The Miry Bog

Devotional:

Psalm 40.1-2

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.

Weekly Devotional Image

On Sunday I went a little off sermon and walked down from the altar and talked extemporaneously about our incessant desire to make it appear as if we all have it all together. I shared about how, as a pastor, I have the unique privilege of knowing about what’s going on behind the curtain for more than most and that all of us, no matter how good our lives look on the outside, are struggling with something on the inside. 

I wasn’t planning on saying any of it, but I could tell from the expressions on faces that it was hitting hard. As we continued on in worship, and eventually stood to share signs of Christ’s peace with one another, more than a few people were wiping tears away from their eyes as they were beginning to open up with their fellow disciples about what life has thrown at them.

MHA-Offering-Help-F82132782

Contrary to what we might hear or even believe, the story of faith isn’t about how we’ve got it all figured out. In fact, the opposite is true: we are all struggling through and looking for relief from our burdens. Or, as the psalmist puts it, we are looking for God to pull us up from the miry bogs of our existence.

Francine Christophe is a French poet who survived the Holocaust. A few years ago she was interviewed for a documentary about what it means to be human and this is what she said:

“I was born on August 18th, 1933. 1933 was the year when Hitler took power… When I was 11 years old in the Bergen-Belsen camp, an amazing thing happened. Let me remind you, as the children of prisoners of war, we were privileged. We were permitted to bring something from France. A little bad, with two of three small items. One woman brought chocolate, another some sugar, a third a handful of rice. My mom had packed two little pieces of chocolate. She said to me, ‘We’ll keep this for a day when I see you’ve collapsed completely, and really need help. I’ll give you this chocolate and you’ll feel better.’ 

“One of the women imprisoned with us was pregnant. You couldn’t tell, she was so skinny. But the day came and she went into labor. She went to the camp hospital with my mother, who was the barracks chief. Before they left, my mother said, ‘Remember that chocolate I was saving for you?’ ‘Yes Mama.’ ‘How do you feel?’ ‘Fine, Mama. I’ll be okay.’ ‘Well then, if its alright with you, I’d like to bring your chocolate to this lady, our friend Helene. Giving birth here will be hard. She may die. If I give her the chocolate, it may help her.’ ‘Yes Mama. Go ahead.’

“Helene gave birth to the baby. A tiny, little, feeble thing. She ate the chocolate. She did not die. She came back to the barracks. The baby never cried. Never! She didn’t even wail. 6 months later, the camp was liberated. They unwrapped the baby’s rags and she screamed. That was the day she was really born. She was taken back to France – a puny little thing for 6 months.

“A few years ago, my daughter asked me, ‘Mama, if you deportees had had psychologists or psychiatrists when you returned, maybe it would’ve been easier for you.’ I replied, ‘Undoubtedly, but we didn’t have them. No one thought of mental illness. But you gave me a good idea. We’ll have a lecture on that topic.’ I organized a lecture on the theme and invited people to come and participate.

“The lecture drew quite a crowd. Elderly survivors, historians, and many psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists. It was quite interesting. Many ideas emerged. It was excellent. Then, a woman took the podium and said, ‘I live in Marseille, where I am a psychiatrist. Before I deliver my talk, I have something for Francine Christophe.’ In other words, me. She reached into her pocket, and pulled out a piece of chocolate. She gave it to me and said, ‘I am the baby.’”

I can’t imagine the fear of being pregnant while in a concentration camp. New birth and new life is supposed to be filled with such hope and promise, but to be pregnant in one of those camps was basically a death sentence. 

Francine Christophe’s story is a powerful reminder of the new life in the midst of chaos, hope within calamity. In it we are forced to reckon with how much we need each other, and how much we are needed by one another, and how God is helping us through the miry bog we call life.

War Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

Devotional:

Acts 10.36

You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all. 

Weekly Devotional Image

One of the great privileges, and challenges, of being a pastor is that people will often bring to me questions about how to respond to something as a Christian. They’ll have seen something on the news, or read an article online, and while wrestling with whatever the subject might be, they’ll bring it to me with hopes of coming out with an answer on the other side. I, like many pastors before me, will usually respond to their queries with a question of my own such as, “Well, how do you think we should respond as Christians?”

Most of the time responding to the question with a question gets us to some version of a faithful response and usually that’s enough. However, there are those time when, as we travel down the rabbit hole together, the answers move further and further away from what we might call orthodoxy.

War, without a doubt, is one of the questions that does this the most.

Copy_of_NO_US_Iran_War-_InstaSized

The question of a Christian response to war brings forth thoughts about responsibility for those in need and our own need to assert control and dominance. The question of a Christian response to war often carries with it personal experiences of fighting in war, or family members fighting in war. The question of a Christian response to war forces those of us who follow Christ to wrestle with whether we are more captivated by the powers and principalities of this world or by the One who came to overthrow those powers and principalities.

Tensions between the United States and Iran are growing with each passing day, and the talking heads on the news and online are making it abundantly clear how they think, and how they think we should think, about war. And, though it is a rare thing, this is a time I am grateful for the Book of Discipline in the United Methodist Church, because it outlines how we think and feel about war.

Namely, that war in incompatible with Christianity.

You can read more about it here:

United Methodist Book of Discipline – Paragraph 165.C

“We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict. We insist that the first moral duty of all nations is to work together to resolve by peaceful means every dispute that arises between or among them. We advocate the extension and strengthening of international treaties and institutions that provide a framework within the rule of law for responding to aggression, terrorism, and genocide. We believe that human values must outweigh military claims as governments determine their priorities; that the militarization of society must be challenged and stopped; that the manufacture, sale, and deployment of armaments must be reduced and controlled; and that the production, possession, or use of nuclear weapons be condemned. Consequently, we endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”

So, as we continue to respond to escalating tensions, let us remember that Jesus came preaching peace, and not war. 

Knowing The End At The Beginning

Devotional: 

Isaiah 9.6 

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 

Weekly Devotional Image

A father was with his four year old daughter last Christmas and it was the first time she ever asked about the holiday and why it was something they celebrated. The father explained that Christmas is all about the birth of Jesus, and the more they talked about it the more she wanted to know about Jesus so he bought a illustrated Bible and began reading to her every night.

And she loved it.

They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and his teaching, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of the sayings from the Lord like “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So the father would share thoughts about how Jesus teaches his followers to treat people the way they want to be treated. They read and the they read and at some point the daughter simply declared, “Dad, I really like this Jesus.”

Right after Christmas, they were driving around town and they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix right out on the front lawn. The giant cross was impossible to miss as was the figure nailed to it. The daughter pointed out the window and said, “Dad, who’s that?”

The father realized in that moment that he never told his daughter the end of the story. So he began explaining how the man on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because is message was so radical, and that they thought the only way to stop his was to kill him. And they did.

The daughter was silent.

A few weeks later, after going through the whole story of Christmas, the Preschool where his daughter attended was closed for Martin Luther King Jr. day and the father decided to take the day off and treat his daughter to a day of play and they went out to lunch together. When they were sitting at the table waiting for their food at the restaurant, the daughter saw the front page of the local newspaper laying across the next table with a picture of MLK’s face on it. And the daughter pointed at the picture and said, “Dad, who’s that?” 

“Well,” he began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher.”

She said, “For Jesus?”

The father replied, “Yeah, for Jesus. But there was another thing he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat everyone fairly no matter what they look like.”

She thought about it for a minute and said, “Dad, that sounds a lot like du unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The father laughed and said, “Yeah, you’re right. I never thought about it like that but it’s just like what Jesus said.”

The young girl lowered her gaze to the table and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and said, “Dad, did they kill him too?”

Away-In-A-Manger

Kids get it. They make connections that we’re supposed to make. And even though 2019 has been a strange and rough years with all the political rhetoric and partisanship, with all the suffering of individuals and communities across the world, kids still get it.

The baby in the manger is the same person who hangs on the cross. 

That’s a difficult and challenging word for those of us who like our Christmases unblemished, who want to think only of the precious new born child without having to confront what will be done to him at the end of his days. But he was a child born for us, who came to make a way where there was no way, and his story has changed our stories forever. 

Or, to put it another way, we cannot make sense of the beginning without knowing the end. 

Like A Virgin

I was a young and naive pastor. In fact I still am. But at the time it was worse than it is now. I decided to dedicate a sermon series to doubt and encouraged the congregation, anonymously, to submit anything they were wrestling with regarding their faith. The idea was to compile the doubts and preach a series on the respective topics in such a way that people could sit in and with their questions, rather than trying to make their doubts vanish into thin air.

I prepared myself for some of the doubts that would no doubt come across my desk. I assumed there would be questions about the resurrection from the dead, and the walking on the water, and the miraculous feeding of the five thousand. And I got a few of those, including some questions about whether heaven was real and debates about the existence of the devil. But as the doubts came in, and I started tallying them all up, there was one biblical component that people struggled with more than anything else, by a long shot – The Virgin Birth.

photo-1546718876-2d05e6e23046

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 

Mary will receive unbelievable news from the divine messenger that she, of all people, will be the one to bring the Lamb of God into the world and that she will do so as a virgin. Thus the incarnation of God takes place in a virgin’s womb against all odds and against all the rules of the universe.

We don’t hear much about the virgin birth in the mainline protestant church today, perhaps out of fear of sounding too Catholic. We’ve relegated Mary to being a bystander throughout the whole ordeal and though we might lift up her Magnificat, she is not the main character in the story as we tell it. But her birthing the Messiah into the world as a virgin is biblical, it is true, and it makes all the difference.

Years ago, Stanley Hauerwas was invited to preach at a wedding during the season of Advent. As someone committed to the great breadth of scripture, Hauerwas preached on the assigned lectionary texts for the following Sunday which included Mary’s remarkable “Here am I” to the news from Gabriel. 

BFFF9D60-A4DA-46D2-A1A7-3DF022255F83

In it Hauerwas says, “When I first began to think about this sermon, I kept thinking, ‘If I am to be true to the text I ought to start with an announcement: Scott, old buddy, I have some astounding news – you are pregnant, and Demery is going to take care of you anyway.’ Not a bad way for us to begin, if we are to have some slight appreciation of what it meant for Mary to say, ‘Here I am.’” (Hauerwas, “How The Virgin Birth Makes Marriage Possible” Disrupting Time)

In this rather jarring remark Hauerwas points to that which is essential, particularly for those of us for whom the virgin birth is something we don’t want to think about or even believe – Mary shouldn’t have believed it either! It’s impossible for a virgin to become pregnant, and even more so for one of the least of these to be the one to bring God’s Son into the world! And yet, Mary doesn’t receive the news as such. Instead she, without having any real reason to, believes that God does God’s best work in the realm of impossibilities.

Again Hauerwas notes, “For us, that is, us moderns, the virgin birth is often used as a test case for how far we are willing to go in believing what most people think is unbelievable.” 

This is a strange and notable case to make considering the fact that the Bible is one big impossible reality: God makes everything out of nothing. God floods the earth and then promises never to do it again. God guarantees an elderly woman that she will finally have a son, and then she does. God divides the sea to save the people Israel. God brings victory to a nation time and time again even though they should’ve lost. And that’s just a sampling from the Old Testament. Time and time again, God does what we could not and would not do and it comes to a beautiful and wondrous fruition in the womb of Mary. 

The one knit together in her impossible belly is the one whose life will be defined by impossibility – he will preach and teach and heal and save in ways that people couldn’t wrap their heads around. And then, in the end, he will do the most impossible thing of all – rise from the dead. 

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the foundation upon which everything else is made intelligible about our faith. If Jesus is not raised from the dead then we are wasting our time and we are fools. But we Christians, each and every one of us, are tiny testaments to the power of the resurrection for our lives have been changed forever and we had nothing to do with it.

Which is all to say, if God could raise Jesus from the dead then God could certainly make a virgin pregnant. God loves to work in the realm of impossible possibilities and upend everything we thought we knew. So perhaps the best way to approach the virgin birth isn’t by making scientific claims or qualifications, it’s not about pointing to differing translations about what it all really means. Instead, maybe we do as Hauerwas notes in another place, we come to the virgin birth in silence. For “by learning to be silent we have learned to be present to one another and the world as witnesses to the God who has made us a people who once were no people – such a people have no need to pretend we know more about our God than we do.” (Hauerwas, “The Sound of Silence” Preaching Radical & Orthodox) 

In the end, the best news of all is that the virgin birth is not contingent on our believing it. Even if we struggle with the idea, even if we doubt its rationality, God is in the business of making a way where there is no way. Like a virgin who brings a baby into the world, God raises Jesus from the dead, and that’s the best news of all. 

Farting Around

Devotional:

Psalm 146.10

The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord! 

Weekly Devotional Image

I had an existential crisis yesterday.

I was sitting in a local Auto Parts Shop waiting for my car’s inspection and emissions to be completed having procrastinated for far too long. When I entered I took a seat close to the door, filled up a too-small styrofoam cup with horrible coffee, and pulled out a book to read. But before I could even find my recently dog-eared page, I noticed the man sitting next to me. He was wearing boots, jeans, a black flannel shirt, a knit cap, he had a beat up paperback sitting on his lap, and he was fast asleep. It was then that I took stock of my own clothing and situation, for I too was wearing boots, jeans, a black flannel shirt, a knit cap, and I was about to open my paperback book.

And I kind of freaked out.

What made me freak out wasn’t the odds of running into my twin (who was probably 30 years older than me) but was the fact that I felt like I received a brief glimpse into my future. And it left me feeling, well, uncomfortable.

Instead of opening my book and actually reading, I spent the rest of my purgatorial time asking questions in my head like: Is this what I doomed to do the rest of my days? Is life just a repetitive joke until it ends? Is their any meaning to all of this?

By the time my name was called I was sufficiently in the midst of a mental crisis when the snoring man’s cell phone rang. He promptly woke from his slumber, brought the phone to his ear, and after listening for a moment he said, “Yeah, just farting around waiting for my car to be ready.”

Which made me think of a haunting quote from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”

In Stanley Hauerwas’ sermon “Facing Nothingness – Facing God” from his collection Without Apology he seeks dispel the sentiment of Vonneguts’ quote by in fact naming what we are here on Earth to do, namely “wait for a new heaven and a new earth.”

The sermon explores the many ways in which we wrestle with our finitude and mortality by trying to seek out our own immortality by making a difference such that “we will not be forgotten by those who benefit from our trying to make a difference.” And yet, we very rarely actually make much of a difference. The world continues to spin in spite of our best intentions, we revert back to the same old sins that leave the lost lost and the found found, and we neglect to realize that even if we are remembered for our good deeds the people who knew those good deeds will also one day be forgotten.

This is a recipe for anxiety.

BFFF9D60-A4DA-46D2-A1A7-3DF022255F83

But what does this mean, particularly, for Christians? What about those who gather week after week in the hope that our lives are not pointless?

The prophet Isaiah was once called by God to comfort God’s people and to speak tenderly with Jerusalem. But when Isaiah presses the Lord about what to actually speak it sounds anything but tender – “All people are grass that withers away when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.”

Or, in other words, we are not the center of the universe.

For a people constantly told to “make your own destiny” and “leave your mark” it can be a difficult endeavor to confront the reality that we are reminded of every Ash Wednesday: We are dust and to dust we shall return. The life of a Christian is defined by the recognition that we are fragile, fleeting, and finite things. And, even more importantly, we can’t do much of anything about it! This is our lot in life.

But we are an Advent people and we have learned (or are learning) what it means to wait. Christianity isn’t about being given a set of tools or resources to make sure we are remembered long after we’re dead. Instead Christianity is about seeing how the time we’ve been given is a gift because it is God’s time for us.

karl-barth-smoking

Karl Barth put it this way: “When I really give anyone my time, I thereby give them the last and most personal thing that I have to give at all, namely myself… The difference at once to be noticed between our having time for others and God’s having time for us is twofold, that if God gives us time, He who deals with us is He who alone has genuine, real time to give, and that He gives us this time not just partially, not with all sorts of reservations and qualifications, such as are habitual with us when giving to others, but entirely.” Church Dogmatics I.2

The regular gathering and shaping of Christians through the liturgy forms us into people who know how to wait in the time God has given us. Whenever we hear the Word read in worship or we gather at the table of communion or we pray over the waters of baptism we do so by facing God in the person of “Jesus Christ who gives us the confidence that time is not a tale told to us by an idiot, but rather time names God’s desire that we participate in God’s very life. We are not abandoned. The heavens do declare the glory of God.” (Hauerwas, Without Apology, 54).

As Advent people we are also Easter people – We know how the story begins and how it ends – We know the Alpha and the Omega.

It is far too easy these days to give in to the existential fears that so regularly plague us. No matter how old we are we all look back and wonder what the sum of our lives mean. Life can, at times, feel meaningless. But for Christians, our lives have meaning precisely because God has come to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Our meaning comes in receiving the One who comes to us precisely to remind us who we are. We have been given good work to do because all we have to do it wait – the rest is up to God.

Liturgy of Thanksgiving

Devotional:

John 6.35

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Weekly Devotional Image

The older I become the more complicated Thanksgiving feels.

When I was a kid Thanksgiving was marked by plates upon plates of food, eavesdropping on grownup conversations, and running around in the cold until a responsible adult beckoned us back inside.

But as an adult, Thanksgiving often feels more like a powder keg of political positioning where everyone waits for the one person to say that one thing that will set everyone off. 

Gone are the days of civil and non-partisan Thanksgiving tables (if they ever really existed). Now we wear our red hats, or mention a recent debate sound bite, in order to make sure everyone at the table knows what side we are on.

Which is remarkably strange when we consider the fact that Jesus came to destroy the divisions that we so eagerly want to demonstrate around our tables.

Or, to put it another way, Jesus’ table makes what we usually do at our tables unintelligible.

thanks-be-to-god

Therefore, this year, I’ve put together a brief Liturgy of Thanksgiving to be used by anyone in order to redeem the Thanksgiving table. You may say it privately to yourself, or you may read it corporately with others, but the hope is that it will bring a sense of theological clarity to what our tables are supposed to feel like…

Prayer:

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Scripture:

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Meditation:

We cannot live by bread alone – so Jesus reminds the Devil and all of us during the temptations in the wilderness. But we do have to eat to live; it’s just that ordinary bread isn’t enough. When we sit around the table with friends, family, and even strangers, we are participating in a moment that is bigger and more important than just the sharing of food. It is through our conversations and our prayers that Jesus’ presence is made manifest among us. The table at Thanksgiving is an extension of the Lord’s table on Sundays and when we come to it we are reminded of who we are and whose we are. This is the work of God, and we are all witnesses.

Prayer: 

Lord, help us to be mindful of those who do not have a table such as ours around which we can gather, celebrate, remember, and rejoice in all you’ve done, are doing, and will do. As we eat and feast together, let the breaking of bread be a foretaste of the promised resurrection made possible through your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Tradition!

Devotional:

2 Thessalonians 2.15

So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter. 

Weekly Devotional Image

The whiteboard behind me was covered in names, dates, and an assortment of arrows connecting them all together. After a few weeks of Sunday school classes on the early history of the church I was trying my best to bring us up to the Council of Nicaea in the year 325 CE. The room had quieted to frightening degree and the look of glazed eyes told me that I had lost the class. So I did what any good teacher would do – I asked if there were any questions.

For a moment the silence continued as the participants looked across the room at one another wondering if anyone would be brave enough to say what they were all thinking, “What in the world have you been talking about?” But instead someone sheepishly raised their hand and simply intoned, “What percentage of church folk know any of this stuff, and what difference does it make?”

I appreciated the question. I can remember sitting in the basement of my Divinity School doing my best to commit to memory those same names and dates on the board for a Church History final exam asking basically the same question. What does Athanasius and the Council of Nicaea and Polycarp and Constantine’s conversion have to do with what we do today?

The answer: Everything.

We are the stories we’ve been told, whether we know the stories or not. The witness of the Christian Church is the diachronic (through time) sharing of a tradition that keeps on giving. Or, to put it another way, it doesn’t matter how many people know the stories of the ancient church because we are still telling them in different ways. Just take a look around the church sanctuary the next time you happen to be in one or look closely at the church bulletin – we adorn our sanctuaries and liturgies in particular ways because of what was done before us. 

who-is-jesus-christ-truth-or-tradition

Does every Christian need to know that the Nicene Creed came out of a council of bishops who met in the year 325 who fought (literally) tooth and nail over what would unify the early church? Probably not. But at the very least Christians should know that what we say when we proclaim the creed (whether Apostles’ or Nicene) ultimately shapes how we behave.

Does every United Methodist need to know about John Wesley’s conversion moment at a meeting house on Aldersgate Street that eventually led him to theological proclamations about the totality of God’s prevenient grace? Probably not. But at the very least, the people who call themselves Methodists should know that we practice an open table at communion because we believe that God’s grace, like the bread and the cup, are given to us whether we deserve it or not.

Today, we stand firm and hold fast to the tradition of the church not because it is particularly rigid and unmovable, but precisely because it opens up for us an understanding of God’s wondrous works in our lives even today. 

Or, still yet to put it another way, tradition doesn’t have to be a four-letter word, even though some people treat it that way.