The Altar Is The Whirlwind

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 22nd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 42.1-6, 10-17, Psalm 34.1-8, Hebrews 7.23-28, Mark 10.46-52). Jason serves Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer serves Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including podcast statistics, popular theologians, ashy repentance, feasting on the Word, constant communion, The Holy Mountain, faithful architecture, the manifestation of mercy, and Karl Barth. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Altar Is The Whirlwind

Lift High The Priest

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 21st Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Job 38.1-7, Psalm 104.1-9, 24, 35c, Hebrews 5.1-10, Mark 10.35-45). Jason serves Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer serves Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including reunions, graphic novels, preconceived notions, agency, majestic clothing, parodic embodiment, political projections, the theology of worship, and John Howard Yoder. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Lift High The Priest

Drastic Measures

Psalm 130.1-2 

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!

A woman was walking down the street one afternoon when, all of the sudden, the ground fell out from beneath her and she tumbled into a giant sinkhole. After brushing herself off, she realized that the walls were far too steep for her to climb out and she began to cry out for help.

A doctor happened to be passing by and he looked into the pit when the woman yelled, “Hey! I’m stuck down here. Can you help me out?”

The doc thought about it for a moment, pulled out a notepad, wrote a prescription, tossed it into the hole, and kept walking.

Later, a preacher came walking along and the woman shouted, “Hey Rev! Please help. I’m stuck down in this hole and I can’t get out!”

The pastor slowly put his hands together, said a prayer for the woman, and kept walking.

Next, a sweet older woman from the local church walked to the edge of the pit and the woman yelled, “Please help! I’m starting to get desperate down here.”

To which the older woman replied, “Honey, don’t you know that God helps those who help themselves?” And she kept walking.

Finally, a friend of the woman in the hole arrived. “Hey! It’s me down here!” she shouted from the depths, “Can you please get me out?” And the friend immediately jumped straight down into the pit. The woman couldn’t believe it and she said, “You idiot! Now we’re both stuck down here!” 

But that’s when the friend said, “Yeah, but I’ve been down here before, and I know the way out…”

I love that little anecdote and, full disclosure, I stole it from The West Wing. Ever since I heard Leo McGarry share the narrative with Josh Lyman it has rattled in my brain because it’s basically the Gospel. 

God, in Jesus Christ, is the friend who rather recklessly jumps into the depths of our depravity and our despair. God never abandons us even when we go off assuming that we can (or should) do it all on our own. God humbles himself to the humiliating status of humanity just to come down in the muck and mire of our lives.

God comes to us.

That’s the whole point.

We might like to think that the journey of our discipleship is about climbing out of our badness into a life of goodness, but it’s actually about recognizing our rather desperate situation down in a deep hole and how God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us.

The grace of God made manifest in Jesus Christ is not something we can earn, buy, or even work for. To put a finer point on it – we cannot help ourselves into grace. 

Grace is something done to us and for us.

It jumps down into the hole next to us, and it shows us the way out. 

And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing theological principles than mere words alone, here are some tunes to get us thinking about how God comes to us, rather than the other way around…

Bayonne’s “Drastic Measures” is a propulsive and percussive adventure of sonic goodness – I challenge you to listen to the song without tapping your foot or bobbing your head. And I love how the chorus is an anthem of what it means to take drastic measures, not unlike what God was (and is) willing to do for us.

Erin Rae’s “Love Like Before” demonstrates how the guitar-and-voice singer/songwriter can evoke such intimate ideas and melodies in a song. The charm of this particular song comes from its reflections on a life of looking for love only to realize, in the end, that it was there the whole time.

“We Are Gonna Be Okay” from Dan Whitener made regular appearances on the pandemic playlist in my house over the last year. The song tells the tale of a courtship and marriage, but the real power comes from the harmonic chorus that demands to be shouted with full lungs (and full hearts). 

Standing In The Midst

“The story of Pentecost is more than a pretty tale. Here is real knowledge, deep ultimate insights into that existence which Jesus is. What is told on Pentecost is that Jesus not only was, but that He is, and will be. He does not exist here or there in a certain place; for Him there is not only a ‘once’ and a ‘then’ but he is yesterday, today and the same in all eternity; in a word, Jesus is ‘standing in the midst.’ – Karl Barth, Pentecost Sermon

Full disclosure – I get a strange and sweet satisfaction from listening to lay liturgists when they read scripture aloud in worship. Perhaps it’s the years of training and devotion to a collected volume of texts being boldly proclaimed, but I think most of my enjoyment stems from the struggle that can occur with particular passages. It could be one of the many genealogies, or a more graphic detail from the Song of Songs, or a moment of profound violence and, in real time, you can witness the person reading the text coming to grips with the text.

The same holds true for the story of Pentecost from Acts.

“And how is it we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phyrgia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs — in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” (Acts 2.9-11)

I love it when laypeople read that bit because they, like everyone else (clergy included) don’t really ever say those words and they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

It’s a rather diverse ethnic gathering for the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem, but it’s also a historically impossible gathering as well. The Medes of Acts 2 would’ve had one hell of a time getting to Jerusalem all the way from Mesopotamia not only because the distance between the places is a few hundred miles, but also because the Medes had been extinct for at least two centuries before the day of Pentecost took place. 

And the Elamites? They are only mentioned in passing in the book of Ezra and are never mentioned again. 

Pentecost, then, is peculiarly and particularly powerful because it details the gift of the Spirit across space and time.

Which is all just another way of saying that the Spirit poured out on Pentecost really was for everyone.

We might not know it, or even believe, but you and I were there too along with the Medes and the Elamites.

Or, to use Barth’s words, Pentecost is a reminder that Jesus, through the Spirit, is still standing in the midst. 

And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing the faith than mere words alone, here are some tunes to put us in a Pentecost(al) mood: (The playlist includes some of my favorite cover tunes of The Beatles – I share them because whenever I listen to these covers I feel like I am out of space and time hearing other bands interpret some of the most well known tunes of all time.)

What Is Love, If Not Jesus Persevering?

“I can’t stand people who say, ‘Well, when it’s all said and done, what’s really important is that we love one another.’ No! You’ve gotta love one another rightly. And how do we do that? Well, in the Gospel of John Jesus declares, ‘I call you my friends and now you can love one another.’ Remember: to be a friend of Jesus didn’t turn out very well for most of the disciples. The love that moves the sun and the stars (Dante) is that love that sustains the disciples through the challenge of dying – that is the love that is rightly seen at the center of the Christian life. Love is rightly understood to be the very substance of relation between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” – Stanley Hauerwas

If you check out any church website, or examine any sign on a church property, you are pretty much guaranteed to see something about love. “We love everyone at this church!” “All are welcome here!” “We have open hearts, open minds, open doors!”

Which is all good and fine, but it’s not true. At least, not really. 

The church is in the business of welcoming all people but then we usually tell them, explicitly or implicitly, that they need to start acting like us. That is: we are fine with loving people until they fit the version of themselves that we want them to be.

Love, then, is radically coercive and predicated on how we view one another rather than how God views us.

Or, in some churches, our understanding of what it means to love remains forever in the realm of sentimentality and we do the bare minimum to maintain relationships that never extend to anything behind polite hellos. 

Stanley Hauerwas, on the other hand, rightly observes that we know what love looks like because we know Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Love, then, isn’t whatever we view on the Hallmark channel or celebrate around on Valentine’s day. Love isn’t a bouquet of flowers or a box of chocolates. 

Love is cruciform.

Love is death and resurrection.

Love is coming down into the muck and mire of this life to make something of our nothing. 

And, because I often think music does a better job at expressing theological principles than mere words alone, here are some tunes to get us thinking of what it means to love rightly.

Natalie Bergman will be releasing her first solo record “Mercy” on May 7th. The album is a beautiful amalgamation of psychedelia and gospel and it follows her search for hope and salvation amidst the loss of both of her parents in a car accident. The song “Home At Last” is a profound reflection on love and loss with some wicked harmonies.

J.E. Sunde is a singer/songwriter who hails from Minneapolis. “Sunset Strip” has a super-catchy melody with harmonies that are reminiscent of Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Oddly, it feels upbeat but it delivers a gut punch of repentance: “Yes I did wrong but you know I confessed it / I wrote this song just to prove that I meant it / But now you’re gone and I feel empty / I feel empty I feel empty.”

Leon Bridges has one of those voices that feels out of time, in a good way. “Like A Ship” is a cover of T.L. Bennet gospel tune from 1971 and it sees Bridges lifting up his silky smooth voice with a groovy baseline on top of some tight drums. A gospel choir belts out the harmonic anthem and the song, appropriately, ends with an organ solo that would delight any Sunday morning church crowd. 

Never Said It

Teer Hardy and I have a new book! Never Said It is our attempt to examine the all-too popular Christian catchphrases that don’t actually appear in the Bible. At all.

Here’s a little bit of the introduction from Dr. Johanna Hartelius:

“In this collection of sermons and brief reflections, Teer and Taylor (the Reverends Hardy and Mertins) pursue an intensely difficult subject, viz., how we contemporary Christians might understand Scripture – what is there and what is not there. The central idea of the book is what is not there, folksy adages that Christians rely on for guidance while ignoring the lack of biblical authority: “God helps those who help themselves, “Everything happens for a reason,” and “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” to mention just a few. Contrary to popular belief and although, as Teer points out, “The Bible says a lot things,” there are a number of fortune cookie idioms that Jesus never said, Paul never wrote, and the Old Testament never authorized. 

In Never Said It, Teer and Taylor speak frankly and compassionately about why these sayings have been popular despite being fundamentally misleading, and why setting the record straight about them is worthwhile. That they do so by using a comic frame is important to recognize and come to terms with; humor is not dismissal of a serious subject, but a way to relieve the pressure of tragedy. As literary theorist Kenneth Burke explains, the comic frame may allay the “cynical brutality” of generally accepted truths that aren’t really truths at all. As Taylor says, imposters and distortions of God’s word have been used “as a weapon over and over again.” It is no laughing matter that “hate the sin” has been deployed to justify self-righteousness and the torment of our brothers and sisters; what may be laughable, however, if the laughter turns to self-reflection, is the endless human error of (ab)using God’s word to, in His name, inflict pain on His creatures.”

You can find/purchase the book here: Never Said It

The Way Things Can Be

Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that “we are who we are,” and that “things are doomed to stay the same,” and that “it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes” – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!

We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection. 

We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.

And so much of this is because we have failed to open our eyes to all of the wild possibilities that life after Easter makes possible. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin and death – they no longer have control over us. And yet, we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we spend more money on the military than we do on social uplift. It’s why we ask to tell people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps even when they don’t own any boots. It’s why we keep viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace. 

But here’s the good news, the really truly good news of life after easter: If God can raise a crucified and dead Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible. 

Jesus is alive! 

Because of Easter, we don’t believe in rejection – we believe in resurrection. We aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done. We can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are – God has sent us free for the way things can be. 

Here are some tunes that can help us wrestle with the already but not yet of what it means to be a Christian in the world today:

Mandolin Orange’s “Wildfire” tells the epic narrative of slavery, sin, and The South coupled with guitar, mandolin, and haunting harmonies. The duo from Chapel Hill, North Carolina use the metaphor of a wildfire to convey how hatred has always rested at the heart of “the Land of the Free” and spreads, frighteningly, even now. 

Kevin Morby released “Beautiful Strangers” in 2016 as a protest song that feels/sounds more like a hymn than it does an anthem of hoped-for societal change. All of the proceeds from the song have gone to Everytown For Gun Safety (a nonprofit aimed at gun violence prevention) and Morby still plays the song at every live performance in order to help “spread the word.” The percussion propels the song forward, the acoustic guitar is wonderfully melodic, but its Morby’s voice and lyrics that remain long after the song ends. 

Do yourself a favor: Carve our 15 minutes to sit down and listen through the entirety of Ross Gay’s incredible poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” set to the flowing synths of Bon Iver. The poem proclaims a degree of wonder for that which has been given in addition to that which has been taken away (Job 1.21). And, because I don’t know how else to convey it, the whole thing feels alive. Enjoy. 

Exhausted By Easter

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Easter Sunday [B] (Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11, John 20.1-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including preparation, in-person worship, champagne, the already-but-not-yet, righteousness, the radical nature of belief, salvific hindsight, liturgical anxieties, Fleming Rutledge, and resurrected recognition. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Exhausted By Easter

Jesus Is Not A New Moses

We think the Law can save and fix our messed up and broken lives.

From infancy we’re spoon-fed a narrative of righteous self-determination, that if you do all the right things, and go to the right school, and marry the right partner, then everything will be as it should be.

Until it isn’t.

And then the Law refuses to let us go.

So we adopt new habits: we buy a Peloton, we go on a new diet, we stay up late into the evening looking at Zillow for the next perfect house, we “Marie Kondo” our lives in order to get things under control.

And, even if some things change, perhaps we get that nice dopamine hit from imagining ourselves in a new place or we can fit into clothes we haven’t worn since college, we can’t actually fix ourselves with the “law.”

At some point the new house becomes the hold house, a few weeks away from the gym brings our waistline back, and on and on.

Enter Jesus.

Jesus came to bring us something better than another law, something better than another set of things we must do in order to get God to do something for us. Sure, we’re called to love God and neighbor, turn the other cheek, pray for our enemies, but those are never prerequisites for the Kingdom.

Remember: The Kingdom is already among us. Our sins were nailed to the cross and left there forever. 

The Law (from scripture and from life) is good, but it kills us. It exists to accuse us and it shows us, over and over again, who we really are. For, to borrow an expression from Paul, no one is righteous, no, not one.

Even our subtle exercises in self-denial during Lent help to remind us of the condition of our condition: Lent isn’t about participating in spiritual olympics in which we compete with one another to see who can be the most holy – instead it’s about confronting the fact that our desires will always get the better of us.

But the Law, and its ability to deaden us, is Good News and exactly what we need. It’s only in death (read: Baptism) that we begin to know the One who came to give us grace.

Contrary to how we often water down the Gospel, we worship a rather odd God. Our God who, among other things, speaks from a burning bush, promises offspring to a wandering octogenarian, and saves the cosmos through death on a cross.

And for Christians, we know who this odd God is because we know Jesus Christ. 

Therefore, Jesus is not a new Moses who displaces the old law with a new one. Instead, Jesus is the New Adam who inaugurates an entirely new cosmos.

Jesus is not a new Moses because, as the Gospel of John reminds us, the Word was God before the foundation of the world. 

Jesus is not a new Moses who offers a set of guidelines to save ourselves and the world. Instead Jesus comes to be our salvation in himself.

Here’s the Good News: On any given Sunday (even in the midst of a global pandemic) the people of God called church gather together to hear the most important word we will ever hear: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us – In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

Notice – Christ died for us while we were sinners, not before and not after. Christ chooses to die for us right in the midst of the worst mistake we’ve ever made or will ever make. 

In the end, that’s what it’s all about. 

We don’t follow the Law in order to get God to save us. 

We are already saved which then frees us to follow the Law – we do the things Christ calls us to do not because it earns us anything, but simply because it makes life a whole lot more fun. 

Jesus isn’t a new Moses – Jesus is God. And that’s the difference that makes all the difference. 

Lord, Come With Fire!

The crew from Crackers & Grape Juice has started putting together a bi-monthly newsletter with exclusive essays/sermons/reflections from some of our favorite theologians. My humble contribution is a playlist. You can sign up for the newsletter here: CGJ+ and you can check out my playlist for the beginning of Advent below:

Punch Brothers – O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

Sufjan Stevens – Justice Delivers Its Death

The Shins – We Will Become Silhouettes (cover)

Here, in the midst of a world drowning in bad news, it’s not hard to imagine raising our clenched fists to the sky and shouting, “God! Where the hell are you?” 

That is an Advent question – perhaps the Advent question.

Therefore, an authentically hopeful Advent spirit is not looking away from the darkness and filling our lives with fluff in order to deny the truth. Instead, we pray for the Holy Spirit to give us the courage and the conviction to look straight into the muck and the mire of this life.

For, in the end, that’s exactly where God chose, and still chooses, to show up for us…

Chris Thile, front man for the Punch Brothers and recent host of “Live From Here,” is a mandolin-picking genius. His tunes have been categorized in genres from acoustic folk to progressive bluegrass to modern classical. He, along with the Punch Brothers, put forth a version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel that does the delicate balance of lifting the original melody and lyrics with a new sensitivity – with each passing verse more instruments and harmonies are added until its righteous conclusion.

Any fan of CGJ knows that I am a big fan of Sufjan Stevens – so much so that the rest of the crew often ridicules me for it. Hopefully, the more of his music I put on these playlists, the more they will accept his genius. Stevens has released a ton of Christmas/Advent covers over the years, but his original song Justice Delivers Its Death haunts me. The declaration of “Lord, come with fire!” comes straight from the prophet Isaiah and it offers a melodic corrective to the saccharine quality of too many Advent/Christmas songs. 

Whether we like to admit it or not, Advent is an inherently apocalyptic season in the liturgical calendar – it places us squarely between the already and not yet, the once and future King, the arrival and the return of Jesus Christ. And yet, the apocalyptic tension of Advent is not necessarily as grim and frightening as it is made out to be (in certain churches). The Shins cover of the Postal Service’s We Will Become Silhouettes embodies a hopeful character while the lyrics are strikingly scary. To me, it captures the essence of a hopeful and realistic Advent of looking straight into the darkness knowing that the dawn is coming.