The Grammar of Faith

Genesis 12.1-4a

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him.

The people who seem to have it all just drive me crazy. 

Now, you’re good and faithful and kind people so you don’t know what’s its like to feel the way I do, but when people go about parading all of their successes and all of their perfections I just get all sorts of frustrated.

It’s even worse when the people in question are Christians.

These people are the type who get on social media and brag about all the blessings God has showered down on top of them, all the while giving you a tour of their 3.5 million dollar house. 

They are the type of people who, after experiencing some apparently divine miracle, start raking in the dough from the righteous investments and then brag about their vacation home on the other side of the world. 

They are the type of people who make it seem as if being a Christian simply means there are no problems, no fights with spouses, no disagreements with kids, no bills to be paid, no medicine to take, so long as you invite Jesus into your heart.

But what about the other Christians? 

What about the disciple who’s coping with poverty and hunger? What about the family that shows up in church only to get in the car and continue the fight they paused when they pulled into the parking lot? What about the person sitting in the pews week after week feeling less and less sure about this thing called faith?

To be clear: Miracles happen, and the less fortunate can become the most fortunate. After all, Jesus did say that the first will be last and the last will be first. It just seems like sometimes those who go from last to first want to remind everyone that they got there on their own.

Which, of course, is absurd. 

But that doesn’t stop us from consuming it with reckless abandon.

We are suckers for the supposedly self-made fortunes, and the get rich quick schemes, and the take this pill to lose all your fat babble. 

And, frankly, if we want to pour ourselves into those narratives, we are more than welcome to do so, they just don’t have much to do with the Lord.

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Every verse in the Bible is important.

That’s why, every week, we read the Word aloud in this space and we affirm the importance of that Word by responding with: The Word of God for the People of God… Thanks be to God. There are, of course, verses in the scripture for which it becomes a little harder to affirm our gratitude for something that appears confounding. But, as Christians, we believe that this book continues to speak new and fresh and good words into our lives, even today.

Every verse is important but (dare I say it?) there are some which are more important than others. What we’ve read today, the call of Abram, though short and to the point, it contains some of the most important words of all: Now the Lord said to Abram…

That might not seem like much, but it is not too strong of a statement to say that the entire structure of our faith hangs upon this foundation that we, at other times, call revelation. Now the Lord said to Abram… If this is something we believe to be true, then everything else falls into place accordingly.

Like most books, we learn to read the Bible in particular ways. Some of us learned this explicitly from a pastor or a Sunday school teacher, and others among us just picked it up along the way. There are a great many ways to read the Word and how we do it can make all the difference.

The two primary ways of coming to the text, of reading it and hearing it, are to do so anthropologically or theologically.

Now, before I lose all of you to the midmorning nap session that can come from using words like the ones I just did, bear with me. All they mean is that we can encounter the Bible as if its all about humanity (and largely only about humanity) or as if its all about God (and largely only about God).

How we read the Bible, and in particular this story near the beginning, is a big deal.

And it comes down to grammar. 

Again, I recognize that I am tempting fate by dragging out such ideas this early on a Sunday morning, on Daylight Savings no less, but the grammar we use in the life of faith communicates more about who we are and whose we are than we recognize

God is the subject of the verb right here at the beginning of Genesis 12. That means we’re not the main characters of the story – God is.

The story of the Bible is, of course, the great tale of God with God’s people’s, but (more often than not) we read it as the story of who we are, and what we’re supposed to do, or not to, and the more we focus on ourselves the less we realize that God is the subject of the verb.

But we don’t like this. 

Not one bit. 

So time and time again we change the grammar. We do it whether we’re lay or clergy, we do it in the pulpit and in the classroom, and the results can be devastating.

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I can vividly remember attending a college campus meeting of Christians shortly after moving away from home in which all of the faithful freshman were encouraged to gather together for a worship service in an auditorium. There was a band that played familiar songs, and we said familiar prayers, and this scripture from Genesis 12 was used by the speaker that night. 

She went on and on about how Abram was faithful in traveling to where God sent him. She talked about how Abram is an example to all of us whenever we encounter something new and strange and different. She kept returning to this singular idea that no matter how difficult college life might feel like, all of us had to keep the faith, to stay the course, and to be like Abram as strangers in a strange land.

I know she meant well, and I know that she truly believed in what she was saying, the only problem is most of us were already nervous as it was, and now it felt ten times worse. She left us with this idea that our faith was being put to the test, and that only if we held fast to our moral convictions would we remain, as she put it, sheep of His flock.

It was all about us, and it had almost nothing to do with God.

We, whether we’re college freshman or not, are all functioning narcissists. We think the world revolves around us and we want to know how everything will affect us and we act as if the entirety of the cosmos is resting on our shoulders.

And that is exhausting.

For some reason, bad theology mostly, we think this whole story from Genesis 12 is going to be about Abram as if Abram has special powers or holy characteristics that make him worthy of God’s affections. There had to be something special about Abram that led to God choosing to bless the world through him. 

But, the truth is, we don’t know anything about Abram at this point in the story. At least Noah was a good man when God told him to build the ark, but Abram’s got nothing. All we know from Genesis is that he is the son of Terrah, and his wife Sarai is barren. 

That’s it.

And yet, those skim details are everything! They are everything because these two people carry nothing significant about them or within them. What happens from this point forward is about what God does in the lives of two people who had no potential for anything on their own.

God chooses nobodies to bless the world.

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I don’t know how that makes you feel, but it brings me great comfort. For, if God could bless the world through two people who had no hope in the world, then maybe God can do something even through someone like me.

Or someone like you. 

And, again, notice the grammar. God is the one who blesses the world through Abram and Sarai, not the other way around. God is the one who makes a way out of no way which, incidentally, is the entire story of the Bible.

God promises to do what is impossible for humankind, God calls into existence things that do not exist, God is the subject of the verb.

If it were all on us, if it were all up to us, we would fail. We can’t bless the world because we are far too concerned with blessing ourselves. We can’t fix the world because we are so fixated on our own problems. We can’t redeem the world because we are the ones who need redemption.

We can’t even keep our promises.

But God does. 

Always.

That’s a pretty crazy thing to think about when you hear it for the first time or the thousandth time, it just also happens to be true.

Lenny Duncan is a pastor in Brooklyn, NY at a church that has rapidly grown under his leadership. He is a gifted speaker and is sought after across the country as someone who can speak the truth of the role of church in the 21st century. He wrote a book that I’m reading right now called Dear Church.

But the fact that Lenny became a pastor is a miracle.

It’s a miracle because he had a far greater chance of ending up in prison than behind a pulpit.

He’s a former drug dealer, sex worker, homeless queer teen, and a felon.

He tried church again and again and again when he was younger, and every time he did he left feeling worse than when he arrived. He was told, explicitly and implicitly that he was not enough, that he needed to correct his ways before coming to the Lord, and that he needed to take a good hard look in the mirror to find out if he was really worthy of Jesus’ love.

That only led to more of the same in his life.

Until one day, miraculously, he entered a church just like any other church, sitting in the first pew with a backward cap on, listening to people whisper about him under their breath, but this time he heard something different. Not a different sermon or a different prayer or a different hymn, but a different invitation.

An invitation that felt like an invasion. 

“This is Jesus’ table; he made no restrictions, so come.”

There was no membership meeting, no checking of theology, no “friendly” talk with the pastor before he was invited to the table of grace. He was welcomed simply as he was, and that was revolutionary. 

He describes the moment that he heard those words and walked up the center aisle like this: 

Tears welled up in my eyes as I walked forward… this welcome to the table was something I had never experienced before. I didn’t even know what it was. It awakened the shadow side of my relationship with God that I hadn’t had the courage to look under. It was like a knife that cut instantly through years of shame and brokenness and released me from those bonds. Grace is like a knife sometimes.

That invasion of an invitation changed him forever. It changed him because instead of being invited to change or transform or get his life together, he was invited by a mighty God who works the changes that we couldn’t on our own. 

Right then and there God called him to a new and strange and different life. Not because he had any of the prerequisites or the right schooling or the right amount of faith, but simply because God loves to make something of our nothing. Amen.

Age Is Just A Number

Devotional:

Jeremiah 1.6-7

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.”

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I was out in my front yard when the two young men wheeled up with their too tight helmets and their too long black skinny ties.

Mormons.

I had seen them around the neighborhood on a number of occasions but always in passing and they never seemed to notice me. But now here we were, standing on the sidewalk when the taller of the two introduced himself and immediately began with, “Excuse me, but do you know Jesus?”

Do I know Jesus?

For a moment I thought about lying, I thought about pretending I had never ever heard of the man, just to see what kind of lecture I was going to receive.

But I was tired, and in no mood to be evangelized. So I simply said, “I sure do, and I tell people about him every Sunday, I’m a pastor.”

The two monochromatically dressed missionaries stared at me in disbelief until the smaller one said, “Gee, I thought pastors had to be old.”

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It has amazed me how much my age in relation to my vocation is brought up on a regular basis. And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t even look very young. I’m losing my hair and I have a fairly sizable beard. 

And yet, there is this strange expectation that to be involved in the duties of pastoral ministry requires a look of weathering!

When called called Jeremiah to his vocation of being a prophet, Jeremiah promptly responded with doubts about his usefulness precisely because of his age. And God hears none of it: “This isn’t about you or your age or your experience; it’s about what I’m going to do through you!”

Throughout my varied experiences in varied churches there is this limiting belief that God can only call certain kinds of people to certain kinds of tasks. Churches want extraverted people leading worship, but they also wanted introverted people to visit them in the hospital. They want young ministers to help bring in young families, but they want old pastors who can work from experience.

In the church, almost more than anywhere else, age is nothing but a number. Time and time again throughout the Bible God calls upon people regardless of their age, or their experience, or even their talents simply because God is the one who will work through them. 

Do you feel unqualified for something that’s happening in church? Do you believe your abilities might be best suited elsewhere? Has God called you to something that you think is impossible?

These are important questions, but like Jeremiah, we do well to remember that it’s not really about us; it’s about what God can do through us. 

Rage Against Explanation

Isaiah 62.1-5

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch. The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory; and you shall be called by a new name, that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall not more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is In Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

I saw him walk by the window before I heard the knock on the door. We get a lot of foot traffic by the main office, and every once in a while someone will stop by the entrance to talk with the preacher. A few have asked for directions. Others have wanted information about the church. Most need some financial assistance.

I stood in the doorway and extended my hand and offered for the guy to come in, take a seat, and enjoy the warmth of our building on a particularly cold day.

He told me about his life, the ups the downs, the children and the wives, the bottles and the sobriety. He’s currently employed by the federal government but, like many, he’s not getting paid right now. 

And then he asked, “Why is God doing this?”

On Thursday three white Chicago police officers were acquitted on charges that they had conspired and lied to protect a white police office who fired 16 deadly bullets into a black teenager named Laquan McDonald. The officers claimed that the young man had swung a knife at them repeatedly, and even though there was no evidence of the fact on the videos presented to the court, the police officers were released with no penalties.

A pastor who was present in the courtroom was interviewed immediately after the verdict was released and said to anyone with ears to hear: “How could God let this happen?”

I was getting my oil changed this week when a woman in the waiting room leaned over and asked what I did for a living. And I told her the truth. She asked if I was being serious. She told me about how she grew up in the church, how the people in that church were salt of the earth, how they made her into who she is. I asked where she went to church now. She said she doesn’t. And, she remarked matter-of-factly, that church she grew up in closed a few years ago. 

Thinking the conversation had come to a conclusion I made open up a book but she left this lingering question hanging in the air: “Why would God let a church die?”

All of us, in some way or another, are looking for answers. 

The people Israel were utterly devastated by Babylon – they were conquered, humiliated, and carted away as strangers to be planted in a strange land. An entire generation would pass before they could return to the land God had promised them. Most of them only knew about it from the fairly tales their parents would tell them.

It’s not hard to imagine that the people of God, far from home, were asking themselves, “How long will this God of ours remain silent? It’s all good and nice to hear about what God did for Abraham, and Moses, and David, but when is God going to do something for us?!”

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These kind of questions appear again and again in the Old Testament – frankly they are the kind of questions that just about everyone in this room have asked at one point or another, and if not yet, we will one day.

And so it is in the midst of utter hopelessness, with no sign other that the words of aging relatives, that the words of the prophet arrive like electricity: “I can’t keep quiet!”

For the sake of God’s people I will not remain silent! God has given me something to say!

So much of what happens in the church today, whether is a sermon or a program, really boils down to this: “What are we gonna do about it?” 

We confront a particular issue and we wrestle with a particular response.

Sermons or programs end with a “lettuce” moment. 

Let us now go into the community to fix all the wrongs we encounter, let us challenge the powers that be, let us make the world a better place.

And yet Isaiah doesn’t tell God’s people what to do. Isaiah begins by demanding that God needs to do something about the situation, that God needs to make good on God’s promises!

Part of the power of this book, the Bible, the Holy Scriptures, is the good news it has to offer toward people who desperately near to hear good news. But the other part of its power is found in its ability to name the realities that people are facing all the time.

We’ve been talking about what’s right with the church this month, and I can think of no better way to put it than this: the church tells the truth; the truth about us, about the world, and about God.

Nothing in this collection of words makes any sense unless we are people of faith who believe that it’s true.

It’s as simple as that.

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However, there is a tension, the same kind of tension we wrestled with in Advent between the already and not yet. Isaiah announces and reminds God’s people about God’s promises. God has not, and God will not, abandon God’s people. But that strikes an uncomfortable chord when we consider how messed up this world is. What good is the promise of God in the middle of our pain?

I get asked many questions. There’s something about this office that carries with it the implication that I get to see behind the curtain and have the answers to the questions that confound us. But, to be abundantly clear – there is no good answer to the question of suffering in the world.

There is no good explanation for why horrible things happen, at least from the perspective of God.

For instance: if I have to hear another pastor preach over the funeral for a young person’s untimely death with the words, “God just wanted another little angel in heaven.” I will throw my bible across the sanctuary and tries as hard as I can to hit the preacher right in the face.

There are of course “bad things” that we experience and can point to the powers and principalities and personalities in the world and throw are charges against them. 

Like yesterday, during a peaceful indigenous peoples’ march in DC, a group of young white men surrounded and belittled an elderly Native American man while he was chanting and playing a traditional drum.

We can point to the powers and principalities that have rewarded that type of bullying and discriminatory behavior that resulted in the scene from yesterday. We can call to question the behaviors and practices and motives and ideologies that lead to something like that. 

But even still, there are indiscriminately horrible things that happen to people in this world that are beyond explanation.

How, then, are we to respond? Should we sit around twiddling our fingers in our own exile? Should we sit back and wait while things fall apart all around us? Should we offer trite and cliches responses to suffering because we don’t know what else to say?

Perhaps one of the greatest responses to this suffering world is what David Bentley Hart calls “rage against explanation.” We, as Christians, rage against the desire and the drive to explain everything as if God allowed something to happen or willed something to happen.

It’s the people who try to fill in the void created by tragedies with explanations of God’s plan that make God into a vindictive monster instead of the one who knows the truth of our suffering.

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I can remember being in the hospital one night while I was working as the on-call chaplain at Duke. The beeper attached to my belt felt like a shackle that I dragged around the building; I fretted over every notice and whether or not I would be called into a room filled with people looking for any explanation.

And so when the beeper went off, I made a mental note of the room number, and started trudging toward the other side of the facility.

When I got right outside the room, the doctor pulled me aside and said that the patient had been asking to speak with a professional pastor (which of course I wasn’t), and when I asked for more details the doctor just shrugged his shoulders and went back to making his rounds.

I walked into the room and the woman looked me up and down, and then rolled away from me toward the window.

At that point of the night I had already been in too many rooms and sat with too many families, so I just sat down in the chair and stared out the window with her. 

I have no idea how long we sat there in silence together, but eventually I pulled out the tiny bible I had in my pocket, and I turned to a random psalm:

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”

To which she rolled back over with a slight smile on her face and said, “It’s nice to know that someone knows how I feel.”

God is God and we are not. God thoughts are not our thoughts nor are God’s ways our ways. But once we begin to grasp even the smallest bit of God’s greatness, and majesty, and other-ness, then the news of Isaiah’s proclamation is even more bewildering and awesome – God rejoices over us.

There is no good explanation for why certain things happen. We can’t make sense of the senseless tragedies that happen all around us. 

But this is also not the end.

The Israelites eventually returned to a broken and abandoned community after their years in exile – they never quite experienced the promise they had imagined. But then, the time came, with God’s definitive act in the world, the incarnation. Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully human, came from the far country of God’s divinity to dwell among us, and then the ultimate price was paid such that the promise would come to fruition – not just for an individual, or even a nation, but for the entirety of the cosmos.

In scripture and in life, God does not speak to us of why things happen. Instead, God speaks about how things can be. God speaks to us not in explanations, but in promises!

Promises that we can scarcely imagine or even fathom.

What Isaiah announced to the people called Israel, God has revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. We who were once far off, removed by our own exile, have been brought near by the blood of the lamb who was slain for the world.

So we can rage all we want at the powers and principalities and personalities that are responsible for so much of the suffering in the world, but we can also rage against explanation as we walk hand in hand with those who are in the midst of darkness. Amen. 

Pedestals Are Meant To Be Broken

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chenda Innis Lee about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost (2 Samuel 11.26-12.13a, Psalm 51.1-12, Ephesians 4.1-16, John 6.24-35). Chenda is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and she serves as one of the pastors at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including crumbs at the table, putting God in God’s place, the underrated prophet, losing agency, sharing passwords, reconciliation, Paul’s lack of gentleness, equipping the saints, being lost, and breaking pedestals. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Pedestals Are Meant To Be Broken

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Advent Longing [Live]

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The Crackers & Grape Juice team recently hosted a live podcast event in Alexandria, VA where we invited Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass to offer their reflections about the first and second Advents. In the second part of the evening, we invited Diana to join us at the front and she explored the the ramifications of announcing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the importance of the second Advent, human agency vs. divine agency, and how to teach children about the already but not yet of God’s Advent in Christ. Diana is an author, speaker, and scholar specializing in American religion and culture. If you would like to listen to the live recording, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Advent Longing

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Devotional – 1 Corinthians 1.9

Devotional:

1 Corinthians 1.9

God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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On any given day when I hear about faithfulness, it is often attributed to people. When a family is in church every Sunday for months in a row, I’ll overhear someone describe them as a truly “faithful” family. When a wife shares about her husband’s infidelity, she describes him having broken his “faithfulness.” When a family shares the story about Santa Claus with a questioning child they ask him/her to keep the “faith.”

Even from the pulpit, I am apt to use language about faithfulness primarily in regards to us. On any given Sunday I can wax lyrical about faithful giving, and faithful praying, and faithful yearning. I can quote the parables describing faith like a mustard seed, I can debate different uses of faith by Jesus across the gospels, and I can encourage people to have the type of faith that can move mountains.

But the faith I hear about the least, and sadly the faith I talk about the least, is the faith of God.

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Paul begins his first letter to the church in Corinth with a declaration not about who they are, but about who God is: “God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus the Christ.” However, there are many moments in the realm of “doing Church” where we make it all about us and what we do. We say things like, “Let us now go and do likewise,” or “Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior,” and it’s like God isn’t even in the room.

But the bible, and what it means to be the church, is always primarily about God, and only secondarily about us.

At the heart of following Jesus is the recognition that God (in Christ) is faithful. God is faithful to the promises of scripture. God is faithful in receiving our prayers. God is faithful in delivering us out of captivity to sin and death. God calls us into fellowship with the Son. God reveals God’s self in the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup. God destroys us and resurrects us to new life in baptism. God is faithful.

At the beginning of the liturgical year, it is good and right for us to remember that God is God and we are not, that God moves in and through us, and that God is faithful even when we are not.