God’s Backside

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kenneth Tanner about the readings for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost (Exodus 33.12-23, Isaiah 45.1-7, 1 Thessalonians 1.1-10, Matthew 22.15-22). Ken pastors the Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan and is a good friend of the podcast. The conversation covers a range of topics including how God responds to prayer, reflections on people worshipping the nation more than the living God, why the old hymns are the good hymns, and thoughts about David Bentley Hart’s new translation of the New Testament. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God’s Backside 

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Why Do We Pray?

Philippians 4.1-9

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

When was the last time you felt really joyful in church? When, in this space, were you so overcome with a feeling of delight and celebration that you could barely contain it? When was the last time you left church feeling like you were walking on a cloud rather than struggling under the weight of the world?

Years ago I went to a church service on a Sunday morning and claimed my normal pew about midway up on the right hand side. There were a handful of us in our mid-twenties that attended the services every week, and because everyone loves seeing young adults in church, most people ignored us for fear of driving us away.

Anyway, I arrived at church and prepared for worship. About halfway through the first hymn a young man, maybe slightly younger than myself, jogged down the aisle and sat down right next to me. Because the service had already started we couldn’t say anything to one another, and we continued to face forward throughout worship. During the sermon I, a seminarian at the time, was hanging on every word coming from the pulpit, but the young man next to me was doing everything in his power to stay awake.

I could feel his head bobbing up and down with every sharp word from the sermon, he kept readjusting himself as if that would keep him awake, and at one point he even slapped himself in the face.

I tried my best to be a good Christian and ignore the young man next to me, but at some point his leaning back and forth became so exaggerated that I was worried he would pass out mid movement and smash his face on the pew in front of us. So, at a particularly pensive and quiet moment in the sermon, I leaned over and said, “Hey buddy, if you put your hands like this (in the form of prayer), rest them on the pews in front of you, and then lean your head down, no one will know that you’re sleeping.”

The young man didn’t even glorify my option with a word of gratitude, but he quickly leaned into his hands and promptly began snoring just loud enough for the rest of the people in the pew to hear.

            When did the church lose its sense of joy?

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I have some wonderful memories from the churches of my past and the kinds of experiences that filled me with the Spirit. But, if I’m honest, when I think back over the totality of my church experience, those Sundays were the exception to the rule of people falling asleep in worship.

When did Easter Sunday become the only day that the resurrection made a difference in our lives? When did the weight of the world grow heavier and more determinative than the joy of knowing the Lord? When did dozing off in church become normative?

Maybe we lost our joy when we also lost touch with what it means to pray.

Throughout the month we have been spending time each Sunday addressing one thing we do as Christians. We started by talking about why we worship the way we do, and last week we talked about why we study the bible. And today is one of the hardest to talk about: why do we pray?

One answer, of course, is that we want God to do something for us. We cry out to God in the midst of suffering for healing, when we are lost we call out for direction, and when we are afraid we desire peace. When we need something, we ask God to provide through prayer.

Another reason we pray is to commune with God. These prayers are not based on receiving something in particular, but setting time apart to listen for the ways that God is speaking in the world. Instead of listing all of our needs and wants, we wait and tune into God’s frequency.

Yet, the majority of prayers come in the form of an acute need. More often than not our prayers are sadly alast resort when we can no longer bring order out of the chaos of life and we rely on a higher power to straighten out our mess.

And where’s the joy in that?

Paul wrote his letter to the church in Philippi from a jail cell. And the church in Philippi was going through its own problems. And yet Paul had the gall to speak of joy.

            Joy, for the apostle, comes not when we master a particular discipline, or when God drops that little bit of manna from heaven that we need. Instead joy comes when we experience God’s action and presence even when life is difficult and full of pain.

Prayer, for Paul, is intimately connected with joy. Prayer is about being with God, and not a technique. When we let go of the desire to be the savior of our own lives, when we realize that God alone is the author of our salvation, we find the joy that comes with prayer, or better yet, we find the prayer that comes with joy.

Paul commanded the church of Philippi to rejoice always, and he does this in the plural. Prayer and joyfulness in the Christian life is not something we seek out on our own for our own good. Joy, in the fullest sense, is incomplete unless it is shared.

But the church had its problems. Co-leaders Euodia and Syntyche were apparently at odds with one another, and Paul commands them to “be of the same mind in the Lord.”

            What a word for the church today…

While we are denominationally fighting over the church’s stance over everything under the sun, while churches are putting together budgets and arguing about priorities, while we sit in pews next to people who sometimes drive us crazy, Paul speaks through the centuries a difficult and important word: “be of the same mind in the Lord.”

How in the world can we be of the same mind in the Lord? It’s hard enough to get people to agree on what restaurant to go to after church let alone being of the same mind.

Perhaps the only way to be of the same mind in the Lord is through prayer.

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Paul wrote to the church, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayers and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” In this world and in this life, all of the anythings and everythings can become sources of endless worry, or they can become the stuff of prayer.

That’s not to say that we need to deny the reality of suffering, or ignore it as much as possible, but maybe in recognizing that we cannot handle this life on our own, that we need one another and the Lord, we can be a people of prayer and of joy.

It should come as no surprise that people tend to flock to the church not when things are perfect, but when things are falling apart. My office phone rings not with news of success and of joy, but with sadness and fear.

That’s why the missing demographic from church is the so-called millennial generation, my generation. People my age are largely absent from church because we have yet to experience the kind of sorrow and fear that leaves us feeling anchorless. It doesn’t have much to do with judgments about the relevancy of the church, but more to do with the fact that when someone feels like life is perfect, they don’t see how the church can make a difference.

But that’s the thing: The church doesn’t exist to make a difference. The church exists to praise the living God who fills our lives with the kind of joy that sustains us through both the mountains and valleys we experience. Church isn’t about us. It’s about God.

And, to bring it full circle, all of us are in need of the prayer that leads to joy and the joy that leads to prayer, because all of us have something weighing us down. Even some of the most suffering people in the world can put on a mask for an hour a week in worship. But from where I stand, I see a people who are troubled by the weight of the world, a people who are afraid about what might happen next considering what we saw on the news any night of the week, a people who need the joy that comes from God more than just about anything else this life has to offer.

And, rest assured beloveds, God answers our prayers. God knows what we need before we can even bring the words to our mouths, and God answers our prayers in ways we can scarcely imagine. And, perhaps most mysterious of all, God’s time is not our time.

I love asking people if God’s has answered their prayers; but the real kind of prayers. Not the “please help me with my algebra test” prayer; but the deep and almost unmentionable hope for an experience better than what we currently have.

I love asking people if God has answered their prayers because the answer is almost always, “Yes.” But, most of the time, we can only see how God has answered our prayers while looking backward. We can only see how God has responded to our prayers through the profound reflection on the time we’ve had with a community that has sustained us in joy until we have eyes to see what God has done.

In each of your bulletins you will find an envelope with a blank piece of paper inside. In a few moments I will invite each of you to take out that paper and write down a true prayer to God. Where in your life do you need to experience more joy? What major decision do you need help discerning? What is the “everything” you need to make known to God?

So, we will take time to pray to God in written form, and then we will place the prayer inside of the envelope and seal it. Then I would like each of you to write down your names and addresses on the front of the envelope and place it in the offering plate later in the service. No one will see this prayer but you and God.

We will hold on to the envelopes for a number of months, and we will pray over them as a church while hoping that you will continue to make your prayers known to God. And, after time, we will mail them back to you.

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Prayer changes things and sometimes the thing prayer changes, is us.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm in the Lord. I urge all of you who are currently quarreling with one another to be of the same mind in the Lord. And to the rest of you, help those who are in need, because this is important work that we are doing as God’s church. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice. Let your joy be known among one another so that we might feel how the Lord is near. Do not worry about sufferings of your life, but bring everything to God in prayer, and the peace of the Lord, which is perfect joy, will be with you in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 106.1

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Psalm 106.1

Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.

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On Sunday morning we will spend most of our worship service confronting the question “Why Do We Pray?” Prayer has been part of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ from the very beginning of the church. Prayer, fundamentally, is about taking time to be with the Lord as well as a desire to change our circumstances. And for as important as it is to talk about why we pray, the question of how we pray is equally worth our time.

When I was a kid I was taught how to pray using the acronym PRAY: Praise – Repent – Ask – Yield. We begin praying by praising God for the marvelous works God has made real in our lives, then we repent and apologize for how we have failed to be the people God has called us to be, then we ask for how we need God to change our present circumstances, and then we conclude by yielding to God’s will. The PRAY way to pray is helpful for setting up a rhythm of what it means to commune with God, but it can also be limiting.

If our prayers follow the same pattern over and over again, we run the risk of no longer meaning what we say, or worse: we say things without realizing what we’re saying. Additionally, the PRAY model can result in us being tempted to ask God to change trite and insignificant things in our lives, instead of the deep reflection on what it means to yield to God’s will being done in our lives.

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Praying through PRAY can be helpful when we no longer know what to say, but some of the best prayers I’ve ever heard (or read) do not follow the model at all. Because, after all, prayer is not about checking off the box; prayer is about learning how to listen to God in the midst of loud and chaotic world.

Sometimes faithful prayer looks less like getting on your knees and clasping your hands together, and more like sitting in a quiet space for five minutes. Sometimes faithful prayer sounds less like all the big adjectives we use in church on Sunday and more like a conversation we have with a friend over the phone. Sometimes faithful prayer is less about following any model or rhythm and more about finding a way that works for us in order to hear what God has to say.

I have friends for whom using crayons in a coloring book is the best way to pray. For others, prayer is at its best when it is the complete absence of any distraction. And still yet for other, the PRAY model is the best way to pray.

The point of prayer is not so much that we have to pray a certain way, but that we do it in the first place.

Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen

 

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost (Exodus 32.1-14, Isaiah 25.1-9, Philippians 4.1-9, Matthew 22.1-14). Teer currently serves as an associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. The conversation covers a range of topics including what it means to be a “grass” church, how Christians are supposed to read the bible; wedding invitations, and consuming our golden calves. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Many Are Called But Few Are Chosen

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Why Do We Study?

Philippians 3:4b-14

If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Fred Craddock is widely regarded as one of the greatest preachers of recent history. His command of scripture is evident in his sermons, and he regularly captivated those with ears to hear. But before he became a great preacher, he was a normal Christian just like you and me.

During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Craddock found himself driving across the country. He was making his way through northern Mississippi early one morning and needed to stop for a cup of coffee and some breakfast. He found a no name diner in the middle of a no-name town and decided to pop in. It was early enough in the morning that Craddock was alone in the diner with the cook and he ordered his food and coffee. While Craddock was sitting at the counter, a black man entered and sat down a couple stools away and ordered a coffee. The cook promptly turned around, looked at the man in the face and said, “Get out! We don’t serve your kind here!

The man patiently responded, “My money is just as good as his” while pointing over at Craddock. But the cook continued to point at the door and said, “The sign says ‘Whites Only’ so get out before I put you out!

And with that the black man sighed and slowly removed himself from the stool and the diner.

Craddock continued to finish his meal, he paid, and then he left. But right before he was about to get back into his car, in the still and quiet of the early morning, he heard a rooster crow in the distance.

This is where I pause for a moment.

Do any of you feel chills? Some of you will undoubtedly appreciate the story for its timely reminder about problematic race relations in this country, but for some of you this story hits even harder. Craddock, after sitting and witnessing the racism and bigotry a few feet away realized, in the rooster’s crow, that he had just denied Jesus as Peter did right before his crucifixion.

The story of Craddock’s experience becomes powerful particularly in its connection to scripture. For, if Craddock was unfamiliar with the stories of God, he could’ve heard that rooster in the distance, drove off, and never think about the experience at all.

But Craddock knew his bible; he had studied it well enough to know the ways God works in the world. Such that when he heard the rooster, it changed his life forever.

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This whole month we’re diving deep into why we do what we do as Christians. Last week we talked about why we worship, and today we’re looking at why we study. To put it rather simply: we study God’s Word because this story is our story. It’s like opening up the pages to discover our family history, our quirks and idiosyncrasies, our triumphs and our failures.

Whenever we open the scriptures and study we are entering into the strange new world of the bible, one that shines a light on what our lives really look like even today.

When Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he got really personal. We preachers are taught to do the opposite. Rather than standing before a group of people like you and share how we are trying to follow Jesus, we’re supposed to point away from ourselves to Jesus. And I believe that’s wise counsel; there is far too much temptation for preachers to make ourselves into the Jesus figure of our congregations and instead of saying, “follow Jesus” we say, “follow me.”

But Paul got personal. He laid it all out for this small and budding church. I have every reason to boast in the world: I was the Jew of all Jews, I followed the law, I was blameless in everything I did. I even persecuted the church. Yet whatever I gained in the world, I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.

Paul’s story is a powerful one, but it’s only powerful when we know the whole story. We can read the letters he wrote to different communities, we can reflect on his theology and declarations, but when we study the bible, when we know who Paul was before he encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, everything he writes comes into a new light.

Paul was so zealous in his Jewishness, he was so righteous, that he murdered Christians in the years following Jesus’ resurrection. The earliest disciples feared him. And, in God’s strange wisdom, the greatest persecutor of the church became her greatest missionary.

We study God’s Word because this story is our story.

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Years ago I was sitting in a coffee shop working on a sermon while wearing a clergy collar. And, most days, people ignore the pastor sitting in the corner supping on coffee and scratching his head. But not that day.

A guy walked in, looking pretty disheveled, and immediately bee-lined over to me. His eyes were locked onto my collar, and before I knew what he was doing, he fell to his hands and knees and started kissing my feet. Embarrassed, I tried to get him to stop, and when he could tell that everyone was staring at us, he asked to speak with me outside.

We sat down on a nearby bench and he began telling me about all his troubles. He was down on his luck with no job and no home. He had been kicked out of a couple local homeless shelters, but he recently heard that he could get some actual help in Richmond.

As he went on and on I caught myself preparing a response in my head rather than actually listening to him. And, as I often do, I offered him a few dollars and suggested that he seek out some organizations in town to help support his needs.

He stared at me blankly and said, “Man, I just need a ride to Richmond.”

I don’t remember exactly what I said in response, but I’m sure that I made some excuses about how much work I had to do, or that I really needed to get back to the church. And as I went on listening off my justifications, he stood up while I was talking and he just left me there sitting on the bench. My voice tailed off as he walked away, and before he turned the corner I heard him say, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho…”

That moment has haunted me in the years since. Because, as soon as he said those words, I felt my heart burning within me because I had failed to live into my baptismal identity. He, in a few choice words, had initiated the story of the Good Samaritan, and I was the priest who failed to help the man on the side of the road.

If I hadn’t known Jesus’ parable that the man quoted, I might’ve let it roll off my back like any number of other interactions, but because I knew the story, that moment has haunted me.

On Monday morning I was sitting my office here at the church when a man walked in covered in sweat and asking to talk to the preacher. I invited him into the office and I watched and listened to him share his story. Down on his luck, no job, no home. And immediately, I started sensing a gulf developing between us as I began rehearsing my response in my mind. We get calls here every day from people in the community looking for help; late on rent, overdue on an electric bill, no food in the refrigerator. And we try to help as many as we can, or at least direct them in such a way that they can be helped, but it’s hard not to be suspicious. It’s hard to prevent that sinful side of myself from bubbling to the surface and ignoring the person in need.

Anyway, the man was sharing his story, and before I was able to respond with the same sorts words I’ve used hundreds of times he said, “I just need a ride to Charlotte, NC. I want to start over and my daughter lives there and she’s going to put me up for awhile.”

I apologized and said that I would be unable to drive him myself, but the church would be more than happy to buy him a bus ticket.

He beamed.

I ordered him a ticket for a Megabus leaving that afternoon and then we got in my car and I drove him to a nearby VRE station so that he could get into the city to catch the bus. We talked during the car ride about the change in weather and about Virginian hospitality and a number of other subjects. And when we got to the station I got out of the car to open his door and wish him well, and then he asked to pray for me. Let me say that again, he asked to pray for me, not the other way around. So he wrapped his arms around me and prayed.

After the “amen” he looked at me in the eyes and said, “As you have done onto the least of these, so you have done unto me.” And with that he turned around and walked away.

When I came into work on Tuesday morning there was a message on our answering machine. He had made it to his daughter’s house and wanted to thank the church for its generosity.

I’m not proud of what I did. Sure, I’m happy he made it, and I’m glad that we could offer him some grace, but I’m not proud of what I did; because I didn’t want to do it. I only did it because I knew the story of scripture, and then that man turned it around and left those words resonating in my ears as he walked away.

We study God’s Word because God is always talking to us, only if we have ears to hear. When we know the story that is our story, we become attuned to God’s frequency in the world, we hear the rooster, we see the man in need, and it changes our lives just as God changed the lives of the people we read about in the bible.

If you’re anything like me, if you’re anything like Paul, you want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. We catch a glimpse of that power and experience it here and now when we study the Word and encounter it in our daily living. We need to study the Word because all of us, sinners and saints, preachers and laypeople, we’re all works in progress. We press on to make Christ’s resurrection our own, because Christ has made us his own.

Beloveds of Cokesbury, I have not made it to perfection, in fact I am far from it, but there is one thing I know for sure: when we know the story that is our story, when we study God’s Word, we can hear God calling to us in Christ Jesus. Amen.

October

Devotional – Exodus 20.13

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Exodus 20.13

You shall not murder.

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I woke up early this morning so that I could go to the gym before heading over to the church. It was early enough that it was still very dark outside and there were only a handful of cars in the parking lot. When I made it to the workout room I quickly stretched in the corner and then went over to a treadmill to start running. After about 15 minutes I slowly noticed that all the people had stopped using their machines because it became eerily quiet and I looked up at the TV. All of us at the gym were transfixed as we watched the closed captioning scroll across the screen. “Deadly shooting in Las Vegas. 20 dead. 100 plus injured.”

I don’t know how long we stood there like statues, but I remember the first sound I heard was the simple whimpering of a man over on an elliptical.

Throughout the day the reports coming out of Las Vegas have become clearer and more detailed such that, at the time of writing this devotional, 58 people have died and over 500 people were injured in the massacre outside of the Mandalay Bay Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The emotional roller coaster of an event like this can be exhausting. There’s the shock that comes when we attempt to understand how someone could bring such terror and evil into the world. There’s the fear that something like Las Vegas could happen in our own communities. There’s the immense sadness when recognizing the high toll of lives and injuries in such a brief period of time. There’s the anger that percolates within us as we watch the footage of people running for their lives and we heard the gunfire ringing in the background. And, of course, there’s the bewilderment that comes with discovering that this marks the 273rd mass shooting in the United States this year, and today is only the 274th day of the year.

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You shall not murder: four simple words in the middle of Exodus 20; four words that rest at the heart of most major religions; four words that we must not forget.

In the days, weeks, months, and even years ahead the massacre in Las Vegas will be used to manipulate political decisions, it will be used to strike fear into the hearts of individuals, and it will be used as a rallying cry for change. But what happened in Las Vegas cannot be used as a tool, or worse: a weapon, to bring about more violence in the world. Violence will always beget more violence. We, as Christians, are called to pray for those who died, those who are suffering, and those who are afraid. We, as Christians, are called to do all that we can to ensure the wellbeing of the people around us in every way, shape, or form that we can imagine. And we, as Christians, must never forget those four words from Exodus 20: You shall not murder.

The Ten Commandments vs. The Bill of Rights

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Exodus 20.1-4, 7-9, 12-20, Isaiah 5.1-7, Philippians 3.4b-14, Matthew 21.33-46). Teer currently serves as an associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. The conversation covers a range of topics including why the West Wing was such a good show, the ten commandments becoming our golden calf, suffering, and discipleship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Ten Commandments vs. The Bill of Rights

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