So Be It

Isaiah 60.1

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. 

I was sitting in a basement office somewhere on the campus of Duke Divinity School with an administrator who was explaining the ins and outs of “Field Education.” She shared the convictions of the institution, the valuable and positive research of such endeavors, and (finally) she told me where I would be spending ten weeks my first summer of seminary: Bryson City, North Carolina. Every student would also be spending their summers working for various churches and para-church organizations so that we could take what we learned in the classroom and apply it to the field. 

Before I had a chance to properly come to grips with the information shared with me, the administrator handed me a piece of paper and she said, “It’s covenant time.”

She watched me diligently as I weaved my way through the wording:

I am no longer my own, but thine.

Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. 

Put me to doing, put me to suffering.

Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,

exalted for thee or brought low by thee.

Let me be full, let me be empty.

Let me have all things, let me have nothing.

I freely and heartily yield all things

to thy pleasure and disposal.

And now, O glorious and blessed God,

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.

And the covenant which I have made on earth,

let it be ratified in heaven. Amen. 

I only later learned that the words I used can be found in every United Methodist Hymnal because they are part of “A Covenant Prayer In The Wesleyan Tradition.” And, I also learned that countless Methodists have come back to these words at the start of new years, new jobs, new relationships, and a whole assortment of other new endeavors.

It can feel a little daunting to “freely and heartily yield” all things to God’s disposal but, according to the strange new world of the Bible, that’s exactly what God did and does for us.

Looking back, I am profoundly grateful for the covenant I made that day because I carried those words with me to the people of Bryson City, North Carolina and together we encountered the Lord who encounters us. 

Therefore, wherever you and and whatever you’re encountering, I encourage you to read through the words of the Wesleyan Covenant, let them sink deep into the fabric of your being, and know that “so be it” might be the most faithful words we can ever speak. 

The Naughty List

Hebrews 10.10

And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

On Sunday I stood up and addressed the crowd present for the church’s Christmas Concert and attempted to make the case that we are the stories we tell and the songs we sing – The stories we tell are reflections of how we understand ourselves in the world and the same is true of the songs we belt out. I then suggested (read: demanded) that we know longer sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because it only reinforces an extremely problematic understanding of how we relate to one another. 

I mean, it’s basically a date rape song. “Say, what’s in this drink?” 

Go listen to it and I promise you’ll walk away feeling all sorts of gross and uncomfortable.

Had I been a little more bold, I would’ve also suggested (read: demanded) that we also no longer sing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” 

The words to the song sum up how we all too often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” And then, whether we know it or not, we take these words to be Gospel truth and we believe that God is keeping a ledger against us and only if we have more ticks in the Good column than the Bad column will we receive an everlasting reward.

The same thing is true of how Elf on the Shelf has become such a popular pastime – the purpose of the Elf is to spy on the good and bad behaviors of children and then to report them to Mr. Claus so that the children will be rewarded, or punished, accordingly.

The same thing is true of so many movies and shows and songs that ask us to discern whether or not we, ourselves, have behaved in such a way as to make it on the Nice list or on the Naughty list.

But, according to the strange new world of the Bible, we’re ALL on the naughty list.

That is: all of us do things we know we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we know we should do. 

Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one. 

And yet, that’s Good News. It’s Good News because, thankfully, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus.

Jesus encounters the world’s (read: our) sins with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. Jesus has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever

Jesus saves not just the good little boys and girls, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of the world who He, in all his confounding glory, sets free in his death and resurrection

Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.

But, of course, it sounds too good to be true!

In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not irresponsible. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hang over the heads of those who follow Jesus, how else can we possibly keep them in line?

Perhaps we have our theological wires crossed. We so often assume that we have to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (online or in-person), and read our Bibles, and say a few prayers, and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to punch our ticket to the great beyond. 

And yet, so many (if not all) of Jesus’ parables, proclamations, and pronouncements have nothing at all to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.

The Gospel is not about how we justify ourselves – The Gospel is about how God in Christ justifies us. 

God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and the cup to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and returns to Peter with outstretched arms after his denials.

God chooses to forgive, rather than condemn, the world from the cross.

That’s what grace is all about – it is the unmerited, unwarranted, and undeserved gift from God.

And if we can see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works/behavior or the expectation that good works/behavior will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.

Or to put it another way: we are all on the Naughty list and God still gives us the present of Jesus’ presence anyway. 

The Grammar of Christian Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Carsten Bryant about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent [B] (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22.23-31, Romans 4.13-25, Mark 8.31-38). Carsten serves as the Director of the Youth Collective of the Orange Cooperative Parish in Hillsboro, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Dogmatics in Outline, covenants, proper fear, Taize worship, the coming generations, hoping against hope, flipping expectations, and Robert Farrar Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Grammar of Christian Faith

(Almost) Leaving Church

Psalm 25.1

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. 

We were sitting inside a nearly empty McDonalds for breakfast.

He was a pastor a few weeks away from retirement with decades of experience.

I was a seminary student with no real idea of what I was getting myself in to.

We exchanged small talk over Egg McMuffins and stale coffee wondering aloud about the weather for the rest of the day when I asked the question that all pastors ask one another at some point.

“So, how did God call you to all of this?”

It’s a good inquiry, for the expectation is that all of us, that is pastors, have an answer. 

And I’ve heard them all.

Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives in the middle of an AA meeting, or while standing on the top of a mountain, or after dropping off their last child at college.

Pastors who felt the call of God on their lives inside a slow moving elevator, or after their daughter died in a car accident, or while suffering through a terrible sermon in their home church.

I was therefore prepared for whatever story might come from the nearly retired pastor’s lips.

Or, at least I thought I was.

Because he didn’t answer my question.

Instead he replied, “How about I tell you the story of how I almost left the church?”

“Back when our kids were young,” he began, “I was serving a mid-size church and doing my best to keep everything going the way it was supposed to go. We had the same problems that all other churches had, and I started working longer hours and making more visits. When one day I came home to the parsonage, and I could hear the kids playing upstairs, but my wife was gone. I looked and looked until I found a note addressed to me on the kitchen counter. My wife had, apparently, fallen in love with one of the ushers at the church, a man with his own family, and they had decided to run off together leaving their spouses and children behind.”

“In the weeks that followed, I had to adjust to the new normal of solo-parenting while leading a church. And within the first month a meeting was called by the leaders. I was grateful expecting that the church would start cooking meals, or helping to find childcare, or any other number of things. But that’s not what the meeting was for.”

“It took place in our sanctuary and the congregation met and decided that I was no longer fit to serve as the pastor. They believed had I been a better pastor, my wife wouldn’t have left me and my kids, and that it was time for them to find new pastor.” 

“Within a few months I lost my wife, lost my job, and just about lost my calling.”

Unsure of how to respond, I sat there in silence waiting for him to continue.

He said, “The strangest thing happened though. I felt abandoned by my wife, and my vocation, but I never felt abandoned by God. I kept praying, I kept preaching (albeit in a different church). And no matter what occurred I experienced grace. Sometimes it was through a family who unexpectedly offered to watch my kids, at other times it was through the still small silence in the morning when I was the only one awake in the house, and sometimes it happened when I escaped to the strange new world of the Bible to prepare for a Sunday school lesson.”

“And that’s the thing I’ve come to discover about a life of faith – people can be real fickle, and even terrible. But God? God remains steadfast even when we don’t.”

A Necessary Alterity

“The church has become so fully identified with the ‘American Project’ that our writers have had little cause to heed any unique and distinctively Christians witness in the churches.”

So wrote Stanley Hauerwas in response to his perceived lack of a (decent) Christian corpus of fiction. And, frankly, I agree with him. Take a look at the “Christian” section in a bookstore and you’re likely to find a various assortment of pseudo-romance-theological novellas, a selection of “How To Get Closer To God” self-help books, and a handful of leftover seminary textbooks.

All of which don’t tell us much about faith, let alone the object of our faith: God.

An exception to this rule is/was Flannery O’Connor.

O’Connor’s fictive tales are some of the most “Christian” pieces of fiction I’ve ever read because they don’t hold any punches. They are, to put it in theological terms, decisively Pauline in that they affirm the depravity of humanity while also pointing to the unrelenting grace of God.

Hauerwas puts it this way: “Just as baptism resembles nothing so much as drowning and eucharist appears as a kind of cannibalism – while both events are the very means of life temporal and everlasting – so will Christian fiction be characterized by a necessary alterity, since the central Christian premise is that the world made and redeemed by God is constantly interrupted and transfigured by revelation.”

The team from Crackers & Grape Juice got together (online) last week to talk through some of these things and if you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A Christian Reading of American Literature

Eve Was Framed!

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sara Keeling about the readings for the 1st Sunday of Lent [A] (Genesis 2.15-17, 3.1-7, Psalm 32, Romans 5.12-19, Matthew 4.1-11). Sara is a United Methodist pastor serving Good Shepherd UMC in Dale City, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including lenten practices, the frustration of Facebook, dismantling the patriarchy, obedience, cosmic plans, one man to ruin them all, death’s dominion, funeral feelings, and the futility of resistance. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Eve Was Framed!

Holy Week Hangover

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 5.27-32, Psalm 118.14-29, Revelation 1.4-8, John 20.19-31). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including life on the other side of the resurrection, the best kind of hangover, The Sorting Hat, subversive obedience, gimmicky teasers, the most important psalm, proper agency, death breath, and doubt. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Holy Week Hangover

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A New, Old Way To Pray

What happens when a group of researchers discover a forgotten prayer tool from the middle-ages? Is it still relevant in the hustle and bustle of the world today? What does the past have to teach us about the future?

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I was fortunate a few weeks ago to record a conversation with 2/3 of the authors (Patton Dodd and Jana Riess) of The Prayer Wheel, a book dedicated to the discovery of the spiritual practice and thoughts about how to implement it today. Our conversation covered a range of other topics including medieval spirituality, the prophet Jeremiah, reverse engineering ancient practices, cherry picking prayers, and embracing imagination and creativity in community. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A New, Old Way To Pray

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

The Appearance Of Perfection

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Anita Ford about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [Year B] (Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24, John 1.6-8, 19-28). Anita is (as she puts it) a bonafide lectionary nerdling and serves at her local church as the lay leader. Additionally, Anita is a big fan of the Strangely Warmed podcast and has contributed to Voices in the Wilderness from Pupit Fiction in the past. Our conversation covers a range of topics including how jubilee is not a time on the calendar, the beauty of purple paraments, currents events matching up with the lectionary texts, Barth bombs, the Wizard of Oz, and ugly Christmas trees. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Appearance Of Perfection

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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.