Lay off the sweets and swags and be mindful of a strained, stained world. Or put out the party platter, cue up the Steamroller, and celebrate with all your pals a blessed baby boy. Remember Mary and Joseph and the angels way back when, or ask yourself about tomorrow, “What would I do if I only had one more day?” Backward or forward, doleful or merry ... Either way, until and beyond the 25th of this now ambiguous month, just keep praying,

Lord Jesus ... come.

December 12, 2012


Sweep the walk.
Clean up the bathroom. 
Vacuum around the living room.
Finish preparing another casserole.  
Put fresh sheets on the bed in the guest bedroom.

Most of us—But we might note, not all of us!—have worked our way down this sort of mental list before.  Preparing for guests in your home is no small task.  There is always much to do, assuming  you intend to treat your expected visitors as special guests.  Then again, ‘special guests’ is surely a tautology.  Is there another kind of guest other than special?  (Okay … other than your in-laws.)

I suppose one could choose not to prepare for guests at all:  “Come on in, friends.  Sit on our couch all hairy with cat fuzz.  Rest your feet on our crummy rug.  Enjoy some tasty leftovers, from March.  Come, get some rest on the same sheets you used during your last visit.” Of course not!  None of us would think twice about welcoming a friend or family member into that kind of house if we could help it.  We would go out of our way to make sure that all is ready.  Special guests deserve at least that much.

Perhaps it is not so different for the season of Advent.  In his volume Worship Is a Verb, Robert Webber likens Advent to a time when we anticipate a special guest coming to visit our home. Much hard work and preparation spans several weeks.  But the real burden of that work is offset by the hopeful expectancy of spending time with someone special.  Webber:
I am sure that you, like me, have spent weeks preparing for a visit by loved ones, knowing full well that when they come you will be ready to relax and enjoy their presence. This change in mood from preparing to enjoying is not unlike the shift in spiritual mood from Advent to Christmas. Simply put, Christmas is a season of joy, festivity, and fun. It’s a twelve-day festival from December twenty-fifth to January sixth, the day of Epiphany. And our spiritual experience during this time should be similar to that of enjoying a visit from someone special. It is a time of celebration, of singing Christmas carols, of giving and receiving gifts, of enjoying fellowship with friends and loved ones...during this time we are truly alive and free in the presence of our Guest. And the good news of Jesus Christ deserves a shout, a party, a frolic!
If we are not careful, our Advent and Christmas traditions can easily slip into the realm of the purely sentimental: something good to celebrate if one so chooses, but not altogether necessary for the soul. Yet preparing to receive the Savior is hardly a sentimental trip.  By remembering Christ’s advent (coming) in the past, we learn to “remember the future”— to ready ourselves for the good and great day of the Lord.  Webber’s analogy of preparing for a guest reminds us that there is indeed work to be done – soul work, you might call it.  We are learning, year by year, to live in the expectancy of God’s promised future.

Preparing the heart and mind for the advent of Christ is as important a task as preparing for Christmas guests in your home.  Are our hearts ready for the coming of one who resides among us by his Holy Spirit?  Perhaps the five candles of our traditional Advent wreath – the wreath that always adorns our sanctuary in this season – will serve as a kind of spiritual to do list for preparing for Christ.  With each new candle lighting there is new reason to have good hope.  Let us then prepare, expect, worship, and wait with all that we have to give.

May God grant us an Advent season full of hope and peace.

December 1, 2012


So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline. Be even-tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive an offense. Forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you. And regardless of what else you put on, wear love. It’s your basic, all-purpose garment. Never be without it.  -- Colossians 3

(Congregation, overhearing this brief interpretation of scripture for these two dear friends of mine on their wedding day will make much more sense when you learn that they have been teaching together a class of Jr. High youth on Sunday mornings here in our congregation.  As a couple, they have been leading their little flock of young believers through the famous wardrobe and into the fabled world of The Chronicles of Narnia, that masterpiece of children’s literature by Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.)

And so I want to say to you two, you brave new explorers (Or should I call you Pevensie siblings?) ... Welcome to your new Narnia. That is to say, welcome to the landscape of a staggering new world, a strange and wonderful country known as Christian marriage.

Try to imagine with me that this familiar place, these four walls so well known to both of you — For it is here in the space of word and sacrament that you have worshipped and shared fellowship and served the Lord, here were you are met week to week with the bath, book, and banquet of our generous Jesus — try today to imagine this good place as ... a wardrobe, a divine armoire, a covenantal closet.

Because here, in this time of glad worship, by your outlandish promises to one another, and by your confidence in those outstanding promises God has made to you, here you step into a new world.

It is not the land of Lewis, not the land of Calormen, Telmar, or Narnia.  Rather it is the territories of compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline, and love … all those Christ-shaped arenas laid out on the dependable map that is Colossians 3, your favorite passage.

These are your new domains, these make up the new world you will now inhabit.  Welcome to space for following Jesus through this life, together ... as the Son leads you ever closer to the Father, by way of countless neighbors and communions and even enemies ... all there for you to bless, together.  Dare I say it (and don’t spoil it yet for your class), but Jesus is your Aslan ... the lion of your shared life, that great one who laid down his life for you, whose word is your guide and whose life is your power. 

Now to be clear, and this should be said often among believers, one need not be married to be Christian. There is a long and important and noble place for singleness in the Christian communion and for the ministry of Jesus in the world.

But when Christians marry, that marriage becomes the primary territory in which Christ-shaped faithfulness and ministry are practiced and exercised and brought to perfection. After all, when our Lord calls us to “love our neighbor” — no less than the second great commandment — who else is a closer neighbor than the one beside whom you wake up each morning? In marriage, Christians practice daily that basic ministry to which we baptized folk are called in every other territory of life: faith, hope, and of course that all purpose garment ... love. 

So it is then that your vows send you packing today, through the wardrobe of this wedding, away from your former existence, and out into the land where you will learn to handle the good gifts of God’s in-breaking kingdom: 

Gifts such as forgiveness, when the checking account is overdrawn ... Patience, when the dirty clothes remain piled on the floor ... discipline, to keep you in your vows, when hot dates and hand holding give way to stomach flus and overly-short haircuts ... grace, when you are not the prince or princess you so desire each other to be ... How about mercy, when work in the world has been demanding and there is little left over for love at home ... and especially humility, lest you forget that you are not your spouse’s savior, nor do you need your traveling companion to be one for you.

Why? Because you already have a Savior, both of you, and he has gone on up ahead of you to prepare a good place, a lasting place, and he has left you his Word and Spirit to guide you along.

That news — that you both already belong to him — that is enough to see you through this journey. 

N. and N.,
it has been an honor to walk with you to this day.
Welcome to the threshold of a terrific new world.
Go on now. 
Go on through, 


November 27, 2012


Really ready?
for those unrealistic vows
for gold bands and a bond
for a lifetime of “us”
How can I know?
How to be sure?
about paying the bills
about sticktoitiveness
about death do us part
What about this?
What about that?
in sickness or health
for poorer or richer
in ebb as much as in flow
Is she for me?
Is he the “one”?
dirty clothes all in piles
Disney movies, again
Will the old spark abide?
Will the heat stick around?
that first fine fire
that once-kindled want
those original longing looks
Am I ready?
Really ready?
Wrong question
You’ll only discover “ready” in time
Better to ask now: Am I willing to grow?

One is never ready!
for growing up
for being stretched
for learning the height, depth, breadth

of faith, hope, and love
the Jesus kind

What makes one ready for marriage?

Marriage does it
Only marriage makes you ready
for marriage

October 24, 2012

Get It?

God has blessed me with laughter
and all who get the news will laugh with me!
- Genesis 21

There’s just something funny about the Lord announcing to Sarah and Abraham, their 30-year AARP membership pins notwithstanding, that they will soon be parents to a child---the beginning of an impressive, promise-shaped family. Sarah looks at herself in the dim mirror, then down on her dresser at the fading retirement photo of Abe, and secretly snickers before the Lord.

Stuttering Moses gets the call to speak to Power. Empty-nest Hannah is promised a bouncing baby boy. Jonah, running from the Lord’s demand to love unlovely neighbors, gets a lesson on unmerited favor in the briny stomach of a fish. The Lord walks Ezekiel down to the Pile-o-Bones cemetery for a theological discussion about new life. Teenage Mary discovers via angel-gram that she will push salvation into the world. Let’s just say that Peter was not named “rock” because of his top-of-the-class IQ, yet the risen Jesus decides to build the church on him. And the guy the Holy Spirit conscripts to plant the seedlings of Jesus-shaped communities all around the Mediterranean basin? The same dude who, beforehand, quite drunk on his own religion, attempted to uproot the Easter movement before it spread like the kudzu he would later water.

The Bible is the best joke book going. 

For that matter, there’s something hilarious about the Lord co-opting a bored, depressed, and wayward teenager into the business of preaching the faith “once delivered to the saints.”

Sarah and Abe and Moses and Miriam and Hannah and Jonah and Mary and Peter and Paul: They are all waiting for the resurrection, laughing it up in the lobby. In that way, the gospel of Jesus is like a good joke. If someone has to stop snickering in order to explain it to you … Well, never mind. 

Says Paul: If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. - 2 Corinthians 4

I wonder, where is the Christ-shaped laughter in your testimony? What’s funny about the Father calling you “saint” by including you with the Son? What unlikely part of your pilgrimage will the Holy Spirit turn on its happy head?

(As you ponder all of that, would you mind going down to the Dollar General to pick up some baby diapers for Sarah and Abe? They need all the help they can get.)

October 3, 2012

Permissive God

God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and separated the light from the darkness.  And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.  - Genesis 1

I always imagined God physically engrossed in the hard work of creation, putting in long hours on the job, overalls covered in sticky chaos … the way my father looked at the end of every day, the summer he decided to take off a week from work to repaint the chipping exterior of our two-story home.  Work is, well … work.  No wonder God needed a break and a beer on Day Seven.  Or so I imagined.

In returning as a preacher to the first chapter of the Bible, paying attention to what few precious descriptors we are really given on the whole matter of producing a planet, I realized that, in fact, God sweats very little throughout the first work week.  (Some say “week,” others say “a million years.” I say tomāto, tomato.”)  In truth, in the text, God doesn’t really make all that much in making the world.

What God does do is speak.  It is apparently enough for God to say, surely with a tinge of delight, “Let there be _____.”  God has only to give permission for the world to exist and the summoned sphere cannot help but be.   Me, I can’t even get this chick “Siri” who supposedly lives in my smartphone to call my brother at work.  “I’m sorry Ralph, I don’t understand ‘Haul your mother a smirk.’” Geez.

Genesis 1 is less a proof text for an all-powerful god as it is a hymn of praise to One (in Three) whose very speech contains the seed for a million stars in the southwestern sky, gives permission for a thousand-and-one sunsets over Evangola beach.  God’s words do that sort of thing.  Should we be surprised when a little later, our older brother Jesus subdues a storm, sends some nefarious spirits into a pack of pigs, and invites a little dead girl to get up and get back to the business of living---all through the uttering of a few potent, permissive words.  (Luke 8)

Let there be Ralph.  Let there be Wayne.  Let there be Dan and Jan and Stan.  Let there be Debbie and Bob and Judah.  Let there be Walter, and Will, and Elaine.  Let there be you.  It would appear that the triune God has gladly given you permission to be here just about now.  In the words of the poet Mary Oliver,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

September 19, 2012

Stomachs of Trust

“This one is for all you doubters out there in sanctuary-land. We know who we are.”

Is doubt a sin?

Depends. I suspect there is a kind of head doubt that can lead one into temptation. Standing comfortably over on the curb of faith, scoffing at the blunders and excesses and misinformation of those passing by you, struggling in the religious race: That’s a sin. Tossing out vexing questions that call for impossible answers, just to make your parents (or anyone with whom you cannot yet connect) squirm and worry about your salvation: That’s likely a sin, and kind of cruel, too. Dressing up your naked dread in a coat of Christian Confidence, always ready with the right comeback or explanation or verse: If that’s not a sin, it surely is annoying. Imagining you are a spiritual island, all alone on your own comfortable terms, doubting your need for the mainland of those who have gone before you, insisting that “God” wash up on your shore just the way you want: That’s probably a sin, being so cut off. If nothing else it’s lonely, always being right.

But there is another kind of uncertainty in the Christian pilgrimage, what Frederick Buechner once dubbed stomach doubt. That may well be hope in the Lord, only upside down. That creeping numbness you carry after watching too much World News Tonight, too many Google news feeds. That comfortable self-loathing (or church-loathing) to which you retreat when the pilgrimage proves harder than you had first imagined. That pinch you feel when your friend confronts you with a calamity that sent her reeling away from any sanctuary or its god. The fear of failure when a 9-year-old smacks you with a theological puzzle you cannot explain. That dread that settles in your bones at the end of the day, horizontal in your bed: when life is not coherent, the way forward not at all clear, the coming of another morning not at all certain.

Garden variety anxiety notwithstanding, I suspect that knots in the stomach exist to bear witness to the fact that all is not yet right with God’s good world. The gospel is already true, and yet that news has not yet worked itself out in every place and time. We feel that in our gut. See Romans 8. In that way, the Christian should likely pull up a chair next to stomach doubt and get to know it better. Befriend it, hear it out, invite it over to the party that is Jesus’ resurrection and see how things go between them. By paying attention to stomach doubt and not castigating ourselves for it or dressing it up in the drag of faithless surety, we learn to trust in the sure promises of the Triune God: whose light and life will eventually find its way into every corner of every abdomen. That’s a Holy Spirit-born truth we are likely to learn in our bellies before we are convinced of it in our heads.

The opposite of faith is not doubt.
It’s too much of the wrong kind of certainty.

September 12, 2012

Moving In

I read with interest much of the press on remembering 9/11, eleven years later. A phrase in a article caught my eye: “… subdued ceremonies suggested it’s time to move on after a decade of remembrance.” Really? I bet it depends on who you ask.

I know from walking with many families through thick grief that moving on can be easier suggested than enacted. If your heart still aches, moving on seems to be what you most want to do and at the same time what you swear you’ll never do. I also know that those promoting the importance of it are often not themselves immediately tinged by the pain. “They just need to move on” --- often uttered off-handedly at the bridge table or during halftime banter. (What I think folks are saying is: It’s hard to stay connected to someone who is grieving.)

But while a nation quietly considers how long is long enough, let us ponder another possibility. For followers of Jesus, maybe “moving on” from big pain is never the goal. What if the good hope is not to get past anything, to forget about it or put it behind us. Could healing be a kind of Spirit-born transformation in yourself that makes living with the past a viable option? Rather than erasing your pain, the Lord seems interested in subduing it so that is does not harm or hinder any more. Granted, a journey from Friday pain to Sunday transformation may take time. But in the realm of a risen Jesus, that the journey is possible at all is a stunning gift for those of us hindered by past pain.

Moving into grief to find healing, as opposed to moving on: What else would we expect from the hands of a Teacher who, even after the stunning mystery of the resurrection, still bears the deadly scars in his hands and side. The marks remain, only now instead of wounds of death, they are markers of transformation. It's not so much that Jesus has moved on, it's more that new life has moved in.

May it be so, in God’s good time, for all who hurt.

September 5, 2012

Jesus Thoughts

On Monday I was tooling around Best Buy, enjoying a second-rate worship experience with lots of plastic false gods. (I do like the prelude music they play. Just lovely.) It was Labor Day; the place was packed. I strolled over to the cell phone section, just for kicks, only to stumble upon a first-rate consumer smack down. Two women, arms full of smartphone accessories, one of them supported by her mother, were in a battle royal for a spot in the protracted line. A crowd had formed around them, like inmates watching a prison yard scuffle. The yelling was shrill. “You got out of line!” “We were here first!” “You only care about yourself!” “You are a horrible person!” And on and on it went. I felt for the wiry 20-something BB employee, dressed in bright blue and deep distress.

Pittsburgh’s own Andy Warhol once quipped, “Buying is much more American than thinking, and I'm as American as they come.” He might be on to something. I confess I’d much rather stroll around the brightly lit aisles of an electronic wonderland, struggling with this size flatscreen or that, than think about who exactly is my neighbor and how can I love them. Bring on the gadgets!

But as I watched my Best Buy neighbors throw down over a coveted place in the cell phone queue, I thought to myself: “On balance, I think I’m grateful to be baptized, and grateful for the crisis the gospel of Jesus usually prompts in my otherwise mundane life. Not that I’m any better than these three in the brawl. (I'm thinking: Hey, while they are distracted, you could jump in line!) But I do give thanks for gospel commands that call me to love, gospel freedom that makes that possible, and gospel thinking on why it even matters.

What Jesus-thoughts are you thinking this week?
Where is the Holy Spirit calling you, above the consumerist fray?

March 4, 2012

Listen to Him

A meditation on Mark 9:2-10

I promise you this, Jesus
You give me a shot up on that mountain
Up there with you
In the bleach and the dazzle
In the company of dudes as cool as
fire-calling Elijah
water-parting Moses
You give me a shot up there
And I won’t screw it up, like Peter did.


Actually, that’s not true.

I probably will. Probably have.
Poor Peter. What a chump.
Poor me. What a mug.

The things we say when we are piously petrified.


But I know this
Mountain climbing Jesus, Matterhorn Messiah
After six days in this tired, twisted world of yours (well, almost yours)
I want to be up on that mountain.
I want to be apart from the tempestuous world below
With you
With the Father
With at least my foot in the door of what you Two Friends (and Another) share.

Not that your sanctuary up there at 1 Transfiguration Place
Is any less dangerous than the Youngstown nightly news
(that's the only news I get on my antenna)
Danger down here! That much is clear.
But it's all danger-danger up there, too!

What, with your
Shimmering new suit
Blinding with the gleam of a 1000 suns
A disco ball of divinity
Spotting everything
Exposing all

And that terrible cloud of knowing
That dreadful veil of the Godhead
With that penetrating voice that fracks the shale of all our falsehood.

So there’s no safe place, after all
In the back alley or in the back pew.

But at least your danger rings true.
At least in your blinding light there is life.
At least
up there
with you
one can hear the brassy confirmation of the Father
that fundamental word we nightly-news-orphans ache to hear



Speaking of ache
I dread the climb up there.
I'm out of shape.
(too many cheeseburgers)

But I need the view!
Let me go with you, Jesus.
Just once.

Actually, how about every 7 days?
Once a month?

I want to see what you see
I want to see this broken-down world
And its tiresome schemes
And your impotent church
And my fickle life
I want to see all of it
Washed over in a dazzling white.

Not Caucasian, mind you.
(Please. I get enough of that in the mirror, 6 days a week)

No, I mean that unpigmented goodness
that seeps out of God’s space.

I want to see what this world, your world, looks like
Bleached of its sad stink
Blanched of its greyish, mournful hue

When I was a kid my older cousin Tommy told me
that if I stared directly into the sun my pupils would catch on fire.

I tell you this much, Jesus
When it comes to your son-face
I’d sure like to try.
Burn off all the religious gas
Melt away my stubborn dross

Because the truth is
I’m as much of a lummox as the apostle Petra
Old Peter, the rock.
His head may as well been made of stone
Always opening his mouth at the wrong time.

And me too
I’m always trying to speak to you
Always wanting to explain reality to you

That’s why I need you to take me up on the mountain
Take me up above myself
Sit me down
And tell me, in effect
To shut up
(Gently, of course ⎯ as I know you can do)

Just for a moment ...

A silent church.
No tired hymns.
No ubiquitous praise songs.
No needy, all-knowing preachers. (Thank the Lord!)
No polls or papers or opinions.

Teach us to stay silent in the stupefying cloud of your all-knowing.

Take me up with you, Jesus
Take us all
Up into your shared life
With the Father
And the Spirit

Let us eavesdrop on that endless song you sing together
Give us a peek at that unending luminescence you transact
Let us feel the puff of your threefold life
The way the Spirit moves around in your space

Blow on us as it blows among you

The way
When I leave my new window cracked
At the first of March
The sudden new breeze
Scatters my piously neat papers
All across my humbled office.

Blow like that.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”

I see.
I hear.
I will

Up here

And down there, too.