Daydreaming About God

Devotional:

Hebrews 1.1

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed her of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.

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One of the things I loved most about the church I grew up in, is that I always felt like I could bring questions about faith to the pastors. They, like good clergy in the UMC, would come and go but no matter who stood in the pulpit on Sunday they offered a willingness to hear what was stirring within me, and they were always prepared to nudge me in the right direction. 

For me, a question would usually begin to percolate in the middle of a sermon. It would be a line, or a phrase, or even just one word that would stick out and from it I would journey into the unknown. Sadly, there were many times when that precise moment of question formation was when I tuned out the rest of the sermon and started searching in a pew bible for an answer. However, I would inevitably find myself more confused than when I started and I would patiently wait in line after church to drop my bombshell on the pastor.

It’s like Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once said, “People don’t come to church to hear preachments, of course, but to daydream about God.”

And it was on one such Sunday, long ago, while I was daydreaming about God that I got stuck on a particularly profound question: “Why don’t we hear God speaking to us like how God speaks to the people of the biblical narrative?” The text that morning must have been from a moment when God definitely spoke to a particular individual, and I wanted to know why I couldn’t hear God in the same way.

And so I dug into the pew bible and went looking for an answer. But by the final hymn I was no wiser than when I started, so I asked the pastor on my way out.

To this day I remember exactly what he said: “God spoke God’s truest and best Word in Jesus. If we are waiting to hear God speaks in our lives, all we have to do is open our bibles because God is still speaking to us through Jesus.”

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I only later learned that the pastor got the answer from the first chapter of Hebrews.

That memory has stayed with me over the years because of how profound it actually was. Many of us expect to hear God audibly speak to us in the midst of our prayers like we’re talking to a friend on the phone, and then we immediately become disappointed when God appears to be silent. However, my pastor was right: God spoke God’s fullest word in Jesus because Jesus is, was, and forever will be the incarnate Word. God can and still does speak to us through a variety of means like a conversation with a friend, a particular verse from a hymn, or even in the rare decent sermon, but God will always speak into our world through the stories of Jesus in scripture.

So, instead of reading the Bible like a collection of stories from the ancient past, can you imagine how life-giving it could be if we read it like Jesus was still speaking to us here and now? 

The beauty of the Bible takes on a whole new dimension when we stop limiting Jesus to the past, and start hearing him in the present. 

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Christianity and the Fourth of July

2 Corinthians 12.10

Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

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On the 4th of July, Americans bring out all the red, white, and blue we can muster and we fill the sky with fireworks. It is always a spectacle to behold. The day encapsulates so much of what America stands for: freedom, festivities, and food!

And behind the colorful outfits, and backyard barbeques, and displays of pyrotechnical achievements, the 4th of July is all about strength. So much of what Americans do on the 4th points to the country’s strength in the realm of economics and militaristic might and total freedom.

However, on the 4th of July, while many of us will be out in our communities celebrating America’s independence, it is important for Christians to remember that the day doesn’t really belong to us.

Can we wear red, white, and blue? Of course, though we should oppose forms of nationalism that result in xenophobia and violence.

Can we support our military? Of course, but we must not forget that America is an imperial power that often uses violence indiscriminately and disproportionately throughout the world.

Can we kick back and enjoy the fireworks? Of course, though we cannot let them blind us to the injustice that is taking place each and every day within our borders.

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The 4th of July does not belong to us not because Christians are against America, but simply because our hopes, dreams, and desires have been formed by the Lord. What we experience across the country as we mark the independence is fun and full of power, but it will never compare to the weakness that is true strength in the bread and wine at the communion table and the water in the baptismal font.

Americans might bleed red, white, and blue, but Jesus bled for us such that we wouldn’t have to.

Therefore, should we avoid the practices that make the 4th of July what it is? Should we abstain from the hot dogs, and pool parties, and fireworks?

Of course not.

But if those things are more compelling and life-giving that the Word of the Lord revealed through Jesus the Christ, then we have a problem.

In Jesus Christ we discover the end of all sacrifices, particularly those demanded by countries of their citizens.

In Jesus Christ we meet the one in whom we live and move and have our being such that we can rejoice in the presence of the other without hatred, fear, or even bitterness.

In Jesus Christ we find the incarnate Lord whose resurrection from the dead brought forth a light into this world that overshadows all fireworks.

In Jesus Christ we begin to see that weakness is actually strength.

Jesus Is Lord, And Everything Else Is…

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost (1 Samuel 3.1-10, Psalm 139.1-6, 13-18, 2 Corinthians 4.5-12, Mark 2.23-3.6). Mikang serves as the pastor of Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including connecting with God through a native language, the movie Love Letter, choosing biblical names, pregnancy prayers, divine repetition, shame and guilt, dissonance and harmony, and breaking the rules. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus Is Lord, And Everything Else Is…

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Devotional – 1 Samuel 3.1

Devotional:

1 Samuel 3.1

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

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It’s mean, but one of my favorite games to play is called, “Is it in the bible, or not?” I could be in the middle of a mission trip with middle school students, or in a nursing home with residents, or in a preschool surrounded by 4 year olds, when I will start the game and relish in the responses.

I’ll usually start with something tame like, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and the participants will nod their heads in affirmation. But then I’ll up my game a little bit with something like, “With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement.” People will usually scratch their heads wondering why I brought out something so unpleasant, but it’s there in Deuteronomy 23. By the end of the game I usually drop something like, “God helps those who help themselves.” To which people often express their agreement when in fact it’s definitely not in the bible.

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We no longer know the story of God like we once did. I don’t mean to sound overly harsh, but it’s true. During the time of Jesus, young men grew up having most (if not all) of the Psalms memorized. Today we’re lucky if we can get through the 23rd Psalm. John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, was able to quote scripture left and right. Today we need bible apps and Google searches to find the right verse. Even preachers like me fail to love the Word of the Lord in a way that is comparable with the preachers of the past.

Perhaps our lack of love for scripture is due to the fact that we have other things to distract us constantly, or that we have tools that can give us scriptural answers whenever we need them, or that we no longer revere the text for what it is. It’s impossible to particularly pinpoint the reason for the bible’s fall from grace in our contemporary world, but it’s something we are called to combat.

Because, unlike the days of Samuel, the Word of God is not rare today.

We live on the other side of the resurrection, we have churches with more bibles than they know what to do with, and we can jump into the strange new world of the bible whenever we would like to.

If you want to hear the Word of the Lord, if you want to receive a vision about what is to come, if you want to encounter the living God, you need not look further than the bible.

Devotional – Genesis 25.29-31

Devotional:

Genesis 25:29-31

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”

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Communicating the stories of scripture to young children is a challenge. Ask any young person even remotely familiar with the bible about their favorite story and you’re likely to hear something about Noah’s ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, or David and Goliath. But the bible is so much more than those stories and they need to be shared with all people.

During Chapel Time with the preschool students at my last church I would often try to come up with different and imaginative ways to tell the story. Long ago flannel-graph representations of characters and objects would be enough to impart the story in a young person’s mind, but today, with the advent of social media and youtube, different means are necessary.

Every year I would guide the children through the bible and whenever we came to the story of Jacob and Esau I asked the children to join me in the church kitchen. All of the ingredients were prepared ahead of time and each student was able to add a portion of the ingredients to make some “red stuff” (chili). They would stand there mystified as the ground beef mixed with the tomatoes and the black beans and the spices and they all struggled to stir the giant pot with a large wooden spoon. When it was ready to cook I would put it on the stove and let the kids return to their classes for a few hours.

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At the end of the day, right before they were dismissed, I would bring the chili downstairs and each child was offered their own bowl. While we ate together I would tell them the story of Jacob and Esau and how Esau was willing to get rid of something so wonderful and so precious for a bowl of red stuff. The kids would stare into their empty bowls and contemplate the greater blessing of a full stomach or the blessing of almighty God and then we would pray together.

I loved teaching the lesson every year, but what I didn’t anticipate was how well the younger children would remember it with each passing year. Because by the time the 2 year olds became 4 year olds they refused to even taste the chili for fear that God would remove the blessing from them!

The stories of scripture offer us a window into the divine. The bible is a strange new world that we enter whenever we open the book, and stays with us whenever we put it down. In the world today we are offered all kinds of things to quench our thirst and satisfy our hunger whether its literal liquid and food or relationships or experiences. But all of them are fleeting when compared to the immense blessing of God in Jesus Christ.

In Defense Of The Revised Common Lectionary

Crackers & Grape Juice is an interview-driven theological podcast about faith without using stained glass language. My friends Jason Micheli, Teer Hardy, and Morgan Guyton started the podcast over a year ago in order to remain connected to one another while also continuing to explore theology. Near the beginning, I was asked to help with editing specific episodes and quickly became part of the team. Since the inception, Crackers & Grape Juice’s audience has grown tremendously thanks, in part, to interviewees such as David Bentley Hart, Stanley Hauerwas, Will Willimon, Rob Bell, and others. We are committed to producing and providing faithful content with faithful theologians, but we have also added a new podcast to the mix.

Strangely Warmed is a new lectionary-based podcast designed to address the weekly church reading without using stained glass language. The Revised Common Lectionary is a wonderful resource for churches and one that has come to shape the Christian experience over the last few decades. The RCL is a three-year cycle of four readings for each Sunday and special days throughout the liturgical year. There is always a reading from the Old Testament, the Psalms, an Epistle, and a Gospel (with a few exceptions). At the heart of the RCL is a desire to bring churches through the great narrative of scripture without being limited by the subjectivity of the preacher.

However, the Lectionary is something unknown in many churches even if the preacher follows it weekly. Therefore, I have created the following Top Ten List in defense of the Revised Common lectionary for pastors and lay people who are interested in following and subscribing to Strangely Warmed. (You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, and Spreaker)

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  1. Our Time is NOT God’s Time
    1. Christians, whether they know it or not, follow a different year than the calendar year. We might write February 28th on our checks and important documents, but for us the day is actually defined by being part of the season of Epiphany (until Ash Wednesday when we enter the season of Lent). To follow Jesus Christ implies a willingness to have our expectations (taught to us by the world) uprooted and flipped by the living God. The RCL helps guide us through the Christian year in such a way that our identity first rests with our discipleship, and then everything else secondarily. Moreover, following something like the RCL is a reminder that our time is not the same thing as God’s time. We might feel wearied by the weight of the most recent political development or social event, but the stories of God’s interaction with God’s people transcend time; they are in fact timeless. There is a great comfort that comes when diving into the strange new world of the bible through the RCL because it provides a sense of perspective that Christians regularly need.
  2. Habits/Discipline
    1. As Stanley Hauerwas has said on a number of occasions: What we believe shapes how we behave. Following the RCL informs our beliefs and necessarily shapes our behaviors, choices, and actions. The lectionary is a habit and requires discipline for both pastors and lay people. I will be the first to admit that there are plenlty of stories in the Bible that I would rather not preach, and when a particular event occurs I often know which story from the Bible would be effective to use from the pulpit in which to address the event. However, only picking and choosing the stories that we are familiar with, or the stories we are comfortable with, furthers the sinful idea that we can fit God into a box. Psalm 23 is a beautiful text and brings comfort to many people, but it cannot be the only thing that we Christians proclaim on a weekly basis. We need the Psalm 22s just as much as the Psalm 23s and the RCL provides that disciplined exposure to the canonical narrative of God’s grace.
  3. Limited Imagination
    1. Similarly, following the RCL, whether in preaching or in a bible study, forces us to proclaim scripture we would otherwise ignore. God can, and does, speak through scripture, even if we can’t imagine how upon first glance. And when we limit the passages on Sunday mornings to, say, the Gospels, we are limiting God’s Word being proclaimed in worship. There are definitely weird and strange passages in both the Old and New Testaments, but committing to them (rather than ignoring them) challenges us to have scripturally shaped imaginations. At the heart of the RCL is a commitment to be under the obligation of the text to say what God wants said for God’s church rather than what the preacher want to say about God to God’s church.
  4. Biblical Literacy
    1. We don’t know our bibles like we once did. Period. I could go on and on about the many times I’ve encountered someone who has gone to church for most of his/her life only to not know about the story of the bible. For instance: I was recently asked if Moses was in the New Testament, another person had no idea who Isaiah was, and another shared her utter shock that when we have communion we are living into the last time Jesus gathered with the disciples. All of those interactions came from people who have been going to church longer than I’ve been alive! Now I’m not say that we need to memorize the entirety of scripture, or get lost in the weeds, but the RCL is a tool to help us reclaim our biblical literacy.
  5. The catholic (universal) church
    1. Preaching and reading from the RCL connects us with the church universal. There is something profoundly beautiful about the fact that two churches, from completely different denominations, can read the same scripture on the same Sunday morning. Personally, this connection with the catholic church has been made manifest in a Lectionary Bible Study I participate in at the church I serve where more than half of the people in attendance attend other churches on Sunday morning. Yet, the same scriptures we read during the week are the ones they encounter on Sunday morning. In a time when there seem to be almost more denomination than there are Christians, the RCL connects us to the united church that Christ prayed for in John 17.
  6. Scripture Interprets Scripture
    1. The bible is cyclical, and you can miss this if you read it in isolation or with the strange collaboration of something like the RCL. For instance, the story of Christ’s Transfiguration on the mountaintop is a powerful one in and of itself, but it takes on a whole new meaning when we read it in light of the similarities between Jesus and Moses. Both were born into situations where their lives were in peril, both heard the voice of the Lord in pivotal moments before their ministries began, both proclaimed the law from a mountain, and both had their faces shine in the light of God’s presence. Scripture helps interpret scripture, and the RCL does a pretty good job at pairing readings from throughout the bible that connect with one another.
  7. Christological Focus
    1. Jesus Christ is the lens by which we read scripture. We Christians have the benefit of knowing the “end of the story” when we are reading passages from the Old Testament and we should remember Christ’s role throughout the canon. However, we don’t simply read the New Testament into the Old; we also need to read the Old into the New. The New Testament is filled with scriptural references to the Old Testament that fall flat when we, as preachers and readers, do not draw the connections between the two. And Christ is the glue that holds both Testaments together. The RCL implores those who adhere to it to see the connections between all four readings and how Christ is the means by which they relate to one another.
  8. Inexhaustibility of Scripture
    1. God always has something to say. Now that I’m in my fourth year of ministry, I am making my way through Year A of the RCL for the second time and I am blown away by how much the same scripture I preached on just a few years ago still have so much to say. The way I read John 1 my first year in ministry has changed dramatically and has therefore transformed the way I preach that passage. Similarly, I have been in bible studies and read enough theology over the last few years that I will never look at certain passages the same way again. The RCL allows we preachers to reflect on how we looked at, and preached, a text in the recent past and how we can use in again in the present.
  9. Room for the Spirit
    1. As previously mentioned, there are some difficult passages in both the Old and New Testaments. Passages about the wrath of God or the judgment of God are not easily preached or taught in church. However, using the RCL compels the preacher to rely on the Spirit’s guidance when handling a difficult passage which is something that should be done for every sermon regardless of difficulty. When I was first appointed to St. John’s and was planning worship for the coming months, I made a habit of reading all for lectionary texts for each Sunday and the one I wanted to preach on the least was the one that I picked for the particular Sunday. This simple practice forced me to rely on praying for the Spirit to guide me and for God’s will to be done in a way that made my preaching better, more faithful, and more fruitful.
  10. Being Shaped by the Word
    1. In our current cultural clime (the Reign of Trump), the lectionary helps us negotiate the world in which we find ourselves. Rather than reading into scripture what we want to say, the RCL allows us to proclaim what God wants to say. If we are willing to stand under the text (rather than above it) then we can let the text narrate our lives and we can be faithful. For example: On election day, the gospel lection was about Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple in three days. Stanley Hauerwas was tasked with preaching that week at Duke Divinity School, and he preached about how Jesus just didn’t get it; you don’t tell the Jews the Temple is going to be destroyed in three days if you’re running for office. He then went on to address how the assumption that elections are the means by which just societies are established is an illusion; in the New Testament we learn about how democracies work in the one moment where there is an example of a democratic election… the crowd chose Barabbas. Hauerwas easily could have picked any number of passages from the Bible to preach during Election Day, but he was held accountable to the lectionary, which told him what to preach rather than the other way around. Following the RCL, whether in preaching or in teaching, grants us the freedom to be shaped by the Word.

 

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Devotional -Leviticus 19.1-2

Devotional:

Leviticus 19.1-2

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

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Before I became the pastor of St. John’s, I had a meeting with other clergy from the Virginia Conference who were all about to start at their first appointments. We represented a number of different seminaries and all of us were nervous in some way, shape, or form about what we were about to embark upon. A few of us were about to serve as deacons connecting the church to the world through youth ministry positions and hospital chaplaincy, a few of us were going to large churches as associate pastors, and a few of us were being sent to serve a church all by ourselves.

After a few ice-breakers designed to build bridges between us, we were all asked to answer the question: “What are you most worried about?” I remember someone jumping right in to say, “I am terrified of having to do funerals.” Another person said, “I have no idea what it takes to create and implement a church budget.” Another person said, “I’m nervous about being single and whether or not people will respect me for who I am.” And my friend Drew ended with, “I just want to be holy.”

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We all listened and offered advice to one another, but Drew’s comment has always stuck with me. While the rest of us were nervous and anxious about specific and practical matters, Drew was thinking about his holiness. How in the world can pastors lead people to holiness when they feel unholy? What does it even mean to be holy in the first place?

Some might say that to be holy means going to church every Sunday. Others might say that holiness comes with reading the bible every morning. And still yet others might say that you can only be holy if you pray to God every night before you fall asleep.

Holiness, however, is about living a life of total devotion to God. That might manifest itself in showing up to church, and reading the bible, and talking to God, but it also entails a fundamental commitment to the Lord in everything we do.

It means that when we encounter the stranger we see them as a brother and sister in Christ. It means that when we spend our money we reflect on whether or not it is bringing harm to someone else. It means that we strive to take nothing for granted because tomorrow is never promised.

Being a Christian is not a hobby, or something to be turned on and off whenever we choose. Being a Christian is about living a life of holiness and being totally devoted to God.

So then we must ask ourselves: What am I currently doing that is unholy? What relationships are preventing me from being totally devoted to God? What idols am I being consumed by instead of committing myself to the Lord? How can I be holy?