This Is The Day…

Psalm 118.24

This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

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I ran a half-marathon yesterday afternoon. 13.1 miles in roughly two hours all over the Woodbridge area. I was supposed to the run the Rock ’n’ Roll Half Marathon in DC last Saturday but it was canceled in light of the Coronavirus. However I had been training for long enough that I figured, “Why not just go out and see if I can do it?”

The weather yesterday was perfect, giving extra meaning to the “this is the day that the Lord has made” and I decided to rejoice and be glad in it by putting one foot in front of the other until I put in the requisite miles.

Now, a day later, I can tell you there wasn’t much to rejoice about.

Or to put it a different way, my legs are sore!

During the months of training I was looking forward to being surrounded by scores of people all running toward the same goal. I was excited about the prospect of passing the finish line to be embraced by my family in celebration. I even anticipated the proud feeling of wearing around the medal for the rest of the day.

Yesterday was different.

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I ran all alone for two hours. I didn’t even tell my family that I was going to do it. And the only prize for completing it was knowing that I did it.

A lot of us have been experiencing profound feelings of isolation as the Coronavirus has forced us to remain physically separated from one another and forced us to limit our interactions outside of our homes. For some of us we’ve retreated into new or familiar books, we’ve binged terrible and incredible television shows, or we’ve picked up the phone to call people we’ve needed to reconnect with for a long time.

But for others of us, we’ve retreated further into our minds and our worries and our anxieties. We keep checking out bank accounts and wonder how we’re going to make it through all of this. We see updates from others on social media that make it seem like they are having a vacation while social distancing while our time have felt nerve wracking. 

And yet, as Christians, we believe that each new day is a gift from the Lord. That doesn’t mean that we have to force ourselves into optimism, but it does call us to rejoice knowing we’ve been given another day. The season of Lent, the season we’re in right now, is an ever-present reminder that tomorrow is never promised and that the bell will toll for us all. We didn’t need the Coronavirus to remind us of this but it certainly has helped to focus our attention on that which we cannot take for granted. 

I for one am grateful that I was able to get outside yesterday and run, even if my body feels miserable today. I am grateful I have another day to spend time with my family. But most of all I am grateful to know that God has not abandoned us to our own devices. 

The season of Lent always ends with Easter – a reminder that death is not the end.

If nothing else, that is certainly worth rejoicing. 

Comforted?

Devotional:

Psalm 23.4

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

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I love and loathe the 23rd Psalm. I love it because it brings a sense of peace whenever I read it and I loathe it because it is, by far, the most overused psalm from the entirety of the Psalter. 

When I visit folk in the hospital and ask if they would like me to read some scripture, they invariably ask for Psalm 23. When I meet with families to prepare funeral services they request a read of Psalm 23. If you’re with a group of Christians and someone says, “The Lord is my…” there’s a better than good chance that the room will finish the sentence and keep on going to the very end.

Now, to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with it being the most popular psalm, but it does mean that we know it without really knowing it. 

When was the last time you thought about how the Lord prepares a table for you, in the presence of your enemies? For many that would strike a sense of fear, rather than comfort. Or, when was the last time you thought about dwelling in the house of the Lord your entire life? I know some of you love church, but to dwell in the house of the Lord for the rest of your life would have to mean that you really love church.

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But today, the bit that sticks out the most to me is the psalmist declaration that the rod and the staff of the Lord are a comfort. This sticks out to me because the rod and the staff are tools used by shepherds to keep their wandering sheep in check. 

Another way to encounter the verse would be like this: “Even though I’m going through some tough stuff, I’m not going to be afraid, because God is with me and knocking me around until this stuff really starts to sink in.”

These are uncertain times – the numbers of confirmed Coronavirus cases in Virginia keep going up day after day, schools are closed for at least another 3 weeks, and local grocery stores are starting to shift around their operating hours to help mitigate the rate of exposure. 

And yet, strangely, the psalmist reminds us that, even though we are sequestered into our homes and are limiting our interactions with others, are not alone. God in Christ has come to dwell among us, to be present in our prayers, to be revealed in the reading of the Word, and even to rest in the silence with us that we otherwise try to avoid. 

Sometimes it takes a lifetime of Sundays before the Gospel message finally hits home. Sometimes it takes a pandemic to remind us of our fragility in a world that keep foolishly promising us that we’re invincible. Sometimes it takes reading the most popular Psalm for the thousandth time before we can start to see the most beautiful aspect of it: the fact that its true. 

Unity?

Devotional:

Romans 5.6

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 

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About a year ago I was sitting in the upstairs area of Wegman’s, sipping on a cup of coffee, while my computer, Bible, and United Methodist Hymnal were out on the table in front of me. I was there in the hopes of stringing together a worship service and a sermon, but I was distracted. My distraction stemmed from the, at the time, recent Special General Conference in which the UMC doubled down on its language regarding the so-called incompatibility of homosexual Christians.

Every time I lifted my hands to get something down in writing, I was at a loss of what to say.

So I sat there and I sipped on my coffee and I rested in my distractions. Until a man walked over from the other side of the space and asked if he could sit with me. I noted that there were plenty of other empty seats available, but motioned for him to sit down. He paused for a moment, and then asked, “Are you a pastor in the UMC?”

“Did the hymnal give it away?”

“That, and the glum disposition. I read about the big church meeting in the newspaper the other day. You know, I used to be a United Methodist once upon a time.”

“Oh really. But you’re not anymore?”

“Nope. I can remember when the church really was together on everything, as if we were all on the same page. But then it got so divisive that I just decided to call it quits.”

“That’s too bad. Well, what kind of a church do you go to now?”

“Oh. Um, I haven’t been to a church in years to be honest… Anyway, I’m not really sure why I came over but, good luck with the church. I think you’re gonna need it.” 

I’ve had a lot of interactions like that one over the last year, some with total strangers and some with people I’ve known my whole life. People who have approached me because of the United Methodist Church’s position on human sexuality, their struggling to come to any sort of conclusion about it, and their admission that church really isn’t for them anyway.

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I’ve found each and every one of those conversations to be remarkably enlightening. For one thing, they demonstrated that the church does remain in the cultural consciousness for those outside the church, though they tend to only think about it one-dimensionally. Secondly, people are hungry for conversations about things they do not understand, even if they can’t articulate it. And thirdly, a whole lot of people inside and outside the church believe the church can only be the church if the people in the church are unified.

Spoiler warning: The church has never been unified.

If it ever felt unified, whether it was last year or 1,000 years ago, it was because particular voices were being stifled or kicked out altogether. We, in the church, have often confused unity with uniformity, and uniformity is only achieved through suppression.

The church is a strange and wondrous thing. I have noted on many occasions that the church is the last surviving place where people willfully gather with people who are different from themselves – to be clear, not every church is like this, but there are some where the people in the pews on Sunday share one thing, and only one thing, in common: Jesus.

The church is at its best when we are all busy changing each other and being changed by one another. The church is not some static institution that was the same yesterday, today, and forever. It is a living and transforming thing that is guided by the voice of the Lord that continues to speak even into the wilderness of our sin. 

Or, to put it another way, the church gathers again and again to remember that while we were weak, Christ died for the ungodly. And, though it pains us to admit, we (all of us) are the ungodly for whom Christ died. 

If there is any unity in the church, let it be that. 

On Voting For Jesus

Devotional:

Psalm 121.1-2

I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

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For months (years) the cultural consciousness has been fixated on politics, and in particular on presidential politics. The build up to the 2016 Presidential election, the wake of that election, and now here on Super Tuesday in 2020 we are still talking about presidential politics ALL THE TIME.

Which, in a sense, is fine. We’re Christians after all, we can talk about whatever we want. And yet, the more we talk about the politics of a country the less we remember that our truest citizenship is in heaven.

Or, to put it another way, we keep treating our politicians as if they are in charge of our lives when, as Christians, we affirm that Jesus Christ is Lord.

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In Jesus’ kingdom, the rules and the ruler are different. All assumptions about what is important, and who we are to be, and what we are to care about have been changed.

It’s like being dropped into a strange new world in which everyone else is speaking a different language. It takes time to learn the lingo, to adapt to the habits of the people around us, and to recognize that we are transformed in the process. It’s not a simple matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking, nor is it just giving an hour of our time to the church. We don’t fit Jesus into our lives – Jesus drags us into his.

We move from the kingdom of consumption to the kingdom of communion, from the kingdom of popularity to the kingdom of poverty, from the kingdom of destruction to the kingdom of deliverance, from the kingdom of competition to the kingdom of cooperation.

Today, people are taking selfies with their “I Voted” stickers to show their allegiance to the democratic processes of America. They are sending text messages and making phone calls to make sure that everyone gets out to make “the right choice.” And I keep hearing about how this is the most important election in history, which is what we say every single time there’s an election!

And all the while, I can’t help but think of how we would never elect Jesus to lead us.

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We would never willingly elect someone who told us the first will be last and the last will be first.

We would never willingly elect someone who told us to sell of our our possessions and give all the proceeds to the poor.

We would never willingly elect someone who spent of all their time hanging out with the riff-raff of society.

In order to get elected by the likes of u,s Jesus would have to make promises to the rich in order to stabilize economic prosperity. He would have to compromise with leaders who treat their citizens like dirt. He would have to keep his mouth shut and stop telling parables out of fear that he wouldn’t get re-elected in the future. 

Thank God we’re not voting on Jesus. And, more importantly, instead of electing him, he elected us.

In this broken and flawed and sinful world, we see and know God because we see and know Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible, the very beginning of everything in creation. Jesus is before all things and in him all things hold together.

He is the one from whom our help comes. 

So, instead of being consumed by the politics and priorities of this world, remember that we are consumed by the grace of God made manifest in Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Get Your Ash In Church (And Leave It There)

Devotional:

Matthew 6.1

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

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Today is Ash Wednesday.

Christians across the globe are gathering together to hear words that the church has heard for centuries: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

Those are the words I intoned this morning as I marked the gathered body with ashes, and they will be the words I will use tonight. And, God willing, they will be the words I use every Ash Wednesday until the end.

But what happens after the church leaves the church with those ashen crosses on their foreheads is a strange and bewildering thing.

I, for one, left church this morning and then drove my son to his Preschool. Like most mornings we patiently waited outside the door of his classroom, only this time 3 of his classmates approached me and, independently of one another, made comments about the smudge on my forehead while their parents tried to pull them away.

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On other Ash Wednesdays I have been approached in grocery stores and on street corners by inquisitive people as to what in the world happened to my head.

But there’s a good case to be made that before we leave the church with our ashen crosses, we should wash them off.

Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

Of course we can leave the ashes on our heads until they naturally fade away, but if we keep them just so we can be seen by others for our faithfulness, then we have failed to take the words of Jesus seriously.

My fried Teer Hardy puts it this way, “Wash your ash today. Let us not allow the world see our fasting as an attempt for pious righteousness but rather let our fasting be a witness to the judgement that was due to us but because of Christ’s sacrificial life we receive the justification we do not deserve.”

Ash Wednesday, and Lent for that matter, is a unique time in the life of the church when, rather than focusing outwardly, we are encouraged to look inward, to consider the condition of our condition, and to recognize our absolute dependence on the grace of Jesus Christ.

So get your ash in church, and leave it there.

The rest is up to Jesus.

Make The Good News Good Again

Devotional:

Psalm 119.1

Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.

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Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Jesus said that.

And he meant it.

Or so I, and countless Christians, have been told over and over again. We Christians must hold ourselves to a higher standard! How else will the rest of the world know how badly they need to repent and turn their lives back to the Lord?

When I was in college, those statements covered much of what I heard about the church. While classmates were off doing whatever it was they did on the weekends (whether I joined them or not) I was made to feel guilty or ashamed for the choices I was making because, I was told, I would be happier if I was “walking in the law of the Lord.”

The same comments about the church were made while I was in seminary, and I’m sure that for a while in the beginning of my ministry I made the same points.

But they never really made me feel happy, no matter how well behaved I was. I was caught in a conundrum – Either be perfect and unhappy, or let my guard down and feel guilty. 

It took me a long time to realize that when Jesus calls his disciples to be perfect as God is perfect, he does so knowing that we won’t be able to do it. That’s kind of the whole point of the gospel – God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

But does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not. But if the gospel is only about how we have to constantly do better all the time, then we will walk away from church without the Good News sounding like good news.

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Karl Barth put it likes this:

“Basically, the gospel is a very simple thing. The gospel is no system of this or that truth, no theory on life in time and eternity, no metaphysics or the like, but simply the sign that God has blessed the world, this poor world in which we live, with all its difficulties, with all its misery, with this whole ocean of death. And in this world we dare to live in the knowledge that God loves us, but not only us Christians who believe that God loves the whole world. Every person, even the most miserable, even the most evil, is loved by God. This is the privilege: to be commissioned and enabled as a Christian to proclaim that.” (Barth in Conversation – Volume II. Interview with George Casalis on November 7th, 1963.)

It is a rather radical proposition and yet it is precisely what makes the Good News so good.

Elected

Devotional:

Isaiah 58.1

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. 

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Don’t mix politics with religion.

We’re told to keep these seemingly incompatible things as far away from each other as possible. Whatever political proclivities we hold and whatever we might believe are meant to remain in the private sphere and the world has no right to interfere with either.

And yet, the world interferes with both of them all the time! In the last twenty four hours I have been inundated with calls for a “Christian response to the inappropriateness of the Super Bowl Halftime show” as well as emails reminding me, as a clergy person, of my apparent responsibility to “get all of my congregants registered to vote locally and nationally.”

Whether we like it or not, the so-called “Separation of Church and State” actually looks more like a very complicated marriage within which neither partner is sure why they are still together.

It then becomes increasingly difficult for Christians to think and speak theologically about what it means to be Christian. Such that we often privatize whatever it is we do on Sundays at the expense of letting it shape how we behave Monday-Saturday.

This is a strange thing considering the language of faith articulated to, and by, Christians when they gather for worship.

Or, to put it another way, if we believe Jesus is Lord then all of our assumptions about who we are and whose we are cannot remain the same. 

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“Do not hold back,” Isaiah is told by the Lord, “Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.” I have yet to meet anyone who enjoys being told they’re a sinner, but that doesn’t change the fact that all of us are sinners. We chose to do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should – we bicker among ourselves about Super Bowl commercials and halftime performances – we write people off because of the name of a political candidate they display on their bumper sticker.

This evening we will all begin to receive the results of the Iowa Caucus, further propelling the nation into another presidential election cycle (as if we ever get out of election cycles). The talking heads will wax lyrical about what it all means and they will all say, as they always do, “this is the most important election in our history.”

Well, here’s a controversial political and theological statement: This is not the most important election in history. The most important election in history was Jesus electing us.

Today, we throw all of our eggs into our respective political baskets with candidates, campaigns, and elections. And, even though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, we keep believing that so long as our candidate gets nominated/elected then everything will be fine and good for us. But politicians and political ideologies have come and gone with failed promises again and again.

The democratic practices we hold so dear are fine and good, but they will not bring us salvation.

Stanley Hauerwas puts it this way: “I think voting is overvalued. We forget that voting is inherently a coercive activity – its where 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do! People forget that voting is not an end in itself… Democracy, in its fundamental form, is patience; it requires us to listen, in the Pauline sense, to the lesser members among us.”

Perhaps the language from Isaiah is beckoning us to remember that our unending desire to win is but another way to refer to our rebellion against God and God’s kingdom.

So, as we continue to wrestle with what it means to be both faithful and political, let us pray that the Lord grants us the peace necessary to bear one another in love, knowing full and well that salvation isn’t something we have to hope for because it’s already been given to us by the Lord of lords, Jesus Christ, whom we did not elect.

Instead, he elected us.