Love Loves To Love Love

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Easter 5B (Acts 8.26-40, Psalm 22.26-40, 1 John 4.7-21, John 15.1-8). Alan is the Lead Pastor at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including interruptions in worship, King’s Hawaiian Bread with Welch’s Grape Juice, coffee communion, the need for discipled guidance, ambiguity in the psalms, choosing scriptures, theologically problematic hymns, the cosmic Jesus, and growing by subtraction. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Love Loves To Love Love

AC

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Dear Church…

1 John 3.16-24

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever out hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, but the Spirit that he has given us.

Since Easter Sunday we, as a congregation, have been reading through 1 John. Every worship service, every scripture reading, every sermon, even the hymns have all been based on this one letter written centuries ago.

And it is important to remember that 1 John was, and is, a letter. It is a document written by a wise, old, veteran Christian leader who continues to help those who are in the midst of their faith journeys by addressing the challenges of discipleship.

For John, following Jesus was all about love… We know love by this, that Jesus laid his life down for us, and we ought to do the same for one another. Let us not love with words or speech, but in truth and action. And we shall do all of this because God is greater than our hearts.

Now, to be abundantly clear, I am not like John. I am not a mature Christian leader; seriously, I made you all play around with crayons, balancing blocks, and play-dough last week! I don’t have decades of experience to rely upon when addressing the marks of following Jesus. The well of my wisdom is shallow compared to the deep insight that John shares in his letter.

I am not like John. In fact, I’m the kind of person that John wrote this letter to in the first place. It was a written communication designed to sustain people like me, and you, in the midst of this strange and beautiful thing we call faith.

During the time of John letters were carefully crafted, parchment/papyrus were expensive and rare, reading and writing was uncommon. A lot of thought went into a letter before it was sent out. And this was even more particular in the realm of the early church when letters were shared with more than one gathering. They were sacred pieces of text that were treated with the utmost care.

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Today, however, we communicate in a variety of different forms. Sure, some of us still take the time to write our thoughts by hand, and then send it through the mail. But many of us, if not all of us, are versed in the instantaneous forms of email, text messaging, Facebooking, Tweeting, Instragramming, and even snap-chatting.

One of the biggest differences in the way we communicate today, as compared to the time of John, is that many of us offer our opinions and weigh into debates without really taking time at all to think about what we are offering. It is so easy to type a few lines, or click the share button, or take a picture on our cell phones that we do it without even realizing what we’re doing.

Today there exists computer programs designed to test whether information being shared in true, fair, and accurate. The fact that we need those things, because we simply don’t have the time to look into ourselves, is absurd.

But, when you consider how much is being produced, how much content is being created, we need something to help us sift through everything. Believe it or not, we, as a species, create as much content in 2 days as we did from the dawn of humanity through 2003.

            That’s craziness.

If you talk to a writer or a poet, they’ll tell you that if they got a paragraph together in one day, then it was a very good day. Sometimes all they can muster is a single sentence. But that’s because they take the time to weigh out what they’re trying to say.

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On the other side of the spectrum, most of us try to get out what we’re saying as quickly as possible with as little effort as possible. We don’t like our time wasted so we just throw words out and hope something sticks.

And so, while recognizing that I am not like John, and that we are bombarded with so much information, I reached out to a number of people this week. I asked a simple question: “If you could say anything to your/the church, without consequences, what would you say?”

It was my attempt to get people to think like John and speak the truth about what the condition of the church is like.

And, like seasoned and faithful Johns, a number of people put together their ideas about love and discipleship for our benefit. Whether it was on Facebook, email, Twitter, or YouTube, insight rained down upon our church office, and now you will be blessed to receive those same messages.

Fair warning: some of this will be hard to hear. It will be hard to hear because at times the messages can be convicting, just like John was. Some of them are short and to the point, some of them are a little longwinded and introspective, some will leave us scratching our heads, some will make us lift our chins with pride, and some will make us droop our heads in shame.

But that’s the thing about communication today – sometimes we say what we’re thinking without thinking about how it will be received. And maybe that’s okay…

 

Dear Church,

One of the best things about our church is the way we love each other. I can’t think of a Sunday when I came to worship without someone checking in on me. And that’s what I really care about. It doesn’t matter if the sermon falls flat, or if one of the hymns is too hard to sing, when I worship I feel loved.

 

Dear Church,

Life can be really difficult. But when it’s hard we have a choice, we can lay down and take whatever comes or we can get up and work on solving the problem. The choice is up to us.

 

Dear Church,

We should be doing God’s will, not power-hungry people’s will.

 

Dear Church,

What the church does is all about sharing the good news. And the good news is the fact that God loves sinners. And all of us are sinners. All of us.

 

Dear Church,,

I don’t care what church it is; if I have to hear another political sermon I’m going to lose my mind! The gospel is not about creating strong political opinions or calling people to march in protest. Jesus doesn’t share the Good News so that we know what political party to join, or which candidate to support. So many preachers today sound like wannabe politicians and I just can’t stand it anymore!

Following Jesus is not about whose political sign is in your yard or on your bumper; it’s a call for the people who have the resources and goods to open their hearts to people who have need. Love is about action, yes. But love is not a doctrine, or a sermon, or a political persuasion.

It is what you do, not what you think.

 

Dear Church,

I’ve been worshipping here for a while now, and I don’t think anyone knows my name.

 

Dear Church,

Love is more than a word.

 

Dear Church,

How can any church call itself a church when it refuses to help, or ignores altogether, people in need? This is why the church is dying. Not because it’s boring. Not because it’s old fashioned. The church is dying because it is hypocritical.

 

Dear Church,

Speaking up for the good of people is risky. You can lose your job, relationships, money, and even your life for living by the kind of love we talk about at church. But isn’t that what Jesus was willing to risk?

 

Dear Church,

Laying down your life for someone is different than dying for them. When push come to shove, many of us would consider sacrificing ourselves for the good of those we love. But laying down one’s life, laying aside your goals and priorities and dreams for the betterment of someone else, that’s entirely different. We need not die for anyone, but we certainly must lay aside our needs for others.

 

Dear Church…

 

After receiving these comments, and many more, I thought long and hard about what I might say. I pondered about what kind of letter I would write to this church, or any church, about what is really at stake. I prayed about what kind of shocking wisdom we might need to hear in this place.

And yet, rather than pontificating from the pulpit, I’d like to hear from you. I know this is uncomfortable, perhaps even worse that having to spend 15 minutes with playdough like last week, but if you could say anything to the church about what it really means to follow Jesus, what it really means to love, what would you say?

Imagine, if you can, that this was your final communication to the church, and that you had the opportunity to speak some truth into the midst of all of our lives, perhaps about what’s gone well and what’s gone poorly – What would you say?

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We can open up forums on the church website. We can solicit responses from people all over the Internet. We can even listen to the people in the pews next to us.

And we can also listen to John, speaking through the centuries, about the wisdom of loving and being loved:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or a sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in words or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him whenever out hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 23.5

Devotional:

Psalm 23.5

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

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Sometimes the more we say something the less we understand what it means. Think about the phrase, “I love you.” Perhaps you can remember the first time your spouse offered those three magical words and how your body tingled with joy and hope and expectation. But then fast-forward 20 years… Do those three words still shake you to your core? Or are they more like the bookends to a conversation?

The same holds true for particular parts of Christianity. We memorize things like the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed to such a degree that we can say them in church, week after week, without thinking about what we are actually saying. We grow so accustom to seeing the same phrases and announcements in the bulletin that we just gloss over them (incidentally, I jokingly told the congregation that I hid a line in the bulletin months ago saying something like “the first person to notice this sentence will receive $20” and that no one found it. Of course I didn’t actually do it, but you could tell that a number of people were disappointed they missed the opportunity to make some quick cash!)

And then you take things like beloved moments in scripture, and we accept them without reflecting on them as well.

The 23rd Psalm might be the most well known passage in the entire bible, and yet somehow it contains a verse that many of us often forget. We like the idea of being lead to green pastures, and lying beside still waters, but having a table prepared for us IN THE PRESENCE OF OUR ENEMIES is another thing entirely.

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Now, to be clear, when we think about who those “enemies” might be, we often conjure up people on the other side of the globe. However, sometimes our greatest enemies are actually the people in the pews next to us.

In God’s strange and mysterious wisdom, Christians are regularly gathered together to break bread with both allies AND enemies. We come to the table with the people we love AND hate. The table is prepared for us in the presence of those we love AND fear.

God’s table, where we encounter a little bit of heaven on earth, is the place where we begin the difficult and powerful work of being reconciled with those around us. It is because God is willing to gather us with our enemies that we are anointed for the work of discipleship in this world. Only a people who willingly gather with those we might call our enemies can also faithfully affirm that our cups runneth over.

You Are NOT The Good Shepherd

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Easter 4B (Acts 4.5-12, Psalm 23, 1 John 3.16-24, John 10.11-18). Alan is the Lead Pastor at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the beauty and wonder of Twitter, bad television, preaching Acts during Eastertide, breaking down stained glass language, sacrificial/sanctified love, knowing the sheep, and pastor shopping. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: You Are NOT The Good Shepherd

AC

Godly Play

1 John 3.1-3

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.

Families are complicated. There was a time when “the family” meant a husband and wife, 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence. But frankly, that time never really existed. Regardless of Leave It To Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, the family has never been normative for everyone, and it certainly isn’t today.

Families have, and always will, constitute a difficult and confusing set of relationships. There are families with children and without children. There are families with two dads and two moms. There are families that represent different races, different languages, and different cultures. The family is anything but ordinary.

And somehow we believe that we become a new family as the church.

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We might spend most of our lives debating who is in and who is out, whether its in regard to our family units, or our communities, or even our country. But here in 1 John we are offered a corrective: in the church we are all children of God, regardless of our community or culture or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation or just about anything else. Here in this place we are family.

We are in the middle of Eastertide; that time when the glory of Easter is still shining bright. And we have scriptural texts all about how to be in relationship with people we do not know in addition to the people we do know – we are God’s children. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Particularly when we say things like, “our church is a family” while we all act like we’re the adults and we forget what it means to be children.

The images of children are pervasive in scripture. And for good reason! Children live and work and play together with energy. They are not consumers sitting in pews waiting for something to happen. They are drawing in their bulletins, climbing over the pews, wandering around the altar area.

And even outside of the church, in the schoolyards and playgrounds, that’s where children live out their identities. They learn to communicate when something has gone wrong, they joyfully tug at one another, they make up new games, and they play.

Everything children do is about navigating a world in which their identities are still being formulated. They are not content with being labeled and placed in any kind of box. They live lives based on a fluidity that most of us have lost.

For some reason, as we mature into adulthood, our joyful play begins to fade and for some of us it completely stops. We just accept things the way they are, we make peace with the labels placed on us by society, we accept the love we think we deserve. We do all of this without ever asking, “Why?”

We are comfortable with our current relationships instead of forging new ones. We come home most evenings not with thoughts of what went well, but instead with thoughts about how everything fell apart. And, more often than not, we’d rather relax than play.

But not today.

The children of God, that’s us, work out their identities and relationships with energy and commitment and patience and intensity. They do it through play.

1 John 3, the text read for us this morning, compels and encourages us to see one another as children. It begs us to imagine a world in which we are still those joyful playful versions of ourselves.

So, I could fill this sermon with stories of how children play and come to inaugurate new visions of reality. I could call on each of you to remember your childhood games and imaginations. I could even ask us to think about the importance of being inclusive in the midst of playing with other and end with some sort of egalitarian vision of the church.

            Or, we could just play…

(For the next fifteen minutes everyone in worship had the option to play with play-dough, percussion instruments, blocks, coloring books, and an assortment of other activities.)

The Gloves Come Off – David Bentley Hart vs. NT Wright

Translations of the New Testament, and the Bible as a whole, are a dime a dozen. In most United Methodist Churches you’re likely to find copies of the New Revised Standard Version in the backs of the pews. In other denominations you might find the New International Version, or the New Kings James Version, or the Common English Bible, etc. And every once in a while a theologian will undertake creating his/her own translation based on the original Greek/Hebrew.

Whenever someone produces a translation it is important to remember that a translation is also always an interpretation. The translator makes important choices on how a particular word or phrase should be rendered in contemporary English, and because this has been done again and again, there are certain verses in certain translations that are very different from one another.

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Back in October (2017) the well known theologian David Bentley Hart released his translation of the New Testament. Unique to his translation is a willingness to keep the strange (and sometimes confusing) nature of the original Greek in an English form. Comparing it to something like the NRSV results in a difficult endeavor, however what Dr. Hart accomplished is rather remarkable when one considers how the original Greek actually reads.

And, of course, other theologians began to weigh their opinion over the recent addition to the fray. Some said that Dr. Hart revolutionized the way we will read the Bible for years to come, while others dismissed it as yet another unnecessary addition to the great pantheon of translations.

But one particular review stood out regarding its negative tone and all around language: NT Wright’s.

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For months Dr. Hart has remained silent regarding his colleague’s review… until now. My friend and podcast partner Jason Micheli was fortunate to have a conversation with Dr. Hart regarding his translation and his thoughts about NT Wright’s negative review. The following episode covers a range of topics including lots of stained glass language, the Easter story, biblical grammar, spirits and souls, the worst translation of the New Testament, and an ax to grind in Revelation. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: The Gloves Come Off

 

Devotional – Psalm 4.4

Devotional:

Psalm 4.4

When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent.

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I like going to the gym. It’s one of the few places I can go without being spotted as a pastor (and therefore can avoid of all the Christianisms that often occur like, “I haven’t been to church in a long time,” and “What do you think heaven is like?”). There is a peace I experience while running on the treadmill in that I can be alone in my thoughts, with just enough distraction in running to actually relax.

On Monday afternoon, while about halfway through my run, my mindful journey was interrupted by the person running next to me. When I quickly glanced over it was clear that he was deeply disturbed by something on the television screen and I could hear him cursing under his breath. For 15 minutes I continued to run in silence, but I could not stop listening to, and worrying about, the man next to me. With every passing minute his face grew redder, his volume increased, and his anger became even more palpable until he could no longer stand it, he shut off the machine, and he walked away.

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I honestly left the gym feeling pretty good about myself. Not only had I taken the time to be mindful about my physical health but also I wasn’t nearly as angry or ridiculous as the man running next to me. I know I left on Monday afternoon with a sense of pride. At least, I did until I got in the car, started listening to the news on the radio, and saw my tight knuckles gripping the steering wheel as I listened to all that is going on in the world. By the time I got home I realized that I was no better than the man from the gym, the only difference was he let out his emotions in front of everyone and I did it in the solitude of my car.

How do you respond to difficult information? Do you pick up a nearby object and hurl it across the room? Do you mutter words of anger under your breath? Do you lash out on those around you? Do you clench your fists in concentrated frustration?

It is impossible, and frankly unhealthy, to keep everything bottled up. Whether it’s a response to what you witness on the news or learning something disturbing about someone you know and love, we can’t avoid how we feel. But, as the psalmist puts it, we can at least take the time to ponder it in silence before reacting.

If the Lord we worship responded to our many failures with knee-jerk reactions, this world would probably not exist. But God is patient and contemplative when it comes to how God’s creatures act. Sometimes God is silent specifically such that we might come to realize who we are and who we need to be.

We all live and move in a world predicated on knee-jerk reactions. The 24-hour news cycle bombards us with information designed to elicit responses from us. We check our emails, and social media accounts with a regularity that is frightening (myself included). But God shows us a different way; a way in which we can ponder the events of the world in silence before jumping into the fray.